Meetup Advice #1: Choosing a venue

by mingyuan21 min read13th Oct 20212 comments

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Meetups & Local Communities (topic)Community
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This is the first post in a sequence I'm writing on how to run a meetup. The advice in this sequence comes from hundreds of survey responses and dozens of conversations I've had with meetup organizers and attendees over the past four and a half years. I'm just the messenger.


In this post, I discuss best practices for choosing a meetup venue. I'm erring on the side of thoroughness, but I also don't want the slew of considerations to give people decision paralysis. No venue is perfect on every single axis! People have had great meetups at all kinds of suboptimal places. Please don't give up on having a meetup because of this post; just pick a place that seems decent to you and see what happens. According to the most recent data, there's a 96% chance you won't regret it!


Basic considerations for choosing a venue

What factors should go into your choice of a venue? TL;DR:

  • Location — The venue should be easy to get to.
  • Size — The venue should be big enough to fit all the people who show up to your meetup.
  • Availability — The venue needs to be available for a group of your size at the time your meetup is scheduled.
  • Physical comfort — The venue should be within walking distance of bathrooms and drinking water, and people need to be able to sit down. It also shouldn't be too hot, cold, wet, bright, full of wasps, etc.
  • Noise — The venue should not have much background noise and should not get cacophonous if many people are talking at once.
  • Food — The venue should offer a variety of affordable food, or you should provide food yourself.

Geographical location

Travel time is a major reason that people don't attend meetups, so you want to choose a place that's as easy as possible for people to reach. Consider:

  • Accessibility via public transport
    • A location near a major transit hub can be a good choice, especially if people are coming from far away
  • Availability and price of parking
  • Walkability / bikeability
  • Centrality / convenience for attendees
    • You can survey people to find out what areas are best for them
    • If you're in a spread-out area, you might want to alternate locations — e.g. Chicago has some of their meetups close to the center of the city and some farther north.

Size

You need a venue that can accommodate all the people who might show up. If you expect a lot of people or have a lot of uncertainty about how many people will attend, choose a flexible venue such as a park, or plan ahead for a spillover location. For example, an indoor meeting might spill over into an adjacent yard or parking lot, or a nearby park.

Availability

It's important to be sure that the space you've chosen is actually available for a group of your size at the time you've chosen to meet.

If meeting indoors, you might want to:

  • Check the venue's schedule for conflicts.
  • Make a reservation if possible.
  • If you can't reserve seating, get there early to secure a spot.
  • Check Google Maps to see how busy the location is at your planned meeting time.

If meeting in a park:

  • Check whether there might be a protest, an outdoor concert, or some other unusual event, and/or choose a park where this is unlikely to be the case.
  • Be aware that some cities require you to get a permit to hold an event in their parks.

Physical comfort

  • Bathrooms 
    • Bathrooms are non-optional! Most indoor locations will have nearby bathrooms by default, so this is mostly relevant for outdoor meetups. Outdoor meetups might use bathrooms at cafés or shopping centers, park shelters, or attendees' homes, or pay-per-use public toilets (in some countries).
  • Water
    • Same deal as bathrooms.
  • Places to sit
    • Standing for multiple hours is unpleasant enough that it gets mentioned a lot, so it's best to choose a location with chairs or picnic tables. All else equal, more comfortable furniture is better. If you're meeting somewhere where there's no seating — e.g. a lawn or beach — bring blankets, towels, and/or folding chairs to sit on. (You can ask attendees to bring their own as well, but they probably won't.)
  • Environment
    • People will be distracted and unhappy if it's too hot, cold, wet, sunny, or dark, or if there are lots of mosquitoes or wasps. (More on this in the section on outdoor locations.)

Noise level

Noise can be distracting and unpleasant, and of course can make it hard to hear people talking, which is usually the point of a meetup. What's more, many people on this community are on the spectrum or have other sensory processing issues, so will be more sensitive to noise than the average person.

There are two main types of noise problem:

  • Background noise, whether from street or from other people
  • Enclosed spaces that become cacophonous when many people are talking

Here are some potential solutions:

  • Be outside (avoids cacophony)
  • Use a private venue like a house (avoids background noise)
  • If you're going to a restaurant or café, choose one that you know has low background noise, pick a time when you know it won't be busy, and/or get a private room
  • Avoid locations near train tracks, major roads, construction sites, etc.
  • If you can't completely avoid cacophony (e.g. in a private house), designate a Quiet Zone away from the main conversation

Food

People consistently prefer meetups where food is available. If there's no food, and the meetup goes on a long time, people have to either suffer or leave, but if there is food, they can stay and not suffer!

