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23 Oct 2018

Innovative formats - a must for successful events

Author: Dr.-Ing. Christian Gross, Head of VDE Conference Service

Interaction, dialogue, active participation - nowadays, event formats need to meet other expectations than in the past. Starting in 2015, the Future Meeting Space (FMS) innovation network that was jointly initiated by the GCB German Convention Bureau, the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO and the European Association of Event Centres (EVVC) has focussed on exploring the key issues the event industry is faced with: What will successful events of the future have to look like? Which attendee expectations will need to be met?

One of the fundamental points that has come out of - so far - two research phases is that the user experience needs to be put centre stage. Attendees expect new and special experiences that leave a lasting impression and promote knowledge transfer and networking. In this context, it becomes clear that innovative formats are perceived as particularly positive and favourable. Interestingly, knowledge exchange, learning, dialogue and interaction can also happen in seemingly old-fashioned set-ups that fulfil important human needs in our digital age. One such example is the so-called "English Parliament" format that the VDE Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies will be using for its impending VDE TecSummit:

English Parliament set-up
Christian Gross

Dr.-Ing. Christian Gross is head of the VDE Conference Service in Frankfurt/Main. since 2010. The Association for Electrical, Electronic & InformationTechnology e. V. counts around 36,000 members - including 1,300 companies, 8,000 students and 6,000 career entrants and performsaround 40 interdisciplinary events in the fields of informationtechnology, power engineering, medical technology, microelectronicsnanotechnology and automation.

Why order, eye contact and physical proximity are important

The English parliament’s seating arrangements have found their way into the MICE world. It is remarkable that this traditional format is apparently still up-to-date and inspirational in the context of discussing innovative topics. In the digital age, such an event format could easily be seen as being somewhat anachronistic. However, practical experience shows that knowledge exchange, learning, dialogue and discussion are clearly closely connected with human characteristics such as being argumentative and wanting to communicate on an emotional level. Hence, order, eye contact and physical proximity are important elements when thinking about concepts for events.

In a packed room, this seating arrangement creates an atmosphere resembling that in a football stadium

What makes the English parliament set-up so special is the positioning of the seats in ascending rows of chairs that are facing each other, with a centrally located table where a chairperson is placed. To their right and left, speakers only have limited space when it is their turn to present (see picture). The historical model for this adversarial layout is the House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster as the meeting place of the Houses of Parliament. The assembly hall with its green benches is small, with rows of benches facing each other that are divided by a corridor in the middle. As there are only 427 seats for 646 members of parliaments (MPs), many need to stand up which adds to the “heated” atmosphere. In a “full house”, speakers are confronted with an emotional atmosphere akin to that in a football stadium.

Red lines define the room to move

The Speaker as the Chair of the House of Commons sits at the top of the chamber, with a table in front where the Serjeant at Arms places the House of Commons mace as a symbol of the authority of the Crown and House of Commons. The Clerks sit at a table near the Speaker to be able to consult in case of procedural issues. The members of the government sit to the right of the Speaker and the opposition to the left. There are also two red lines two sword-lengths apart from each other on the floor of the chamber of the House of Commons, one ahead of each side of the front benches on the left and right. MPs are not allowed to cross them during sessions. Traditionally, this is supposed to prevent that political opponents on the other side are not, literally, attacked.

Speaking without notes

There is an unwritten rule that MPs speak without using notes that they read from. If they do, the audience will shout “reading, reading!”. The lectern is a wooden box that is placed on the central table. MPs like to lean on them to show their nonchalance. Quick exchanges between members of the government and back benchers are appreciated by the audience. MPs who want to make an argument stand up, thereby asking the MP speaking to allow an interruption. This is usually accepted. In general, discussions are kept polite and matter of fact.

Benefits of the English parliament set-up

Considering the very different goals of events, the “English Parlament” seating arrangement offers a number of key benefits:

  • The chairperson manages and initiates a discussion that physically reflects the bipolar flow of words (diá‐logos) because of the space that it happens in.
  • There is a division of power between the chair (Speaker), organiser (Serjeant at Arms), the speakers and the very involved audience. This is symbolised by the red lines.
  • The simple equipment used (a wooden lectern) prevents distraction by any (digital) media and demands real rhetorical skills.
  • The confined space in connection with the fact that some of the audience members are standing up creates an intense atmosphere that can be compared to that in football stadiums.
  • The audience is an active part of proceedings.

The VDE Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies will be trialling this format at this year’s VED Tec Summit in Berlin (13/14 Nov) for a session on “Ethical and Social Dimensions of the Digital Transformation”.

Results of Phase II: Future Meeting Space presents success factors for events

Since late summer 2017, the second research phase of the Future Meetings Space project has analysed which different types of attendees exist and how the use of various methodical and technological elements at events affects knowledge transfer, learning progress, networking and experience value for these different attendee types. The results will be presented in Berlin on 7 November in the context of the Berlin Science Week.