Meeting professionals face it at every meeting: Those sessions that turn out to be so wildly popular that the crowd is bigger than the fire marshal will allow in the room. Mitch Biersner, CMP, offers these three tips on how to handle potentially dangerous overcrowding at your conference.
When I was in charge of the session room monitor team at a former employer, we always had at least a few sessions with more demand than room capacity would allow. They were never the ones we expected, and we could always expect someone to object when they were not allowed in.
I actually had one attendee say, “I’m a lawyer, so let me see if I can get you to let me in.” I chuckled and told her the answer would always be “no.” After a friendly back-and-forth, the answer was, in fact, still “no.” But it isn’t always so cordial. I’ve had team members spat upon and one that was actually hit by an attendee. We had a session on Facebook for beginners (how to open an account, what a post is, etc.) that got so rough we had to turn it over to the facility’s security team to handle.
Here are some of the best practices on crowd control I’ve learned from experience:
1. Communicate. State your session attendance policy in your advance registration materials, program books, and other handouts, and place signage on your policies throughout the event venue. Some examples of what to include might be: 1) No saving seats; 2) If it’s closed, it’s closed; 3) Staff decisions should be treated as final. We also placed signs outside every session door (some session rooms have more than one door). On one side they say, “The capacity for this session is X. Seated first come, first served. No saving seats,” and on the back, “Session closed.”
Make sure you, your staff, and your volunteers know the policy and will be able to communicate it consistently. Let attendees know that capacities are dictated by the fire marshal, and that they may, in fact, be smaller than what’s posted due to staging, audiovisual equipment, etc. Explain that the event can be shut down for not complying with fire code. Advance education goes a long way in setting attendee expectations.
2. Record. Because we taped all of our sessions, we could replay the more popular ones later in a special “Replay Room” we had set up. Helpful hint: Make sure you also record the speaker’s PowerPoint and other session materials. Don’t zoom in so the speakers fill the entire screen. We learned this the hard way: When we replayed the Facebook session, the speakers in the video were referencing the screen, which the “Replay Room” attendees couldn't see. The attendees were angry because they felt we had failed them again. If you don't have the budget for this level of AV, get e-mail addresses so you can follow up afterwards with materials from the session they may have missed. One time we worked with a popular session’s presenter to do a webinar following the event for those who missed the session.
3. Stand Firm. Once the session door is closed, it should stay closed. I kept track of what was happening on both sides of the door by having team members with two-way radios both inside and outside the room. Don’t open it a crack to talk to a team member or even to see what’s happening on the other side because once the door is opened, people will find a way to get inside. Trust that the team member inside the room knows best.
During the second year I did this, we had door monitors for each session room door, and we locked the doors from the outside. (Attendees were still able to exit in case of an emergency.) I learned the first year that if we didn’t create one point of entry after we closed a session, people would try entering the secondary, unmanned doors after audience members left to go to the restroom, answer a cellphone, etc.
Another hint: Make sure to communicate your policy to your C-level staff—there can be no divas when it comes to safety. They need to understand that if a session is closed, even your CEO can’t get in. If attendees see others, no matter who they are, getting into the room when they’re told they can't get in, you'd better be ready to call in the National Guard.
Stand firm and provide alternatives. Develop a working relationship with the facility team and any and all security teams you have available. Coordinate who will respond to situations in advance, and know what your contingency plans are, and you’ll be able to defuse potentially dangerous overcrowding before it becomes an issue.
Mitch Biersner, CMP, has more than 11 years of experience developing and implementing meetings, conferences, and events ranging in size from 45 to more than 28,000 people. He is program manager/executive director with the Grundy County Development Alliance/Grundy Center Chamber of Commerce in Grundy Center, Iowa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.