I wanted to know what had changed since the last time I attended OTC, and how different countries and organizations compared in what they were doing in their space. To do that, I visited 469 booths. The official vendor tally was 548; the difference is likely due to vendors who either didn’t show up, participated virtually, or combined their booth with that of one or more other vendors. I tallied data in 3 categories:
Docs: The company has printed documents sitting out for people to take.
Demos: The company has their products sitting out for people to interact with.
Gifts: The company has takeaways such as promo materials, candy, or food sitting out for people to take.
A few clarifying notes: Many items that companies showcased did not fit these categories. For example, if a company had a great-looking model of an oil rig in their booth, but customers could not touch or interact with it, that didn’t make it into my tally. Likewise, many companies, especially those that deal in products, had videos playing on screens in their booths. But if a visitor would simply be expected to watch the video, it didn’t meet my definition of “demo”, and thus I didn’t include it. More analysis of video use would be interesting.
However, I can make one point strongly: If you’re going to use screens to show your products or services, make sure they’re set up low enough, or on the outer edge of your booth, so that they don’t block your view of visitors as they walk in front of your booth. When I walk by a booth, and see that the vendor’s face is hidden behind a screen, the connection just doesn’t happen between us.
It’s likely that, at a few booths, documentation, demo materials, or gifts were hidden beneath a table. In such cases, I didn’t go hunting about to try to uncover them. As information must be findable in order to have any value at all, so the materials that vendors bring to conferences must be readily available to visitors to have value, from a marketing perspective, generally.
I compiled this data for both region-specific pavilions, and a general “Other” category. “Other” includes both domestic U.S. organizations and any foreign companies who were not part of a marked region-specific pavilion.
One note – by tallying data for these categories, I’m not suggesting how many companies “did it right”. If, for example, Aramco and McDermott feel that they get more value by providing a beautiful booth and focusing on capturing visitors contact information digitally, that’s fine. Canary, on the other hand, provides both a project video screen behind their booth, and a PC-based demo. In this report I’m providing analysis and ideas for how organizations might think about or improve their booths. Providing printed docs, demos, and gifts isn’t going to be the ideal for every booth.
The first time I attended OTC, it seemed that everyone had multiple stacks of printed documents on their table. Many organizations now use QR codes to provide information to visitors. Pandata used a digital business card to send information into visitors’ phones. QR codes are certainly cheaper and more efficient than paper docs.
However, the majority of booths (413 of 468, or 88%) still provided some form of paper documentation. There are risks to QR codes: some visitors may have security concerns, and if visitors don’t take the time to add notes to what they scanned in between booths (assuming their phone allows them to do so), their connection with your organization may be lost, and they may not be able to follow up.
In my opinion, the smoothest combination seemed to be a digital information sharing option, plus a small, high-quality printed document. A small, powerful document makes it less likely that visitors will discard it after they get tired of carrying it. It also provides a tactile connection to your organization that provides a good follow-up option. Additionally, some visitors simply prefer either a digital or a printed option, so having a reasonable version of both makes sense. So having a QR code include in a small, high-document might be optimal.
Postcards were reasonably popular this year. They provide an example of physically manageable documentation that could be paired with digital information capture methods such as QR codes.
Ultimately, the days of having big stacks of thick printed docs at one’s booth seem to be drawing to a close.
Few demos for professional organizations and educational institutions
Most booths for professional associations (SNAME, ASCE, IADC, Columbia Southern University, and others) contained printed documents and gifts. However, they very rarely if ever had a video component, much less a demo (overall percentage of booths with demos was 61%, with product-based companies leading the way, and professional and educational groups lagging far behind). Part of that makes sense – would a video of an educational luncheon be compelling?
If one of these organizations could bring an interactive demo, such as a brief computer-based test that visitors could complete for prizes, to the conference, it would set them apart from every other organization in their area of the conference.
Most companies re-used their documentation and promotional materials from 2019 – or before. Part of that trend is probably the result of the difficulty in having promo materials shipped from China right now.
One of the most outstanding exceptions to the re-use rule was provided by Wison, whose marketing department created a beautiful brochure specifically for OTC this year.