Note that rationalists are disproportionately likely to have dietary restrictions or just strong preferences, and are especially likely to be vegetarian or vegan. Rationalists are also disproportionately non-drinkers.

If meeting at a restaurant, café, or food court, consider:

  • Variety
    • Because of dietary restrictions, it's best to avoid places that only serve one type of food (e.g. only pizza).
  • Option not to buy
    • In a sitdown restaurant or café, there's often a sense that you need to buy your right to sit there. This can be off-putting enough that people might not come to your meetup.
  • Price
  • Quality

If providing food yourself, consider:

  • Dietary restrictions
    • For a small group, you can send out a survey asking people about their preferences and restrictions, or ask people to contact you if they have restrictions.
    • For a large group, it's good to have a variety of options accommodating the most common restrictions (e.g. vegetarian, nut allergy; maybe vegan, gluten free, kosher, halal, paleo, or keto, depending on where you are).
    • If you're cooking and don't know people's restrictions, use the don't-put-anything-in-everything trick, and/or just avoid common allergens such as peanuts.
    • Potlucks can be a good strategy because everyone can personally ensure that there's something they can eat, but don't rely on other people bringing food unless you have strong reason to believe they'll actually do so. A good compromise is to provide enough main-course food for everyone, then encourage others to bring snacks/drinks/desserts.

Privacy/publicity

There are basically three types of location. 

  • Public, e.g. a park, café, or restaurant
  • Semi-private, e.g. a private room or entire floor at a restaurant, bar, or café; a meeting room at a university or library
  • Private, e.g. inside someone's home

Unlike for the other factors, I don't have a strong prescription here; there are trade-offs and you should make your own decision. I will note that ACX readers in particular generally prefer locations that have some measure of privacy, so that they can talk about weird and/or controversial ideas freely.

Kaj makes a good suggestion in his guide

New people may feel uncomfortable meeting in a private location. At the same time, people who do know each other usually feel more comfortable at a private location. An ideal balance might be to have regular meetups at a public location to attract newcomers, and also meet often at someone’s home. For example, you may want to hold weekly meetups at someone’s home and meet in public once a month.

Other

Some other things you might want to think about:

  • Niche-ness
    • Be aware of what signal your choice of location sends. Many locations are pretty neutral on this axis; however, if your venue is a bar, a board game café, or a hiking trail, be aware that you're going to be meeting a pre-filtered subset of all the people near you who might be interested in meetups.
  • Amenities
    • For example, if the meetup involves a presentation, you should have a large screen you can hook your computer up to. Or if you're worried about not having sufficient supplies, you might choose a venue near a full-service grocery store.
  • Kid-friendliness
  • Dog-friendliness
  • Wheelchair accessibility
  • Ambience
    • One survey respondent suggested that a meetup location should be cozy, welcoming, and reliable. I think that's a nice set of adjectives.

Being findable

It's not uncommon for people to attempt to attend a meetup, but be unable to find the group. This is often because the location given is too vague, e.g., just the name of a park or restaurant. It may also happen if the group has no obvious identifying visual characteristics; many people are uncomfortable approaching a group of people if they're not certain it's the right group. Here's how to avoid that problem:

  • Make it easy for people to contact you
    • Give out your phone number to people who have RSVP'd.
    • Publicly commit to check your email regularly during the event, so that people know they can email you if they're lost.
    • If you're meeting at a restaurant, you might tell people to give your name at the hostess stand.
  • Give an exact and easily identifiable location
    • If you're somewhere big, like a park or a food court, try to narrow it down, e.g. "the tables just to the east of the main entrance".
    • Describe the location in a way that's easy to look up (e.g. give an address or intersection), and/or easy to navigate to (e.g. "the exact center of the park"). Don't assume that a landmark that is salient to you will be known to everybody.
    • Send out a Google Maps drop pin or GPS location so that people can navigate to you directly with their phones.
    • If you're meeting in a park or similar, set the location as an open space rather than a specific landmark — i.e. the place where the actual socializing will occur.
  • Make yourself visible
    • In your announcement/advertising, mention what you'll be wearing to the meetup — ideally something that is visually distinctive even from a distance, e.g. a tall hat or a brightly-colored shirt.
    • Bring a sign, and ideally make it large or hold it up high (especially if outside), so that it can be identified from a distance. Placing it upright on a table can be fine too, as long as it's visible to people approaching.

