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In the late ‘Seventies, Hubie Clark was concerned that the number of oilfield trade shows was getting out of hand. Mr. Clark, as president of Baker Oil Tools, had rotated into the leadership position of the Petroleum Equipment Suppliers Association and was appalled at the amount of money he and his company was spending on exhibiting each year. He saw the same people at each trade show, and he wondered if they weren’t simply talking with each other show after show after show.

The granddaddy of all trade shows, the International Petroleum Exposition (IPE), was in our hometown. Tulsa had claimed to be the “Oil Capital of the World” for decades, but trade shows had popped up in Dallas and Midland and Shreveport and New Orleans and Denver. And there was one especially for offshore folks that had started in Houston, the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC). That one seemed to be gaining traction since its launch in 1968.

Mr. Clark called my dad, the founder of Spears and Associates, and commissioned him to measure the effectiveness and value of each trade show. Mr. Clark wanted an independent quantification of the best and worst trade shows.

Dad and his team talked with hundreds of people – exhibitors and attendees, veterans and newbies.  They threw data and opinions into the big black analysis box, turned the crank and revealed that – hey! – none of the trade shows made economic sense. In fact, when compared with simply taking a prospective customer to lunch and telling him what you were selling, trade shows were a financial bust.

This triggered the demise of many regional trade shows, beginning with the one a mile from Dad’s office, the IPE.

I think about Dad’s research each May as the industry again marches to Houston and erects the OTC at the NRG campus. The OTC is now the granddaddy of them all, but look at attendance trends:

Offshore Technology Conference Attendance

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I’ve been trying to tie OTC attendance figures to something like oil prices, or total offshore spending, or the global oilfield market, or rig count, or footage drilled, or oil produced.  Nothing fits. If the OTC was tied to offshore spending, then attendance would have fallen from 108,000 in 2014 to 40,000 in 2018. If attendance was tied to land spending, attendance would have fallen to 54,000 in 2016 before rising to almost record levels in 2018.  Oil prices don’t fit because they’ve been surging since the 2016 catastrophe, while OTC attendance keeps falling.

Here’s what I think we’re seeing: The era of the trade show is over, killed by the Internet and temporarily on the same life support seen at your local shopping mall. Why build a mini city, fly in your team of salesmen for a week, and wait while random people (like me!) come over and ask stupid questions?  Why would you go to such great expense to have no control over whom you talked with and what they wanted to talk about? Is there no other way for a customer to learn about your products? Is a qualified customer going to randomly walk by and say – “Whoa! I never knew those guys made frac pumps!” Probably not.

I think we’re seeing a repeat of what Dad revealed 40 years ago: Oilfield trade shows are just too darned expensive to be any good any more. 

It’s time for the old school industry to go digital, where there’s a ‘trade show’ everyday. For free.