Free Time Vs. Structured

March 1, 2007


By Michael Humphrey

Every meeting has its own mission, personality and challenges. But if meetings go past a few hours, and planners want to keep peace in the world, then they all must have one common denominator – free time.

Whether you plan to just “take five” or send attendees away for R & R, how and when you place some breathing room into the gathering could determine its success.

“It’s important to try and find that balance,” says Lori Bousquet, a meeting planner for the Missouri University Conference Office. “You want to give them time to make a phone call, get a snack, or whatever else they need to do, but you don’t want to give them so much time that they stray away.”

Don’t mistake the idea of balance with the notion that there are two opposing forces in structured vs. free time. It’s more like juggling the many factors that will matter to your attendees. Sure, there are the practical needs such as making phone calls, using the lavatory, or getting refreshments. But some meetings need free time to get the real work done – to network, to ask questions directly to the presenter, to make decisions in a less formal setting.

On the other hand, too much free time may mean the day goes longer than it needs to.

“I think people really appreciate it when meetings get done earlier in the day,” says Jennifer Jasa, senior marketing director and meeting planner for Burns & McDonnell. “Sometimes it makes sense to limit breaks, so they can get out earlier.”

Plus, too much free time can feel like wasted time, or create a sense of choppiness in the meeting.

It’s no easy matter, but Bousquet and Jasa say there are strategies that a planner can use to make sure you have the structured vs. free time formula down for each meeting. Bousquet almost always works with education and community organizations, while Jasa’s meetings and events generally serve corporate attendees. And yet their insights into the issue harmonize on most points.

Basically, the question is “when” – when do you structure their time and when do you free it up? And the answers lie in who, what, where and why (or at least why not).

Who is coming?

How much structure you put into your meeting depends on who is going to be there. That means more than a list of names and titles – it’s important for planners to go deeper.

“Ask them what they are looking for,” says Bousquet, who works in a four-person department that plans 65 to 70 meetings per year. “We’ve had people who want to skip lunch to get more educational sessions. We’ve had others who want to hang out and get that networking time to build relationships with peers and to make contacts for what they are doing. Look at your event and see which way to go. I have one group that does community development that meets for a week. We try to keep them together for every meal and offer almost entirely structured time, except for a break on Wednesday. We get almost no negative feedback, because it is understood that this is what the group wants.”

A big part of the “who” question is about communication. First, the planner is mining information from the meeting’s contact person. Then the communication flow changes – back to the group, says Jasa, who plans about 20 meetings and events per year.

“It is so important to communicate to the group not just what is going to happen but why,” Jasa says. “So if you are going to push through a day-long meeting with very few breaks, because the goal is to finish by three, then they need to know that. If they know that, they’ll probably agree it is a good goal. If they don’t know that information, they feel hijacked.”

Communication also means that the breaks are clearly defined – and not just on the schedule. If there’s a 15-minute break for refreshments, tell them what the break is for and where they can find the refreshments. If those 15 minutes are tight – and they need to be sitting and ready to go by the end of it – make that clear.

What needs to get done?

A meeting with plenty of good free time won’t be worth much if you don’t get the mission accomplished. So just like knowing the attendees, planners must also have a sense of what the meeting is trying to do.

“If you have a one-day meeting, you probably don’t want that much free time as a rule,” Bousquet says. “But if one of the goals is to network, then maybe there’s more time than usual.”

But if there are ten points to learn, or five decisions to make – and this is no time for team building – then plan accordingly.

“Typically we try not to give too much extra time, because people are there to get information they need,” Bousquet says. “We do lunch in 45 minutes, because beyond that people tend to stray. We do breaks that are quick, because we want to keep everyone together.”

If the meeting is longer than one day, then it’s important to space it out with a little more free time. And when the social aspect is needed, if that is part of the mission, then it’s important to open that agenda up for such occurrences.

And Jasa says there’s always the possibility of “structured” free time.

“Sometimes you have to focus people’s energy and break the ice,” Jasa says. “And make it worth it. So, if you are going to have a very structured dinner, make sure the food is great. And take advantage of opportunities. We had an event in this dive bar in Texas one time where the women from the trailer of the construction site sang for the rest of the group. It didn’t feel structured, but people really bonded that night.”

Where is your meeting?

Of course, there’s not a Texas dive on every corner (and remember – know your group). Thinking about where your meeting will be held might clue you in on free time.

“If everyone is meeting in their hometown,” Jasa says, “then they would probably enjoy the opportunity to get away sooner, to do their own chores or just get home a little earlier than usual.”

That equates to less built-in free time. So does a meeting in a hotel that doesn’t have much access to anything other than hotels and a few chain restaurants. But if you’re going to have meetings that are surrounded by attractions, then factor that in.

“There’s more to do in Kansas City or St. Louis or at the lake,” Bousquet says. “If people are traveling in to places with more attractions, then you might want to factor free time in for that.”

But pick your times wisely.

“We like to keep people in for lunch,” she says, “but dinner is a good opportunity to send people out to explore the area.”

Why not change the plan?

In all of these decisions, Jasa says it is important to keep an open mind.

“You are working with adults,” Jasa says. “They like to know how you are managing their time. And they might even have insights that could help you.”

So stay flexible, she says. “That’s the most important point – keep your eyes open and be prepared to change.”

Not that you want to keep shifting the schedule over and over all day. But when you see a group that wants to push through and get the job done, don’t force an unwanted break on them. And when you see a group that is flagging and losing focus, don’t be afraid to call a timeout.

“Generally, I like to have a break every 90 minutes to two hours,” Jasa says, “but that’s just a guideline. You can tell a lot more by being open minded.”

And Bousquet says finding out what worked and what didn’t will only help you get better.

“We do evaluations for most meetings,” she says. “It’s important to know how we can improve for the next meeting.”

(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)


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