Changing locations

Another reason people might have trouble finding you is if you're not where you said you would be. It's best to err on the side of staying put, but sometimes you can't avoid moving at the last minute. For example, you might find that the restaurant is unexpectedly closed, or you have twice as many people as you expected, or it might start pouring rain.

If you need to move, there are several things you can do:

  • Send an update via whatever communication channel your group uses.
  • Leave a note at the original location directing people to your new location. If it's not easy to give directions, leave your phone number on the note.
  • Have someone wait at the original location and send people over.
  • And of course, making yourself available by email and/or phone (already mentioned above) is also helpful.

Setup & Circulation

The setup of a space can strongly influence the social dynamics of an event, and many people are unhappy to find that their space leads people to socialize in one uncomfortably large circle.

So, if you're holding a social meetup with ~8 or more attendees, try to make it possible for people to congregate at multiple spots, so that you end up with a variety of small-group conversations. One way to do this is to arrange multiple small seating zones, each accommodating 2 to 8 people. If this isn't possible — for example, because the venue is your house, and it's just not designed for large social events — you might need to actively break up conversations. (More on that in a future post.)

At a social meetup, you also want to make it possible for people to circulate, so that everyone can converse with multiple different groups over the course of the event. I recommend against a single table at a sit-down restaurant; it's better to have something like those small standing-height tables used at cocktail parties, or a mix of standing and sitting areas.

But maybe you're running an event that's not primarily social, like a presentation, or a reading group. In that case, you may not need to focus so much on the mingling aspect. However, it's still a good idea to choose a place with some flexibility — people may want to discuss things after the presentation, and the rigidity of e.g. a lecture hall makes this difficult.

Types of venue

Okay, so we've talked about a bunch of abstract factors, but how do people feel about specific locations when they actually have meetups there?

Outdoor locations

People generally love outdoor locations as long as the weather is favorable, because they're more flexible and less cacophonous, and it's just nice to be outside. Parks and beaches also allow for physical activities like e.g. playing frisbee. And of course, as of this writing, a lot of people still feel uncomfortable meeting indoors.

However, outdoor locations are also high-variance, and can be terrible if it's raining, really hot or cold, or smoky; if there are biting/stinging insects or a lot of ambient noise; or if your meetup goes on into the night and it gets pitch dark.

So if possible, it's good to keep your options open, for example by holding your meetup at a house with a backyard, a restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating, or a café near a park. You can also designate a rain location, or precommit to canceling in case of bad weather.

If you have to have your meetup outside (e.g. for COVID reasons), take weather into consideration when deciding on details. For example, if it's a hot season in your city, have your meetup in the evening when it's cooler, rather than at midday. Or if there's a chance of rain, find a covered outdoor area, like a park shelter or someone's garage.

Homes

Homes are generally a good fit for more personal or vulnerable meetups, such as a rationality dojo or a deep questions meetup. They're less good for meetups where you're trying to attract newcomers — having to show up at an internet stranger's house is a dealbreaker for some people.

In general, private homes offer a lot of advantages that other types of venues don't. They're:

  • Reliable
    • There's no chance the place will be too busy or will be hosting a conflicting event, and you don't have to worry about being kicked out at closing time or because your group gets too big. 
    • Random people can't intrude on your meetup.
    • People might be able to store bikes at your place and not have to fear them getting stolen off the street.
  • Free
    • There's no rental or reservation fee, and no pressure to buy anything, and homemade food is cheaper than restaurant food. 
    • Many residential neighborhoods also have free street parking, which is less likely to be the case in commercial areas.
  • Comfortable
    • Homes usually have more comfortable furniture than public spaces, and always have bathrooms and drinkable water. 
    • There's generally less background noise than in a public place. 
    • You can adjust the thermostat or open the windows to get an optimal temperature.
  • Chill
    • People often just feel more relaxed in a private space, where there's no closing time, no pressure to eat or not eat, and no feeling of being watched by strangers. 
    • If you're an introverted host, you can retreat to your own room for a quick breather.
  • Flexible
    • You can move furniture around for a better setup, and if your home isn't too small, you can make multiple spaces available, so people have more choice in what they do and the space doesn't get too loud.
    • There's a wider range of activities available to you (e.g. singing, cooking). 

Homes do have some disadvantages as well. 

  • Many homes are not set up for entertaining.
  • Homes may be less conveniently located than cafés or parks.
  • If you live in an apartment or small house, your home may be smaller than alternate venues.
  • As with any indoor location, your home may get loud quickly.
  • If you share a building with others, you may worry about making too much noise.
  • Hosting at your home may be more costly if you have to do a lot of cleaning, or if you feel more pressure to 'be a good host' in a way that makes it harder for you to actually participate in the meetup.

