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Party Planning: How to do a seating chart

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This is one of our party planning articles.  To check out the rest of them please visit our Party Planning 101 post.

Anyone who has been to any of my events should know that I am a HUGE fan of assigned seating.  In today's article I will be going into detail on why exactly this is as well as some tips to get started.

Why Assigned Seating?

Have you ever attended an event where everything was perfect (food, venue, decorations) and still had a bad time?  On the flip side, have you ever attended an event where everything was a disaster but it goes down as one of the best nights you ever had?  Likely the difference between these two events was the company that you shared it with.  When it all comes down to it, the quality of the guest interactions is what is going to make or break the event.  As a host, everything can be perfect but if guests end up sitting beside someone who rubs them the wrong way, your planning is moot.  Why would you spend all your time and energy planning for a successful event and then leave something as important as who sits beside who to chance?  It may take a little extra work but taking the time to set up the table for the best possible conversations can go a long way in making the event a success. 

Here are some other reasons to assign seating:

  • The host is positioned in the best possible spot (after all you like to eat too and will likely be getting up and down more than anyone)
  • Guests have somewhere to leave drinks they are working on, sweaters, or small personal items and know where they are
  • No last minute reshuffling of chairs to make room for last minute arrivals who need to sit together or to accommodate a high chair or wheel chair.
  • Everyone is comfortable (adults get real chairs and the kids get the small bar stools)
  • You don't end up with enemies sitting beside each other or have any other awkward seating arrangements
  • If someone shows up in the middle of dinner you have a spot ready for them
  • Place cards can be used to decorate the table, adding an extra touch that instantly makes an event more formal and appear more planned (even if it isn't).
  • It avoids confusion as no one wants to be the first person to sit down.

When Should I Assign Seating?

I like to assign seating anytime there is any kind of sit down meal, regardless of size.  If it is a small family dinner, I will often just tell people where to sit verbally but if it is a larger group I will take the time to use place cards and have the seating assigned in advance of everyone arriving.  I may do it a bit over kill but I suggest you try it and see what you think?  This little step can greatly enhance your conversations and make sure everyone is included.

What if Guests Don't Like the Assigned Seating?

I have had people complain or try to move my place seating around but only the first time they attend an event. In these cases I am polite but firm, if I am hosting there is assigned seating (by all means you can host next time and have random seating) and then take a moment to explain why the cards were placed the way there are (I assure you, it is not random). As a host, my job is MUCH easier if people sit where I tell them.  Pointing out why they are not sitting beside their best friend or why they are in the seat they are is usually enough that they don't do it again.  Once the conversations start and guests have a good time, they usually forget that seating was assigned in the first place.

Where do I start?

Where you start really depends on the size of your event, is it a big event or something a little smaller?

Large Events 

For larger events, such as a wedding I would start by figuring out how many tables you have and then how many people you need at each table.  Start by looking for natural groups.  For example, if you have 8 couples (16 people) coming from your church/work/school then you could easily put them at two tables with 8 people each.  

When you have who you want at each table completed, then you can figure out the positioning of tables within the room.  Keep in mind that family/guests of honour should be close to the front and you may wish to take into consideration those with reduced mobility or hearing issues. 

Once you have your tables assigned, do up a seating chart with the names listed alphabetically on them.  Then, when you have access to the room for set up, continue with the same type of set up as the single table event listed below.  This should be a lot faster than a typical single table as many of the issues may already have been taken care of when you looked at the table selection.

Single Table Event

This is how you would go about assigning seats for people at a small intimate gathering such as a dinner party, birthday or family gathering.  With smaller settings, you often have a mismatch of personalities, some that get along nicely as well as others who don't.  Having a table set up that allows the conversation to include everyone at the table is the goal.

The easiest way to assign seating is to do it in front of a set table.  Being in front of the physical table allows you to better see the obstacles that appear in the room naturally.  For example, on paper you won't see that the table's leg is right where you put your 6 foot uncle or that the breakfast nook would not allow your aunt's walker the space it needs.  Most of the events I host are in my home, I have a formal dinning room so tend to set the table the day before the event.  This way I can take the time to assign the seats without being rushed and can spend the last moments before guests arrive doing other things like cooking and cleaning.  Plus, when I go to bed I feel more relaxed as I have the table ready.  If everything is a disaster the next day, at least I have a pretty table.  Try to do this step the day before, the first few times you do up the seating it will take awhile.

Have the place cards in hand and then start walking around the table and putting names down.  Follow the guidelines below and remember that it might take a few tries to get it the way you want it, this is not an exact science.

  • Start by assigning your own seat.  As the host, you will likely be the last person to sit down, get up several times during the meal and spend time running in and out of the kitchen.  Having a spot that allows easy access means that you can get to the kitchen and back quickly so as not to miss conversations.  Trust me, you don't want to be in the back corner where everyone has to move so you can get out!
  • Is there any natural barriers in the room that would prevent people from sitting in certain spots?  For example, I have two spots on my table where the leg of the table juts out.  These spots are great for kids but any taller adults will bang their knees. I would assign children or smaller adults to these places.
  • Is there anyone coming with reduced mobility?  Make sure these people have easy to get to spots, don't put them in the back corner with only one way in or out.
  • Is there anyone that needs extra space?  Do you have any new mother's with babies in bassinets or people who have walkers that may need extra space nearby to be comfortable?  In these cases put them somewhere that they can put their baby beside them or have their walker in easy arms reach when possible.
  • Anyone in a highchair?  Wheelchair?  Take the time now to remove the existing chair and store it elsewhere (so much easier to do when no one is around).
  • Does anyone need to sit together?  Do you have young children that need to sit beside parents or perhaps someone doesn't speak English and needs to sit by their translator.  Maybe you are hosting to introduce two people, best they sit near each other... 
  • Any people who shouldn't sit together?  Any exes or people who don't get along shouldn't sit nearby if possible.  Put one on each end of the table.
  • Are any of the guests people who know no one besides yourself?  In this case put them near you.  Sitting near you allows you to make the introductions and makes sure they get to know the people around them.
  • Anyone with similar interests?  If you have a friend who is visiting China next month, sit them beside a friend who just got back.  Then before you sit down for dinner mention the trip so that they have something to discuss.
  • Take a look at gender.  It is nice if you can have males and females alternating, it tends to bring out better conversations.

This should help you to get started.  Here are some other thoughts for you:

  • Make sure the good chairs go to the senior members in the group if you are bringing in chairs from other parts of the house.  Having them comfortable will help everyone.  Children should get the little chairs as they can be just as comfortable.
  • I am personally not a fan of a "Children's Table" so tend to mix the children in with the adults.  I do this as I feel that the only way for children to learn conversation skills/table etiquette is to witness them first hand.
  • I don't feel that couples always need to sit together.  They should be near to each other but don't feel they need to be side by side.  The exception of course is if the partner is new and doesn't know anyone else.
  • If Children are in the group, it is a good idea that they are near one of their parents.

I hope this helps.  Let me know your thoughts below.

Now that you have your table seating set, it is time to look at how to stay on schedule during your event. Read our article on 10 ways to stay on schedule.

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