Change is Constant
Like most regular exhibitors at the major annual events, we’ve been reflecting on the successes and lessons from last week in sunny Madrid. As expected, a few travelers were affected by Covid, and that seems to, unfortunately, be a feature of travel anywhere to look forward to in the future. Nevertheless, everyone seemed glad to openly socialize without masks or distancing, and indeed, humans are social creatures and unsuited to living life in isolation. Everyone returning from Madrid was thoroughly exhausted after several extremely busy days. Although we can apparently expect to see a transition back to in-person events, some change seems to be permanent: there are far fewer geoscientists in employment than there were a few years ago, and participation at major events is unlikely to reach the halcyon 8 000 to 10 000 numbers from a decade ago, and the technical focus of attendees is on integrated workflows rather than academic topics. I offer a few comments below on where the major trade shows seem to be heading.
Trends in Exhibition Hall and Technical Session Participation
The past two years forced the major professional societies to convert their annual events to either hybrid or entirely virtual events with large online participation. The experience for remote participants was often unpleasant. The virtual portals were slow and buggy, chairpersons struggled to manage the technical sessions, and the Q&A was generally forgettable. From the financial perspective of the societies, the contraction in exhibition and sponsorship revenue must have hit hard. The EAGE event this year in Madrid reportedly attracted about 4 000 in-person registrations and about 1 000 online registrations, although actual numbers are impossible to obtain. Next year in Vienna, the ambition is to revert to an in-person event only, partly because the cost of running online participation is perceived as too high. I find that somewhat disappointing as virtual participation is the only hope many must overcome the prohibitive costs of travel, accommodation, and the reluctance of many companies to send employees on international trips in a climate of global uncertainty. Can an option be offered to submit and access recorded technical presentations before the event, and interested participants can engage in a virtual Q&A with the authors?
There is no question, however, that everyone is craving face-to-face interaction after two years of forced isolation. Although the foot traffic in the Exhibition Hall was noticeably lighter than in the past, and many traditional exhibitors had no stand at all, our meetings diary was overflowing. That was great for business development but exaggerated the decline of the Exhibition Hall as the ‘hub’ for activity. A common complaint about the explosion in working remotely through online video interaction is that the cognitive load is far higher than in traditional group meetings in a shared room—time use is less efficient and multi-tasking is more challenging. Similarly, the proliferation of one-on-one person meetings at EAGE 2022 probably contributed to the decline in foot traffic in the Exhibition Hall and the generally low attendance at the Technical Session presentations.
I continue to find the trends in Technical Session attendance quite intriguing. Some sessions were well attended (e.g., the main Marine Acquisition session, and many of the Energy Transition sessions, for obvious reasons), but many other sessions were very lightly attended, and the scheduling of room size was often inappropriate. In contrast, the Workshops seemed extremely popular and were sometimes overflowing. This contrast has been obvious in recent years at EAGE and SEG too. Frankly, the Workshops are inevitably more interesting and engaging, and less polluted by cynically commercial or incomprehensible talks than the Technical Sessions. One factor in their success is the opportunity to openly and informally speak with like-minded participants, and the extra time for Q&A. Workshops at major events can also attract a critical mass of competent speakers on popular topics rather than relying upon the lottery of ‘whatever gets submitted into the general conference’. This does not necessarily imply that standalone workshops will completely replace the major conferences as the preferred technical forum. Despite the proliferation of workshop events, literally hundreds each year between the five or six largest societies, having a cross-section of high-profile workshops on different themes in the same place is the greatest motivation to attend the major annual events.
The Power of Integration
The Exhibition Hall vendors that did seem well attended were the vendors who showcased integrated software solutions. It is a fact that the age of digitalization means we are all confronted by vast datasets, spanning several disciplines, and despite the marketing hype of the cloud providers, it is not generally easy to cost-effectively store, manage and move data from many sources. Ecosystems such as Versal, a unified seismic data ecosystem offering a single search point to access 70% of the world’s multi-client seismic data, is an important step forward, but users are still confronted by the multi-disciplinary nature of their tasks. This is where much interest in AI is emerging. The concept of ‘virtual assistants’ that can accelerate routine analyses and interpretation tasks in real-time has enormous potential value. And moving beyond the mundane tasks, real-time developments for petrophysical log predictions and correlation, lithology-fluid prediction and interpretation, and the assimilation of geomechanical and geotechnical insights into geoscience data interpretation, are all increasingly necessary in the New Energy landscape. It feels rather ironic that despite the collapse of university geoscience education in most developed countries, the intellectual demands being placed upon geoscientists expected to master complex software ecosystems and integrate complex technology-driven solutions are greater than ever. Again, this probably contributes to the growth in popularity of the Workshops: everyone wants to see how others are solving complex problems and ‘sensemaking’ the competing claims and solutions being offered.
What would the ‘ideal’ conference offer?
• The opportunity to meet as many like-minded stakeholders and colleagues face-to-face
• Technical forums that showcase integrated multidisciplinary solutions in an environment that facilitates sensemaking of competing solutions
• A magical solution to pursue both above rather than one or the other
Nothing ‘new’ here, and the EAGE event in Madrid reminded attendees that our industry is complex and humans have basic needs.
The annual SEG event is early this year, held from August 28 to September 1 in Houston. The SEG reportedly capped abstract acceptances at 45% this year, so it will be interesting to compare the success of their Technical Session and Workshop programs to those at the EAGE event.