Cafés

Cafés are one of the classic meetup locations, and previous guides have suggested them as a good place to hold a first meetup. 

Pros:

  • Low-effort
  • Laid back
  • Conveniently located
  • Food available
  • If no one shows up you can just read a book or work on your laptop

Cons:

  • Might not have space for a large group
  • Busy/loud at convenient hours
  • Everyone is usually expected to buy something
  • No privacy
  • You get kicked out at closing time

Restaurants

Pros:

  • Low-effort
  • Laid back
  • Conveniently located
  • Food available
  • You might be able to reserve a private room or whole floor

Cons:

  • Might not have space for a large group
  • Busy/loud at convenient hours
  • People might be required to buy something
  • You get kicked out at closing time
  • New people may feel intimidated sitting alone at a restaurant while waiting for others
  • Often the table setup is inflexible
  • In many restaurants, it's awkward to just walk around looking for a group

Other

These are some less-common venue types.

Bar/pub

Plenty of meetups take place at bars, pubs, beer gardens, or breweries, and at least one group has successfully met regularly at a brewery for years.

  • Pros:
    • Low-effort
    • Laid back
    • Conveniently located
    • Food available
    • You might be able to reserve a private room or whole floor
  • Cons:
    • Often loud
    • Many rationalists don't drink
    • Standard bar/pub food isn't great for people with dietary restrictions
    • People may have to be 21 (or 18) just to enter the building
      • Please avoid this!

Food court, or shopping center plaza

Food courts seem to be a pretty well-liked option. Austin has been meeting at a place that I think fits this description every week for like ten years! I think the main reason more meetups don't use them is that they're just not that common of a thing.

  • Pros:
    • Low-effort
    • Laid back
    • Conveniently located
    • Offers a wide variety of food
    • People aren't expected to buy anything
  • Cons:
    • May be loud
    • No privacy
    • May be outdoors and therefore subject to weather

Board game café/store

Again, be aware that you'll be pre-filtering your group by choosing a board game store. It seems fine to have board game meetups as part of a rotation of different meetup types, though.

  • Pros:
    • Low-key
    • Shy and awkward people often appreciate a more structured format of interaction, especially for a first meeting, because it takes a lot of the pressure off
    • Some people really enjoy board games
  • Cons:
    • Not everyone likes board games
    • May be loud
    • Very constrained activity options
    • May cost money

University classrooms

If you're a student this is an obvious and possibly easy venue. If you're not affiliated with a university, it's probably not worth bothering to reserve a university space, unless you're hosting a big lecture or something.

  • Pros:
    • Free
    • Good amount of privacy
    • Often have A/V equipment
    • Often have whiteboards or chalkboards
    • Plenty of seating
    • Convenient for university students
  • Cons:
    • You need a student to reserve a room
    • Setup is often terrible (e.g. a single giant circle of tables, or a lecture hall)
    • Chairs are often uncomfortable

Library

I basically do not recommend libraries.

  • Pros:
    • Intellectual vibe?
    • Convenient location
  • Cons:
    • Your options are pretty constrained
    • Reserving a room may cost money
    • If you don't reserve a room, you basically can't talk
      • Please do not try to have a meetup in the open part of a library, you will have a bad time

Workplace

Some people have meetups at their place of work, either in a private room or after hours. I don't have a lot of data on this as I only know of four cases (a bookshop, a gym, and two different corporate offices), so this section might not be very helpful.

  • Pros:
    • You have a fair amount of control over the space
    • In general, might have many of the same advantages as a home
  • Cons:
    • Your manager might think you're weird
    • People might feel intimidated coming into an office building where they don't work, or a gym if they don't work out

Conclusion

I think that's all the basics! Do you have questions? Did I miss important advice on choosing a venue? What do you want to see a post on next? Let me know in the comments.


 

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2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:21 AM
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Hmmm... It seems that someone has thought of doing the exact same thing? Though considering the digging I had to go to find it, it should be more prominent. 

 https://wiki.lesswrong.com/images/c/ca/How_to_Run_a_Successful_Less_Wrong_Meetup_Group.pdf 

I mentioned this in my sequence intro, but to restate it here: That guide is nine years old, and things have changed a fair amount in the past decade; it's also difficult to navigate. Also, you might notice that the advice on choosing a venue covers less than one whole page; I thought there was room for an updated guide that's also more thorough and data-informed.