Rob’s Rules: Sitting Pretty

September 1, 2008

By: Rob Schaefer

One might assume that creating a seating arrangement for an event would be easy. However, after all these years, I am still amazed at how much thought and preparation go into it. When I first started in the event industry, I relied on the facility staff to determine the room setup. Big mistake! Relying on people you don’t know can have you sweating harder than Whitney Houston going through customs. I quickly began noticing what worked and what didn’t. And it became clear that I needed to know what table size, what linen size, how much space and even what linen color I needed to make my event a success (be sure to read my next article, in the winter issue, where I will further discuss color selections). Although the choices seem insignificant, they can dramatically affect the mood, the flow and the effectiveness of the meeting process.

Most hotels, conference centers and meeting facilities own a limited selection of table sizes, but in mass quantity, usually rounds and rectangles. Round tables are generally used for any event accompanied by a meal or table service, such as a wedding or banquet. They also work very well for break-out sessions with groups 10 or less. Standard sizes are 60” rounds that seat 8 guests, and 72” rounds that seat 10. A 60” round table requires a 120” linen to go to the floor. A 72” round table requires a 132” round linen to be floor length. Almost all tables are a standard 29” tall. “Drop” refers to how far down the sides of the table a linen goes. Most have either a 12” drop (lap length) or a 30” drop, which touches the floor. I personally hate seeing the legs on a round table so I always try to use a floor length cloth. With banquet-style dining, allow 10 square feet per guest to include the table, chair and aisle.

Often for large meetings, rectangular tables are used to create classroom-style configurations. A 30” x 72” rectangular table (6’) seats 6 people double-sided or 3 people using one side. A 30” x 96” table (8’) seats 8 guests double-sided and 4 people using one side. To cover a 6’ table to the floor, you need a 90” x 132” linen and to cover an 8’ table, a 90” x 156” linen is required. Tables arranged classroom-style, with all guests facing a screen or speaker, allow room for handouts and taking notes. I have found that serving food with such a setup can be awkward for guests as they try to move pens, papers, purses, etc. out of the way to avoid being messy. If there is a food or beverage spill, no one wants to remain seated in that spot. Try to have separate areas for meals and snack breaks. The classroom configuration works when you are imparting information but do not expect a lot of audience feedback. As a rule, allow a 36” aisle between tables and 42” between rows. A guest chair needs 6” to push out from the table. Remember, people hate feeling cramped. Claustrophobia can impact even the most mild-mannered crowd.

Many planners and wedding specialists are now renting the 60” or 72” square tables to give their events a fresh new look. A 60” square table requires a 120” square linen and seats 8 guests. A 72” square table requires a 132” square linen and seats 10 guests.

Among the wedding and social event crowd, the oval or royal conference table continues to be very popular. This table is created by narrow classroom tables (18” wide), or 6’ or 8’ tables, with half-moon tables at each end. This is an elegant and Old World form of dining that gives guests a sense of community or extended family. An area to consider when pushing two rectangular tables together is the amount of negative space you have down the middle. Long, full centerpieces need to be considered to fill in this area. The use of low arrangements paired with tall candelabra is very effective in enhancing this dramatic look. With formal dining, allow 14 square feet per person, allowing space for the chair, table and aisle.

When setting up a room theater-style, chairs only and no tables, I prefer rows of 10 to 12 chairs and side aisles. This is ideal for wedding ceremonies, formal readings, memorial services and lectures. I suggest 42” between rows and seating guests from the side aisles, in order to fill all the rows evenly. Also, take note that if you have the exact number of chairs, it could be uncomfortable for last-minute guests to find seating without being disruptive. Even in today’s world, with all the modern conveniences, there are still guests who will be late. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to be prepared for it.

With smaller meetings, I often use a U-shaped, conference-style or hollow-square table configuration. The U-shaped table works extremely well with a speaker who interacts with the guests and who has props, visuals or extensive handouts. The speaker can walk directly up to someone and provide individual attention if needed. The conference-style table evokes the feeling of being in the boardroom and generally has the individual in charge (CEO or president) at the head of the table. I recommend using it only for parties of 12 to 16 guests at the most.

The hollow-square encourages creative thinking and guest participation. It is the “think tank” table and is used for brainstorming, debating and negotiations. It is less threatening than a conference table and creates a feeling of equality among those seated. I have found that this type of configuration works best for groups of 30 or fewer.

Most facilities have the standard stackable banquet chairs. These are de rigueur for most meetings. For social occasions, it may be within the budget to use chair covers or specialty chairs. The most common example of specialty chairs would be painted wood chairs, also known as chiavari chairs. Chiavari chairs can be rented in white, black, brown, silver and gold. They have a light, airy feel and create less visual block than a covered chair. Cushions are almost always available in a variety of colors.

Chair covers can transform a space to elegance ideal for wedding receptions and galas. They can be rented in hundreds of fabrics and colors and often include a coordinating sash or chair tie. When making the investment in chair covers, inexperienced planners often go for price instead of quality. Beware of online deals! You may find chair covers for a dollar or two cheaper, but do you think you will have time to install 250 of them and tie the sashes? What happens if they arrive damaged or wrinkled?

I invest my client’s money wisely and look for local vendors with beautiful fabrics and proper-fitting chair covers. One such vendor raising the standard is Jill Burkemper with Party Arts Specialty Linens. Beautiful product, timely delivery, professional install and reasonable prices make it possible for me to transform my client’s events from ordinary to extraordinary. Burkemper also offers the exclusive Versaille chair, which was designed for the Queen Mother herself. Check out their Web site at

Rob’s Top 10 Tips

1) Mix square and round tables, as well as various sizes in centerpieces, to create a fresh new look for an event.

2) Pin and swag specialty linens to glamorize your tables (NOTE: When pinning the linens of dining tables, make sure to do so horizontally and not vertically, so that none of your guests gets pricked).

3) If you’re in a pinch for tables, note that at a casual event with no place settings, a 60” round can seat 10 and a 72” round can seat 12.

4) Be open to suggestions when working with your facility to develop a floor plan and room diagram, and give them at least 2 weeks to make any necessary changes.

5) Should a seating chart error occur as guests are being seated, be polite while calmly explaining that an error was made and seat the guest at an available place setting. Do not add place settings to already set tables, as it is disruptive and brings unnecessary attention to the situation.

6) Before committing to a chair cover, be sure that you have selected a well-fitted style. Remember, chairs come in all shapes and sizes.

7) If your budget doesn’t allow for specialty linens on every dining table, try to using only a few on significant accent tables, such as the escort card table or bar tops. Also, chair sashes can make beautiful table runners and add a splash of color.

8) Use your corporate color as the linen color or as a linen accent at a company event – the VIPs notice immediately!

9) Always use floor-length linens on round tables whenever possible. However, classroom-style rectangular tables look fine with only a 12” drop on the sides.

10) Rule of thumb tells us to avoid sitting directly across from your boss to evade being in the “hot seat.” However, I think you will score bonus points if you smile, listen and seem genuinely interested in what he or she is saying. If you are sleepy and might yawn, sit on the corner!

This column is meant to provide you with practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected]. Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column! Rob Schaefer is Vice President of Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis.

RR SittingPretty

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