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Advice on buying/renting tablecloths for World Cafe?

I’d like to tap into our wonderful network here to find out where people recommend buying tablecloths for World Cafe-style dialogue — and what type of tablecloths you recommend (fabric, paper, color, etc.).  For the regional NCDD event in Portland this weekend, we are holding an evening World Cafe on Friday that is open to the public.  Then we’ll be holding our one-day Cascadia Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation all day on Saturday.  So we’ll need to use the tablecloths both days.

We’re renting 36″ 4-person round cafe tables, which is ideal for World Cafe and should serve us well for the whole program.  But renting the tables costs about $9 each (we need 50 for an expected 200 attendees), and it actually costs an additional $10 per table plus additional staff time to also rent linens for the tables.  We’ll pay that if we have to, but a quick google search implies that you can actually buy fabric tablecloths for half that price!  (And then we could give them to a planning team member to use again.)

I’d love to know if any of you have a company you recommend buying tablecloths from (we need to buy them asap so they can ship to arrive in Portland by Friday), what type of tablecloths you recommend, and what size we should order for 36″ tables.  I’ve always gotten them from the venue, so this is new to me.

To reciprocate, here are a few links to the places I always work with for our events (best prices, great service):

Please add a comment here on the NCDD blog today with your tips if you have experience with this:

www.thataway.org/index.php/?p=3131

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. From Eileen Palmer:

    There is a type of printing process that uses large rolls of white paper and they leave quite a bit on the roll when they finish with it – they will usually give these to you for free. The roll I have now is 36″ wide. The printers recycle these rolls with some frequency so if you call around and find the right printer ask them to hold some for you and then all you have to do is pick them up.

  2. From Barbara Simonetti (superstar co-team leader of our Boston regional event):

    Find an art supply house and buy a wide roll of white paper and then cut the cloths to size.. It makes it very easy to write on the cloths and I often hang them up later.

  3. From Carrie Stewart down in TX:

    We use butcher paper = the wide rolls is you can get them. And crayons/markers :>)

  4. John Blakinger says:

    I’ve always used many sheets of flip chart paper to cover the table.
    Can put multiple layers and pull the used ones off if you do a few cafe sessions.

  5. From Kenoli Oleari:

    We get tables clothes at the second hand store. We buy scrap cloth and cut it to size. We like fabric rather than plastic. We like lots of different colorful table clothes. Remember that you will be putting a sheet of flip chart paper on top of the table cloth.

  6. From Greg Ranstrom:

    Paper so folks can doodle, etc.

  7. Here's a very helpful bit of advice on this from Barbara Krohn, Global Communications Team of The World Cafe:

    We like to use plastic table clothes as they fold easily and are light weight (storage and travel) and you don’t have to deal with the laundry for the fabric style. Red and white check plastic table clothes (not with felt backing) are sold many places. We usually go to the local catering store front or a party decorations store. The ones we get are big enough for a picnic table so we cut them in half or use the full length for a display table as we did at STIA.

    Here is one example of an online store:
    http://www.orientaltrading.com/ui/browse/processR

    If you do a Google search for red and white checkered plastic table clothes you will find many to select from. You may want to look locally first to save shipping costs and time.

  8. Here's some advice from seasoned facilitator Lisa Heft:

    Dispense with the tables. Place a lovely cloth napkin on the ground with 4 chair surrounding – place your WC items on that (mug with markers, candies, lovely flower or etc., cards for writing thoughts).

    It's what I do when there's no budget – still looks beautiful, still does the job. Buy the cloth napkins at a place like a Crate and Barrel outlet store (like $1.50 ea, re-usable for all future events)

    Just an idea.

  9. From Miriam Wyman of C2D2:

    Check out restaurant supply places or art supply places for large rolls of brown paper – that's what we've used here.

  10. Don Schneider:

    I think paper with colored pens or crayons is best for World Cafe, as people can *process* their non-verbal reactions by doodling, which tends to contribute to the overall richness of the outcome.

  11. Cherry Muse says:

    We used multiple sheets of flipchart paper, over tablecloths. Agree with Kenoli about the effect of colorful cloths, doubt you have the time to hit secondhand stores between now and this weekend, but it’s a great idea!

    Re: renting vs. buying–if you buy, will you have storage for +/- 50 tableclothes? How much will you have to spend on shipping them? Do you really want to get into the business of laundering them? Good luck!

  12. From Andrea Dyer:

    Sandy – I have gone to “Smart and Final” (or any warehouse / restaurant supply type of store) and bought a roll of red checkered, plastic table cloth (I think it was 90 ft) – and cut to the size I needed. If you are building up a kit that you will use over and over I’d recommend cloth – but if you need something in a hurry and at such a volume (you may not want to purchase so many cloth ones) – this works.

  13. Our lead graphic facilitator for the Portland event, Teresa Bidlake, did some investigating:

    I couldn’t find a round in paper and vinyl is pretty pricey, but here’s a case of 50, 54″ square that would probably fit. Dirt cheap at $60: http://www.mypapershop.com/220470.html

    Alternatively, any party supply store will have paper rounds in bright colors.

  14. From John Inman:

    I would do simply checkered table cloths. Material not that important. Cloth is nice. You will have butcher paper or flip chart paper on the tables so no impact on the table cloths. I will be there and look forward to meeting you.

  15. From Andrea Dyer:

    I have gone to “Smart and Final” (or any warehouse / restaurant supply type of store) and bought a roll of red checkered, plastic table cloth (I think it was 90 ft) – and cut to the size I needed. If you are building up a kit that you will use over and over I’d recommend cloth – but if you need something in a hurry and at such a volume (you may not want to purchase so many cloth ones) – this works.

  16. From David Kahane via facebook:

    We’ve used newsprint: our local paper gives away 4′-5′ wide roll ends in exchange for food bank donations.

  17. Suggestions from Bruce Waltuck:

    A few ways to go on table-covering:

    1) dollar store or party goods store. Plastic tablecloths are cheap. Big ones can easily be scissor-cut on the spot to use them.

    2) Will your participants be generating drawings or lists for wall posting? Could you use flip-chart paper, or cut similar lengths from rolls of paper (sold for school use, often as an art-supply item). Or sheets from the-Post-It flip chart pads, so they are ready-to-stick?

  18. From Tom Genovese via the World Cafe Community:

    I went online to Joann Fabrics and bought cafe tablecloth looking fabric from their clearance section and cut it into 45" squares myself. Works for card tables and 36" rounds. I'm using the same tablecloths for the 3rd time at a cafe I'm hosting this Sunday.

  19. Or you could make things easy and go with some plastic table covers that you can throw away afterwards and make cleanup a breeze!
    -Jackie

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