There’s arguably no bigger spectacle in the oil and gas industry than the annual Houston conference that attracts tens of thousands of people from more than 100 countries for a mix of carnivalesque pageantry, massive displays of drilling rig equipment, wonkish technical meetings and, of course, after-hours parties.
The Offshore Technology Conference marks its 50th year when the exposition opens Monday at NRG Park, continuing a run that has transformed a modest gathering of engineers and scientists into a global event that has advanced the offshore sector while pumping some $3 billion into the Houston economy over the last half century. The size of OTC has waxed and waned with the health of the industry, but it established itself early on as the oil and gas sector’s preeminent conference and, to this day, it’s maintained its position as the place for energy professionals to learn, network and make deals.
Rustom Mody attended his first OTC some 40 years ago, when deepwater drilling was just in its infancy as companies ventured far offshore into unexplored regions of the Gulf of Mexico and other waters. By that time, 1978, the conference had already grown to about 80,000 people.
“It was an amazing experience. I just fell in love with the industry,” said Mody, then a young engineer and now vice president of technical excellence at the Houston energy services company Baker Hughes. “It was like a whole new industry was coming to life.”
The Offshore Technology Conference was born when a dozen professional energy organizations decided to band together for an annual multidisciplinary conference and exhibit to exchange technical knowledge. The effort was led by the executive director of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Joe Alford, and it included other groups such as the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.
While OTC may be known best for its pomp and circumstance — giant valves, massive machines, detailed models, lots of swag and parties galore — it’s still really about the technology, innovation and meeting of minds, said OTC Board Chairman Wafik Beydoun, who works for the French oil major Total.
“It’s such a big umbrella with interdisciplinary sharing across all these societies,” Beydoun said. “It’s very dense with all the information and technical papers presented.”
The average person has no idea how much technology goes into the development of oil and gas fields under thousands of feet or water, from the massive surface platforms and drilling rigs to the underwater maze of pipes, wells and umbilical cords that connect platform operations to the wells.
The inaugural 1969 OTC took place in downtown Houston at the new Albert Thomas Convention and Exhibit Center — now Bayou Place — and attracted about 4,200 people, better than expected. The organizers initially planned to move the conference to different cities starting with New Orleans in 1970, but the success of the first OTC convinced organizers to stick with Houston.
OTC’s beginnings coincided with more than a decade of booming growth for the oil industry. Attendance skyrocketed to more than 22,000 by 1973 when it was moved to the Astrodome complex to accommodate the growing crowds. From there it grew nearly every year, breaking the 100,000 attendance mark for the first time in 1981 and surpassing 108,000 in 1982.
The recession and oil bust of the early 1980s, however, sent attendance into a swoon, dipping below 3,000 in 1984, when only technical session were held. When oil prices are booming, OTC is known for the carnival atmosphere and a lot of the attendees may just want to soak in the experience. When the industry isn’t doing as well, the crowds are smaller, but the more serious people attend, bringing a heightened focus on technology.
“During the downturns, we come up with more innovations,” Beydoun said. “The world still comes to OTC to share and discuss technology.”
Paul Coppinger, president of Weir Oil & Gas in Fort Worth, started attending OTC 30 years ago, when the effects of the ‘80s oil bust were still lingering and just over 25,000 people attended each year. Coppinger had just graduated college with an engineering degree, but found so few prospects in the industry that he ended up working, temporarily, as a truck driver.
Still, he said, OTC blew him away and he began attending regularly.
OTC’s attendance soared in the early part of this decade along with oil prices, hitting a record 108,300 in 2014, when oil topped $100 a barrel. Conversely, attendance fell when oil prices crashed in the bust, sliding below 65,000 last year. Now, oil prices are continuing to recover and the industry is coming back to life and OTC organizer expect attendance to rise to about 70,000.
Coppinger’s Weir Group will bring about 80 people this year, about double its 2017 crowd.
“It’s always been the crown jewel of events to get people together — competitors, customers, suppliers,” Coppinger said. “A lot of meetings are planned around OTC because that’s when everyone comes to Houston.”
This article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.