IFP probably had the most practical, and perhaps best, gift on the floor. With water fountains closed, they provided bottled water, which was certainly needed in the humid Houston weather. Ideal Electric and TeamViewer competed for the “Most Useful Gift” prize with their phone charging options. Perhaps the best pen I’ve ever seen at a conference was provided by Kuraray. DLPS offered perhaps the most unique gift with their turbans. Ghanans are proud of their chocolate, and multiple booths provided authentic Ghanan chocolate bars.
There was more hand sanitizer and other sanitary products than I remember in prior years. As OTC requested that vendors minimize what they hand out, the volume of gifts may have been down slightly. As some vendors pointed out to me, promotional materials are great to remind someone of a conversation. But if someone comes by looking for takeaways, they’re probably not who you want to be talking to, anyway.
Scaled-down booths (with really cool features)
Some organizations didn’t build out their booths as much as in prior years (and a few didn’t show up at all, since businesses paid for their spot last year, and were given a free spot for this year after last year’s conference was canceled). However, there was plenty of booth architecture and tech to marvel at this year. Aramco’s spiral staircase, leading to a private seating area above, was perhaps the most impressive sight. Holloway also had an impressive upper area. ICI’s intimidating drone was an eye-catcher, as was Gordon’s robotic “dog” as it marched around the showroom floor.
Streamlined slides – and no takeaways
I’m used to seeing a fair amount of Death by PowerPoint at OTC. However, the slides I saw this year in the handful of sessions I attended were more simpler and clearer than what I’m used to at the conference. Part of this was due to the fact that presenters were often remote, and screen spaces were needed for spaces, not paragraphs of text. Much of this trend is positive, but it may be going too far. When you don’t leave attendees with any sort of takeaway, you risk them forgetting everything you said.
Focus on human trafficking
United Against Human Trafficking had a booth set up outside of the exhibition hall, where they educated visitors on various aspects of the fight against human trafficking. They used a spinning wheel to focus visitors’ attention on various aspects of the fight. Perhaps some of that interactivity could work for some of the professional organizations and educational institutions at the conference. Houston is a hub for human trafficking, so this focus is helpful.
When you look carefully at what different regions brought to the conference, and how regions compare with one another, trends appear, some obvious, some not.
Even with the move towards digital, nearly 90% of both region-specific pavilion companies (65 of 75) and other companies (348 of 394) set out printed docs for visitors.
The Japanese pavilion provided excellent examples of the larger, thicker documentation that one traditionally finds at a conference like OTC. They also provided bags to carry these docs, which is a logical pairing. This particular high-quality job is also an example of the document re-use prevalent at the conference.
Foreign pavilions were far less likely to bring demo products to OTC. However, while around 30-40% of Brazilian, French, Italian, and Canadian booths had demos, Japan, Ghana, and Guyana had none. It’s understandable that foreign companies would have fewer demos – it’s harder for them to ship in a section of pipeline than it is for an American company. But though Ghana, Guyana, and especially Japan had enough room for demos, none of them provided any. There may have been logistical issues. But in an environment where you provide something that none of the booths around you provide, you really stand out.
Region-specific pavilion booths provided gifts at a rate of 57%, while other companies provided gifts 62% of the time. Since only 19% of region-specific pavilion companies provided demos, as opposed to 68% of other companies, region-specific companies may have used gifts more often to offset some of the potential value gap created in their booths by the lack of demo materials.
Less overseas traveling
Many international vendors and visitors were unable to attend this year due to travel restrictions. Since it’s relatively easy for domestic companies to engage with domestic customers throughout the year, many told me that they rely on OTC to provide them the opportunity to connect with foreign customers. With less international travel this year, there were fewer opportunities to do that this year.
Hopefully, travel restrictions will have been removed by next year, and businesses will be able to make those connections again.
Trends over time
Obviously, OTC was smaller in 2021 than in 2019. Many experienced vendors told me that they’re used to being packed into their space, with a constant flow of visitors. This year, they had plenty of room, and were looking to generate traffic.
Perhaps some of the ideas in this report can help companies capture a greater share of available visitors. On Monday, I got the feeling that I was absorbing more time from salespeople than I deserved as an observing non-customer. However, as Tuesday progressed, I noticed that the same salespeople who had spoken with me the day before were now absorbed in conversations with potential customers. This gave me confidence that organizations were getting in the groove, beginning to generate the value that makes coming to OTC worthwhile.
Stay tuned for my breakdown of the quality and contents of this year’s printed documentation!