Food for Thought: Space Needs for Sit-down Meals

Banquet given in hall of Roberts Hall for Winter Course students and staff in 1909-10.Clown cars - vehicles careening around with arms and legs poking out on all sides - may be hilarious to watch, but to experience? Not so much. But that's what it can feel like when you fill your ballroom dinners to the bursting point.

Choosing the right amount of room requires knowing what you will need to fit into it. If round tables are used, you should allow about 12.5 square feet per guest. This includes their portion of the table, plus the space the guest seated in a chair would need. You should allocate about 10 square feet per attendee if seating is at rectangular banquet tables. These estimates are for standard banquet chairs where the seats measure 20 inches by 20 inches. You should adjust your estimates if smaller chairs (seats measuring 18 inches by 18 inches) or larger armchairs (which usually have a minimum width of 24 inches) are used. Round tables are the easiest for the staff to service and they maximize interaction among guests.

Aisles allow people to move easily around the room without squeezing through chairs and disturbing seated attendees. They also provide a buffer between the seating areas and the food and beverage areas. They are also needed for server access and maneuverability. Aisles between tables and around food stations, beverage stations and around the perimeter of the room should be a minimum of 36 inches wide. It is preferable to have 48 inches.

When planning aisle space, remember to leave enough entry and exit room for attendees. You should plan to allocate sufficient cross-aisle space, i.e., aisles used for attendees to collect and funnel in and out of the function areas. A cross-aisle should be approximately six feet wide.

Cross-aisle space is very important when setting large functions. For a function requiring 100 tables, the caterer should not set a square layout of 10 tables by 10 tables without allowing some additional aisle space for attendees to maneuver comfortably to the middle tables from the outside perimeter. If you need 100 tables, you should set up four blocks of 25 tables. Within the 25-table block, 48-inch aisle space is sufficient. However, there should be a six-foot-wide cross aisle surrounding each block of 25 tables.

Before making final decisions regarding aisle space, the caterer must check the local fire code for specific requirements. Many caterers utilize graphic layout software, such as Meeting Matrix or Room Viewer to design the room set-up and ensure that the design meets the meeting planner’s needs and the fire code regulations.

If the function includes dancing, the caterer can provide or rent about 3 square feet of dance floor per attendee. Most of these types of portable dance floors come in 3 feet by 3 feet (i.e., 9 square feet) sections; plan on using one section for every three attendees. A 24X24-foot dance floor covers approximately 600 square feet of floor space; this would be sufficient for a group of approximately 200 attendees. Be sure the dance floor is safety-coated with an abrasive to improve traction. Be sure sections are flush against each other and there are no cracks in which a lady's high heel could get caught. All sides must be completed with trim pieces that slant and will not cause someone to trip.

For very large functions, a second dance floor is very convenient. Guests at the back of the room will not have to negotiate the long trail leading to the front where the single dance floor normally is located. But, this arrangement does divide the guests into two subgroups. Two dance floors placed as diamonds with the points abutting keeps separate dance floors connected.

If you are having a band play, estimate about 10 square feet per band member. Drum sets usually require about 20 square feet. Large pianos, synthesizers, runways, sound boards, and so forth need additional space. Disc jockeys will need space to hold their equipment; however, today’s technology allows a DJ to work with a small computer and small speakers to generate a high-quality sound and an extensive catalog of music genres. You should check the entertainment contract as it may set forth the floor-space specifications.

A lawsuit can occur if a guest falls from an improperly set stage. Bandstands and other similar attractions are sometimes elevated on risers. Stage risers come in many shapes and sizes. Their purpose is to elevate speakers, other entertainers, or audio-visual equipment so that a large audience can see what is taking place at one end of the function room. Most risers are 4 feet by 4 feet, or 4 feet by 8 feet, folding risers that can be adjusted to several heights. Risers should be set up with steps with attached handrails and light strips.

Head tables usually need about 25 percent to 100 percent more floor space than regular dining tables. If the tables will be placed on risers, you must increase your space estimate accordingly to accommodate the platform area, steps, and the need to spread the table-and-person weight properly over the stage. For instance, if using typical platform sections measuring 4 feet by 4 feet and 4 feet by 8 feet, you would need to connect a 4 by 4 and a 4 by 8 to have enough space to accommodate a dining table measuring 3 feet by 8 feet. In other words, you will need about 48 square feet of platform space to accommodate approximately 24 square feet of dining-table space. The 48 square feet will accommodate four guests seated at 24-inch intervals. Twelve square feet per person is usually the minimum amount needed for head-table guests.

A raised head table for 12 people, plus a lectern, should be a minimum of 26 feet long. The rule of thumb is 2 feet per person, plus 2.5 feet for the lectern. For more comfortable seating, allow 2.5 to 3 feet per person.

If you have head tables reserved for speakers, dignitaries, or other VIPs who will be addressing the guests after the meal, you may ask the facility to set up extra dining tables on the floor for them, near the head tables, so they can eat without feeling like they are on display. Some people do not want to sit at an elevated table and eat. If there is enough space, they can eat at regular dining tables, and then move up to the head tables just before the program begins.

Setting up extra dining tables allows you to maximize the number of VIPs who can be accommodated at the head tables. For instance, if you have 10 VIPs and 10 spouses, you can set up 20 places at regular dining tables. Then, instead of setting up a head table for twenty, you can set one for only the 10 VIPs. The spouses can remain at the dining tables after the meal.  

To learn more, read Food for Thought: Dining Etiquette. Next week: Space needs for receptions.

Photo: Div. Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library via Flickr

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