Question: Why do party guests often end up hanging out in the kitchen?  

Answer: We humans don’t like big, open spaces. We “instinctively seek out smaller spaces as the group dwindles in order to sustain the level of density,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.  

Priya was running a two-day gathering to brainstorm ideas for the future use for the Presidio, a large park and former U.S. Army military fort in San Francisco.  

“The evening of the workshop, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy opened the event to the public,” Priya writes “People were invited to come and hear presentations from museum educators across the country about what makes an engaging space. We wanted to start with cocktails to warm up the gathering and tried to embody what we were talking about.”

The challenge? The meeting space was far too big to make it feel like an intimate cocktail party.  

One of the architects for the meeting gathered all the flip-chart stands used during the brainstorming sessions earlier that day and arranged them in a semicircle that cordoned off a small section of the room. “As people filtered in, rather than taking over the entire space, they started to cluster together between the flip charts and the classroom-style chairs that had been set up for a talk. Within minutes, the place was hopping.”

This week we are exploring how we should be intentional about selecting venues for our events and meetings. Tip #1: When it comes to density, there are specific “rules of thumb” we are wise to follow. Priya shares a simple framework for the number of square feet per guest to generate the desired outcome.

Square Feet Per Guest Sophisticated Lively Hot 

Dinner party 20 sq. ft. 15 sq. ft. N/A

Cocktail party 12 sq.ft. 10 sq. ft. 8 sq. ft.

Into the night/dance party 8 sq. ft. 6 sq. ft. 5 sq. ft.

Tip #2: Gatherings need perimeters. “A space for a gathering works best when it is contained,” Priya writes. “Photographers and choreographers often close all the doors in a room.” The goal, according to famed photographer Platon? “Make sure the energy isn’t leading out.”

Creating a contained space for a gathering allows people to relax. “It helps create the alternative world that a gathering can, at its best, achieve,” Priya explains. “It can be as simple as putting down a blanket for a picnic rather than sitting on the endless expanse of grass; or temporarily covering the glass walls of a fishbowl conference room with flip-chart paper to create a modicum of privacy.”  

This rule is regularly ignored in restaurants. “Tables are often set up so that there is no “head” of the table, with chairs facing each other in two rows,” Priya writes. “I once went to a dinner at a restaurant with five friends. Our table was three square tables pushed together, with three chairs on each side. Throughout the evening, the conversation never really took off. It was difficult to have one conversation, as the person in the middle had to look left and right, as if watching a tennis match, and eventually the table broke off into two separate conversations.”

The problem? “The two ends of the table remained ‘leaky,'” Priya explains. “It didn’t feel cozy or intimate. We should have simply asked the waiter to remove one the square tables and moved two people to the ends. We would then have had a contained space (through the placement of our bodies) and it would have been easier for us to talk, to share-to come together.”

Tip #3: Move rooms. Think of the event as a journey with a narrative. “To ensure people will remember the distinct parts of your party,” memory expert Ed Cooke recommends, “having several interesting phases over the course of the evening, each of which occurs in a different space.” 

Take charge, Priya suggests: “Just as we go into autopilot on the location of our weekly staff meetings, we also tend to accept the default setup we’re given. If there’s a table in the middle of the room, we leave it there. If the chairs are set up on two of the four sides, we don’t move them, even though it would create more intimacy if we did.” 


Reflection: What’s one idea I can put to use for my next meeting or event?

Action: Do it.

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