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Offshore Europe will prove the oil and gas industry has changed – for the better

By Andrew Bradshaw, Fifth Ring

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The international oil and gas community will once again descend on Aberdeen at the beginning of September for the biennial Offshore Europe conference and exhibition, a staple in the industry’s list of leading global events.

Last time out in 2017, the four-day show attracted a disappointing 36,000 visitors, some 20,000 down on the 2015 event. However, those figures don’t really tell the full story.

In 2015 we were teetering at the very top of a metaphorical big dipper ride, about to plummet into one of the most severe industry downturns in history. We knew what was coming, because there was talk of orders slowing down, but the long-term nature of offshore projects meant the industry was being temporarily sustained at that time and the full impact had yet to be felt.

Two years later, under the mantra of ‘cautious optimism’, there were clear indications the North Sea was on its way back again, but hard-hit company exhibition budgets were slow to reflect that change.

Trade shows such as Offshore Europe are now more about conversations than hardware. Picture: Alan Peebles
Trade shows such as Offshore Europe are now more about conversations than hardware. Picture: Alan Peebles

Traditionally, attendance at such major events has been used as a very basic rule to judge the health of the host country’s industry. The annual Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, is often viewed in this way. However, attendance figures at OTC have fallen year on year for the past five years – while positivity around the industry is increasing, suggesting that for events like this the quality of visitors, not the quantity, is more important.

What should we expect from Offshore Europe this year? There’s a new venue and location for us all to adapt to, for a start. There are two new zones – a start-up village where new companies from around the world can showcase innovations and latest technologies, and the ENGenious Zone where visitors can explore automation, data analytics, robotics and smart communications. Furthermore, The Late Life & Decommissioning Zone has been expanded from 2017 to reflect the growing importance of this sector, particularly in the North Sea.

In terms of attendance figures, I would anticipate a higher number than for 2017 but less than the 56,000 recorded for 2015, but think that will say more about the changing role and purpose of trade shows than about the health of the industry off our shores.

Trade shows have and always will provide companies with a platform to display their latest products, from tech accessories to vehicles and drill bits. Traditionally in oil and gas this has meant filling your exhibition stand space with hard iron goods, and there’s many a shin been bruised by folk tripping over such items.

However, advances in digital technology mean exhibitors can show film or animation of new products in action rather than having to talk through the benefits of an inanimate piece of metal on the show floor. Attending the Oceaneering stand at OTC in Houston and watching people there control a remotely operated vehicle surveying a shipwreck in the waters off Norway in real time was one of the personal highlights of that event.

Virtual reality and other new technologies are transforming the look of trade show stands, including at the 2017 Offshore Europe event. Picture: Alan Peebles
Virtual reality and other new technologies are transforming the look of trade show stands, including at the 2017 Offshore Europe event. Picture: Alan Peebles

Less hardware on the floor creates more space on stands for quality conversations between exhibitors and existing or potential customers, so we are seeing more areas in stand designs being devoted to seating. Which brings me to another point.

A good stand is not cheap, yet when companies consider what would constitute a successful show the anticipated outcomes can vary. Generating quality sales leads is an obvious one, and a set number or percentage can be agreed as a measurement. It is often said some of the bigger, regular exhibiting companies feel compelled to take part because to pull out could trigger rumours around business confidence.

Invariably though, very few people expect to win business at an exhibition. It is often seen as a starting point on the buyer journey, ie a place where conversations begin, but rarely is it viewed as being near the end. However, digitalisation has changed the nature of purchasing. Today, 69 per cent of buyers in the business-to-business arena (ie one business selling to another) complete primary research – mainly online – before making a purchase. This means most people have pretty much made a decision to buy through looking at your business online before they make direct contact.

Your exhibition stand therefore has a new role as a sales office, enabling that direct contact in its most effective form: face-to-face. With a well planned and effective online and offline marketing strategy, you can generate interest among the people you want to reach well in advance of a trade show, so that when they come to see you at the exhibition they are there to essentially finalise the deal.

Offshore Europe will demonstrate a breakaway from many of the traditionally held views and practices. It will reaffirm the widely held notion that the industry has changed irrevocably since the pre-downturn days of 2014. The lumbering behemoth that thought it knew everything about how to be successful in business has transformed into a much smarter, agile, customer-focused and digitally savvy being; asking questions of itself; listening and willing to learn from others.

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