The Genesis of Offshore Europe

SENDING A MESSAGE TO THE WORLD: Stavanger celebrating the North Sea oil industry
SENDING A MESSAGE TO THE WORLD: Stavanger celebrating the North Sea oil industry

A special celebration is being planned in the Granite City this September to mark the 40th anniversary of Offshore Europe. Yes, four decades have swept past since this now famous event was first staged in March 1973 in the grounds of Aberdeen University and Aberdeen Arts Centres. Founder David Stott recalls those beginnings.

It all began as an idea hatched in a holiday camp in Great Yarmouth. It was Spring 1971, and the occasion was an exhibition – Oceanex – with which my tiny publishing company, Spearhead, had become involved.

North Sea gas fields had become well established off the English East Coast, but as a result of the series of dramatic announcements about oil finds in the Northern North Sea, it seemed to me that Aberdeen would be the main centre for offshore activity in the future.

I had some knowledge of the City from my time in the late 50s as a journalist covering the fishing industry, and also some very limited experience of exhibition organising.

After some research and with a great deal of trepidation, I gave a small press conference at the Station Hotel in April 1972 and announced the go-ahead.

We would never have got Offshore Scotland (as it then was) launched if it was not for four men – John Hutton and Jim Dinnes of the North-East Scotland Development Authority (NESDA), and Alan Robertson and Jim Main of the University of Aberdeen.

Because of their invaluable advice and help, we were able to plan for the first show to take place in the Chemistry car park of the University, with the conference in the Arts Centre.

We settled on March 20-23, 1973 – the year determined after discussion with officials from Stavanger – that city having also decided that the time was ripe for an oil exhibition. They followed on in 1974 with ONS, and the two shows have alternated ever since.

Selling the concept to potential exhibitors took a while, and my Dutch contact suggested that a tented show in March in Aberdeen was mad beyond belief.

As it was, we managed to attract 140 exhibitors, who became too hot in a temperature of over 70°F as the sky was blue and the sun blazed down on the canvas roof.

Both conference and exhibition were well attended, and the event ran smoothly despite a few hoax bomb calls. The day after the show closed, snow fell and the east wind struck chill!

Emboldened by a successful show, we knew we had the potential for a much larger event, and once again NESDA came to the rescue by suggesting the Bridge of Don showground, owned by the Grampian Regional Council (GRC).

It boasted a golf range, a farmhouse and a large amount of open space. So we renamed the show Offshore Europe, moved to a September date in 1975, and as the North Sea developments came thick and fast the orders poured in.

The infrastructure was entirely inadequate for the scale of show that was taking shape, but in our naive optimism we underestimated the difficulties.

We erected a vast tented village – nicknamed ‘Tentie toon’ locally – to house some 800 exhibiting companies from all over the world, and awaited an onrush of visitors.

On September 16, the opening day of the Show, Aberdeen became a gridlocked city. Nothing moved on the roads, as the oil world and some rubberneckers – 36,000 in total over the week – arrived from all points in a rush to reach the Bridge of Don.

The exhibition wasn’t ready – the aisles full of rubbish – when I accompanied Willie Ross, then Secretary of State for Scotland, down South Anderson Drive in his official car on the wrong side of the road, following a police escort. Frustrated drivers, at a standstill for hours, shook their fists at us as we passed by.

As each day went by, the show staggered from crisis to crisis, culminating in a torrential all-night downpour that nearly took the roof off some of the tents, and making such car parks as we had uninhabitable, so that we had to introduce a fleet of emergency buses from the Esplanade to get anyone to the show.

We had brought in a cruise ship as extra accommodation, but every hotel and boarding house in the whole of North-east Scotland – let alone the city – was full to bursting point.

The University had helped by making Hillhead halls of residence available for the week, but supply was greatly exceeded by demand both then, and for many years afterwards.

Somehow, the exhibitors did a lot of business, and we survived despite a withering public dressing down from Sandy Mutch, then Convener of the GRC, which I remember to this day.

Clearly, lessons had to be learned, and we made a good fresh start by appointing Bryan Weavers as our technical director, Jo Kearns as exhibition manager, and Judith Patten (now the project director of All-Energy), taking on the all-important public relations role.

We invested £120,000 of our own money in the site – it seemed a fortune at the time – laying down a hardy Bitmac surface covering much acreage to include proper car parking as well as exhibition space, and rented a brand new and greatly superior type of temporary structure from Aberglen, then Jimmy Milne’s company.

The 1977 and 1979 shows were both successful and we were becoming well established in the oil exhibition calendar, but it became obvious that as a major international event the infrastructure of OE left a lot to be desired.

We had already attracted serious competition when the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), organisers of the OTC in Houston, and in co-operation with the Montgomery Group, launched a major rival in 1978 in Earl’s Court, London, repeating in 1980.

The new Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC) in Glasgow was in the final planning stages, and there was a political desire either to attract OE to Glasgow, or to set up a new oil show in the modern halls, with full conference facilities and all the trimmings.

I suspect that behind the scenes we had some discreet and heavyweight backing from then Minister of State for Energy, Alick Buchanan-Smith, and John d’Ancona, director-general of OSO.

The GRC made several valiant but unavailing attempts to fund a centre at the Bridge of Don; not, however, consulting us in the process.

We were looking decidedly shaky without major improvements, so, under fire from all sides, we swallowed hard and set about trying to raise the finance to build a centre ourselves.

We appointed architects, drew up a plan and after a lot of pressure we finally met our target, the investment being provided by the Royal Bank, the GRC, ourselves and – grudgingly – from the Scottish Development Agency, which was, of course, a firm backer of the SEC.

AECC was completed just in time for the 1985 show, which was opened by Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, in recognition, at the highest level, of the importance of Offshore Europe to the oil industry, itself so important to the British economy.

At last, we could hold our head up high and know that we could compete with anybody.

But that effort came at a cost: Spearhead was now mortgaged to the GRC, having reinvested much of our returns from the show both into improving the site, and providing money for the build.

The overall cost to us was, finally, £1.3million, but we did not begrudge a penny in the cause of securing the show’s future. It nearly bankrupted the company but we just about clung on through the downturn of 1987 and stability was restored when we brought in SPE as our partners in 1988.

Spearhead bowed out as an independent entity in 1999, and the show is now in the safe hands of Reed Exhibitions. It continues to flourish, reflecting the dynamic of a changing North Sea industry which, despite dire predictions over the years, still has a great future measured in decades.

This is the early history of Offshore Europe, not of AECC, but the two are joined at the hip, and I hope that the Aberdeen City Fathers and Mothers believe that the overall benefit to the city-region, derived from them both, continues to outweigh any financial strain the latter may put on the local public purse.

We are proud of the fact that the show has been a major factor in demonstrating the skills and capabilities of Scottish companies, many of whom are exporting worldwide.

I should add that we always received full support from global market leaders the Wood Group and Balmoral, for which we were – and are – very grateful.

Such a brief snapshot cannot possibly do justice to the hundreds of people from the City and the north-east who helped in the development of the show over the years – plus, of course, my fantastic team from Spearhead.

So many unsung heroes – and the odd villain – have made the last four decades a memorable personal journey.