Designing good event flow requires a thorough understanding of the client’s needs and clear communication among vendors.
By Maura Keller
If there is one issue that brings all of the elements of a tented event together—safety, aesthetics, efficiency—it’s event flow. Design an event that flows well, and the human traffic will circulate smoothly and safely throughout the tented areas. Ignore the elements of event layout—a registration table that threatens to jam up an entrance, dining tables that impede servers, restrooms that are difficult to access—and the event can start to resemble rush-hour gridlock.
Becky Harris, director of sales for Event Lab, Minneapolis, Minn., says that clients tend to think of tent size in terms of number of guests only and don’t consider the many other elements of a tented event and how those elements will impact movement in the tent.
“Is it a buffet? Will there be dancing? Do you want lounge furniture or any other interactive activities? There are many questions that need to be answered before deciding on the size of the tent and placement of each element,” she says.
Communication is key
It goes without saying that safety factors supersede other considerations when designing event flow. In most municipalities, fire codes will determine the capacity of a venue as well as site and seating plans that adhere to egress aisle requirements.
Beyond meeting those legalities, good event flow stems from communication between all vendors involved with an event and the client.
“We go to great lengths to specify the exits and the locations of the heaters and air ducts,” says Steve Frost, owner of Stamford Tent & Event Services, Stamford, Conn. “We send the CAD drawing out to everyone involved, indicating the planned placement of these elements. But sometimes when we show up, they have things in front of it—such as a bar in front of a heater or an air-conditioning unit. This can cause problems.”
Professionals use a variety of visuals, including CAD drawings, illustrated floor plans and walk-throughs prior to the event, to help clients envision the ideal event layout. This multipronged approach is particularly helpful when working with multiple tent configurations or tents that are adjacent to buildings.
Kelly Murphy of Panache, Pompano Beach, Fla., says that everyone has a different way of visualizing an event in his or her mind. To put the same visualization in everyone’s head, her firm produces CAD layouts for most events.
“Walking the space with the client is also very helpful,” she says. “People do not always see things that can be obvious obstacles, like trees, ground covering in terms of selecting the proper tent option for staking or construction, and guest accessibility. It is the foundation from which to build, so the initial phase of understanding the layout and being able to visualize it is vitally important.”
Stephanie Courtney, owner of CCI Creations, Edgewater, Md., meets with clients to determine their vision and then follows with a thorough risk assessment. The CCI Creations team develops a plan for natural traffic flow and makes sure the space is properly configured for the capacity and other fire code requirements.
“You have to understand what type of event it is, the audience in attendance, what the event is going to look like, what the highlights of the event are, what the purpose of the event is and what the age of the attendees are,” Courtney says. “A special-needs group or a senior group brings a whole other set of perplexing issues in terms of event flow. [We] have to establish this upfront as we are working through the planning with the client so they are aware of the needs of their attendees.”
A clear path
One advantage tents have over some permanent structures is that they can be a blank slate upon which a layout is designed.
“Dependent on the type of structure or tent, it is even easier to configure placement for exits and bars because you have a clean, wide-open space,” Murphy says.
“Also, because a structure is erected in a spot where nothing existed before, the basics have to be thought out in advance—accessibility for guests, cooking facilities if it is a dining event, restroom access and backup contingencies in case of inclement weather are typically more of a concern,” she says.
While square footage plays a key role in space constraints, the physical layout of the tent structure can be more restrictive than actual square footage.
“As far as placement of bars and exits, there must always be plenty of space for each,” Harris says.
“Caterers need a clear path to the kitchen area, so it is necessary to make sure tables are not placed in front of these. Bars require plenty of room, since they are places where guests tend to mingle as they greet their friends. If the bars are placed anywhere near the entrance of the tent, there will certainly be a jam-up. It is important to get people moving from registration at the entrance and into the tent to a completely separate area that is designated for the bar and mingling.”
Event Lab often suggests having not just one big tent, but a tent with offshoots.
“These additional spaces can be used for fun lounge areas, a place for activities or a different theme decor,” Harris says. “These additional spaces give guests more places to explore and move around.”
Have a seat
Several professionals note a dining trend toward nontraditional-shaped tables, which begs the question of effective seating arrangements: Are traditional banquet or round seating options more conducive to event flow than other shapes and arrangements?
“While it is fun to have square tables, chains of serpentines and long harvest tables for alternative seating patterns, it is the budget that controls this option,” Harris says. “Additionally, different seating shapes may take up more space in a room, thereby overcrowding a tent or not allowing seating for all the guests at a banquet.”
Frost says that while square and rectangular tables are the latest rage, traditional round and banquet seating is easier to configure to create the manageable aisles necessary for emergency egress.
“They are also a much more efficient use of space,” he says.
But aesthetics and functionality in event layout don’t have to be at odds—in fact, the opposite should be true. The key to remember and emphasize to clients is that well-designed event flow contributes to aesthetics. When guests are able to move effortlessly and naturally through the tented area, their focus will be on the fascinating presentation or the scrumptious hors d’oeuvres or the stunning decor, as opposed to crowds and blocked paths. That objective may require more tent, or a different layout, than the client anticipated, but it will help achieve the client’s goal of a successful event.