How to Pick the Right Chair
The Critical Nature of Comfort
With over 20 years of experience speaking with the hospitality industry and the education sector about furniture, I have engaged in many discussions about which chair is the right chair. The answer is not a simple one. With multiple people on boards, selections committees and interested parties all having their own personal view on the matter, making the right decision can often fall to an attempt to keep all parties happy or at least ensuring that key individuals are not unhappy with the final decision. This process does of course not necessarily produce the optimal outcome for the business, venue or learning environment.
I make no argument against the value of aesthetics in fact I spend much of my time evaluating chair designs and style. Having said that, ample research has been conducted to indicate that comfort is more significant that just how your bottom initially feels when you first sit in the chair, which is often the first step as buyers evaluate a potential purchase. Studies indicate that learning can be negatively impacted by an uncomfortable chair.
What causes discomfort while sitting?
According to an article published in “Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation,” senior lecturer on ergonomics and safety at Harvard University, Jack Dennerlein said “….. chairs (can) cause long term problems for students, such as permanent neck and back damage, headaches and an eventual lack of focus.”
“This discomfort causes a student’s brains to shift their focus from their teacher to how uncomfortable they are”.
“If the chair is too small, children slump forward, pressuring the spine, and sit with their knees higher than their bottoms which puts undue pressure directly on the butt bones,” Dennerlein said.
Other sources of discomfort include the design of the chair causing the student to lean back, which is a position more suited to the event space where banquet guests sit in a more relaxed position. The increased angle of the chair back position is called an “event pitch”
While the ergonomics of seating is a critical consideration in the classroom, chair design and comfort must be washed against a functionality fit. All classroom furniture must meet a curriculum profile. The classroom space has changed over the years and generations. In my day the sled frame, flip top desks where aligned behind each other in 4 or 5 rows in each classroom. We each had or own space and we never left that space for the entire day from the first day in January to the last day in December.
Today learning takes place in groups, and often different groups in all areas of the school building. For this reason, furniture in classroom must be light weight, easy to move, simple to stack and configurable in whatever groups are appropriate. One prominent study stated “We’re breaking away from the ‘sit still and listen’ classroom environments. The purpose of classroom furniture must be to aid in the achievement of a measurable increase in student performance.
In reviewing the Harvard study on student learning and the impact school furniture has on student performance why would we not apply the same principles to the effectiveness of adult learning in conferences, meetings, and business seminars?
If the right furniture is essential for the learning environment in schools, or the classroom, it stands to reason that the right furniture is also essential to the successful outcomes of business conferences, seminars etc.
An overview of a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states;
“The business events industry operates venues to support conferences, seminars, workshops, colloquia, conventions, exhibitions, and other events (such as incentives and business lunches/dinners). Such events are designed to enhance the development of the industries and associations which host them and to provide a means of sharing knowledge and information”.
According to the Australian Industry and Skills Committee
Between 2017 to 2018, the Exhibition and Conference Centres sector in Australia was estimated to have generated revenue to the value of $11.34 billion, with organisations involved in event promotion and the Management Services sector generating an additional $4.36 billion in revenue.
The business and events Council of Australia estimate that over 26.5million delegates attended conferences and events in the 2017- 2018 financial year.
It is also reported that an average of $440 per day was spent by delegates at conferences and business events.
With more that 26 million delegates generating above $11 billion in revenue there is significant incentive for hotels and conference and event venues to invest in desirable meeting spaces. It is well understood by the organisations involved in this industry that repeat business is the most profitable and sort-after. Filling the event calendar keeps the money rolling in, hotel occupancy rates high and staff fully employed.
Conference organisers often make follow up decisions about the location of the next conference based on the stated comfort of the chairs by attending delegates. For the same reason that students are more effective in their learning experience in the classroom, delegates will gain more from a conference when they aren’t focused on the feeling of discomfort by sitting at a poorly designed or aging furniture piece.
Based on a return on investment (ROI) calculation, most hotels and event centers will prefer to use the same chair for both banquets, in a dining environment, and conference where delegates are seated at desks. As previously identified in the Harvard University study this can often place the chair at cross purposes. A conference chair does not hold the same design attributes as a dining or banquet chair. The primary factor of differentiation is the angle of the back. In an environment where the participant is at a desk the back should be more upright supporting better seating position. An event pitch is more suited to a banquet scenario. Having said that and acknowledging that most if not all venues have limited budgets and must make full use of the furniture investment, achieving a “comfortable“ outcome is vital and it could be argued that comfort should be a priority above aesthetics.
Fortunately, in today’s market there are many options. Putting aside the topic of value for money and cheap knock-offs my experience allows me to make some observations worthy of consideration. The factors detailed below are offered to assist with providing greater comfort only and are not in any way given as the only considerations when deciding on the right chair for your venue.
Chairs are manufactured with primarily 2 types of foam – cut and moulded. Cut foam as the name suggests is cut from a large block into the shape the design dictates. Moulded foam, on the other hand is cast in a mould that is slightly heated to cause a chemical reaction expanding the element to make the desired shape
Cut Foam Chair Advantages
- The material product is cheap and will assist the manufacturer to achieve a specific price point.
- The manufacturing process is inexpensive
- Does not usually offer strong design aesthetics
Cut Foam Chair Disadvantages
- Cut foam tends to breakdown overtime especially with high use making the chair incredibly uncomfortable and eventually unusable.
- For greater comfort, thicker foam is required often leading to poor design and aesthetics
Moulded Foam Advantages
- Greater comfort can be provided by designing a seat and back to better conform to the body.
- By utilizing a variable mixture of chemicals, foam density variations can be achieved without the necessity of going to a thicker foam.
- The mould creates a crust on the foam almost entirely eliminating the ability of the foam the breakdown
Moulded Foam Disadvantages
- Due to the manufacturing process a chair with moulded foam components is often at the higher end of the price scale. This however does depend on the volume produced by the factory
Venues make large investments in chairs every year and therefore a well researched selection criteria is essential. This criteria must be understood by all involved in making such an important decision. Certainly, the look and style of the chair is a major consideration, after all who want to sit on a comfortable fruit box, but comfort cannot be understated and must be more than a passing tick in a box. A conference venue’s future business depends on delegates being able to focus on the conference subject matter and not how quickly they can rid themselves of the units they are requires to place their bottoms on. When delegates and conference organisers reflect on the comfort of the chairs they are more likely to return to the same venue for future conferences. Just as students perform at an optimal level when they are seated in a comfortable chair which supports their body so to are conference delegates able to benefit most from the investment they make in attending a conference when they can focus on the speaker’s subject matter.
CEO Innova Group