The ‘hybrid’ OTC program offers a vision for the future

Thousands of oil and gas professionals attended the convention floor on Tuesday and checked semi-autonomous robots that can detect gas leaks and remote-controlled submarines used to inspect offshore platforms.

But beyond the NRG Center’s OTC showroom, a different version of the Offshore Technology Conference was taking place, completely online. After a year in which business gatherings, weddings, and family reunions were limited to computer screens, Houston’s largest trade show went virtual, allowing attendees to attend roundtables, visit exhibitor stands and even the network, all through your laptop or mobile device.

“Anyone anywhere can join at any time,” OTC Executive Director Leigh Ann Runyan said. “The world has changed completely. We have all learned that we have to learn to operate within the parameters that have been given to us and to do so safely. “

For the first time in its half-century history, OTC held a hybrid face-to-face and virtual conference to accommodate tens of thousands of attendees who were unable or unwilling to travel to the show due to the ongoing pandemic. The program, held just as coronavirus cases are on the rise again nationwide, offered an insight into what the future of conventions in Houston could look like.

OTC is not the first oil and gas conference in Houston to go virtual. The IHS Markit CERAWeek held in February used video conferencing to bring together energy ministers, oil executives and professionals from around the world. Attendees logged on to the CERAWeek website to view roundtables on oil and natural gas, hydrogen and geothermal energy and were able to chat with each other via live chat.

Utpal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University’s Jones School of Business, said there are substantial advantages to having face-to-face interactions at conferences, where face-to-face presentations can lead to future offerings. But as society has become accustomed to video chats and online meetings, the rise of virtual conferencing is a trend that could persist far beyond the pandemic, he said.

More than half of the 505 business event planners surveyed in February by consulting firm Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said they expect the conferences to offer a virtual component once the pandemic is over.

“I don’t think the virtual mode of participation can completely replace face-to-face participation,” Dholakia said. “However, for more and more conferences in the future, will have a hybrid mode widely available. By that I mean the possibility for an attendee to participate remotely or in person, depending on their preferences, which did not exist before. “

OTC organizers began discussing a hybrid conference as soon as they canceled last year’s convention due to the pandemic and began planning this year’s event. The convention seemed poised for a big comeback with the launch of coronavirus vaccines, but the highly infectious Delta variant raised hopes for a full convention in person.

A few days before OTC was launched, Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil service company, came out of the conference citing rising local hospitalization rates due to COVID-19. Schlumberger teamed up with Halliburton, Siemens Energy, Dril-Quip and Technip to host virtual stands this week.

OTC is expected to attract about 30,000 attendees, though a wave of recent hotel room cancellations suggests attendance could be lower. The conference, which is normally held in May, attracted about 60,000 in 2019. This week a figure of face-to-face and online attendance is expected at this year’s conference.

“We were really looking forward to being in person, but we had to come to terms (with the pandemic),” Runyan said. “We’ve brought the world together, not personally at all, but we’ve done it pretty much as well.”

Runyan, who was appointed executive director of OTC in February, said she has been pleased with the online attendance at the conference so far. While there are many advantages to face-to-face conferences, virtual conventions also have their advantages, he said.

OTC attendees this year can watch roundtables, presentations and live delivery ceremonies or watch a recording almost immediately afterwards from the comfort of their home. They could log on to the conference website to visit the virtual stands, where they could look at product brochures and videos from exhibiting companies, and even leave a “virtual business card”.

Attendees can save money on virtually participating flights, hotels and rental cars. Registration costs for face-to-face and online attendees were the same: $ 180 for OTC members and $ 280 for non-members. Without traveling to the conference, oil and gas attendees also leave a smaller carbon footprint, Runyan added.

For the most part, the OTC virtual conference took place smoothly against the backdrop of the face-to-face conference, but it was not without some technical issues. A malfunction of the visual connection of a board on Tuesday morning caused an audio experience only on the part of the attendees. The roundtables featured a combination of face-to-face and virtual moderators and speakers, with the virtual ones on the TV screens. Virtual speakers answered questions from the audience via live chat.

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