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Perfecting the Art of Seating Charts

By Jan McGuire

Oh, seating charts. Quite possibly two of my least favorite words yet oddly, they seem to give me job security wherever I go. Seating charts are, in my opinion, the necessary evil of event planning BUT are often the unsung hero of a successful event.

As the new academic year and event cycle kicks-off in higher education and holiday-themed galas loom in the not-too-distant future for non-profit organizations, here are a few things to keep in mind when working on seating charts.

The purpose of your event. Keep this in mind, especially for determining your “head” tables. If, for example, it’s a donor recognition event, be sure the donors being recognized have prominent seating. While not everyone can be on the front row, be strategic in placement. If guests will be going on stage, be sure they are close to - or at least have a clear path to - the stage.

Seating requests. Whenever possible, I give gift officers the opportunity to submit seating requests for their own tables as well as a table for their dean or director. Encourage them to provide you with a few extra names as well. This helps you fill-in seats strategically when there are last-minute cancellations.

In order for gift officers to make thoughtful seating requests, they’ll need a full list of RSVPs. I try to circulate a full list – accepted, regretted, no response to date – to the gift officers a few days before the rsvp deadline and then again on the deadline so they are up to speed on who can and can not attend the event. (Side note: the fringe benefit of circulating a list to your gift officers prior to the rsvp deadline is they can often encourage the non-responders to reply. Bonus!!)

Seating the unrequested. Ouch. What to do with guests that don’t appear on any gift officers request list? Again, be thoughtful and strategic. If you work in higher education, try grouping graduates of the same decade, parents of current students, or donors to the same constituency. If you work for a non-profit, enlist the help of a key volunteer. Someone with deep roots in your community or who’s involved with a myriad of civic organizations will likely have knowledge of guests’ social and business affiliations.

Table hosts. Whenever possible, every table needs a designated host. Gift officers and key administrators are obvious hosts, but what if you have more tables than staff hosts? Utilize your volunteers. Ask your board of directors to serve as table hosts, so all guests feel welcomed. Be as strategic as you can as to who they host – again, graduates of the same decade as the volunteer or those in the same line of work as the volunteer. Try to share with them the names of the guests they’ll be hosting if possible but, word to the wise, manage the expectations of your volunteers. You likely can not provide them with a curriculum vitae of every guest at their table, and it’s highly probable that seating may change with last-minute cancellations or additions. Your volunteers need to understand that their role is to make guests feel welcomed and engaged in the event – and therefore, your organization and its purpose.

Time. Never underestimate the amount of time it takes to be intentional and strategic in seating guests at your event. Build this into your event planning timeline and enlist help where needed – good help, as in the kind that has extensive organizational knowledge or is very detail-oriented. Or even better – the kind that can pick up the phone and get the answers you need.

Communication. Share table assignments with your leadership. Help them understand the strategy of the seating chart and the time you’ve invested into the process. Your knowledge of the guest list is ultimately an invaluable resource to them, so don’t underestimate your worth in this area.

Grace. Give yourself a little. Or a lot. Last-minute cancellations or unexpected attendees can wreak havoc on the most thoughtful, well-planned seating chart. As the old saying goes, it is what it is. But at least you know you did all you could to ensure a successful event experience for your guests and your organization.

Happy Seating!


This post was written by DRG Group member, Jan McGuire.


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