By Andrew Hobbs, Group Editor

AUSTRALIAN Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) chairman Bruce Lake has relied on a common theme to promote the association’s 56th conference and exhibition in Brisbane this year.

“Tough times demand much more than belt-tightening. The best companies use hardship as a catalyst for innovation and forming new partnerships,” he said.

“At APPEA 2016, industry professionals can network, do business, share ideas and learn about new technologies and case studies that point the way forward.”

I have no doubt that he is correct – in the years I have attended, APPEA has been a highlight of the calendar, where the leaders of the Australian oil and gas industry get together to discuss the future of the industry and how things can be done better.

The Australasian Oil & Gas Exhibition & Conference (AOG), the South East Asia Australia Offshore & Onshore Conference (SEAAOC) and even the 18th International Conference and Exhibition on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG18), APPEA’s peers in the exhibition space, each have their own merits and a target audience among the many groups that contribute to the industry.

But each of these events have a common trait – they are strongly marketed to potential attendees as networking opportunities – where the meetings one might have on the sidelines of the event could be just as important as the event itself.

Meetings such as these feature in the findings of a study into how Queensland’s coal seam gas fields affected local small businesses, about which associate professor John Steen of the University of Queensland’s business school will address the APPEA conference.

Dr Steen found that regional businesses needed to develop close connections with each other and with the operators in the region.

Whether this was through local industry associations, chambers of commerce or in broader meetings organised by the operator themselves, having operators engaged with the local business community was helpful across the board, the study found.

There could also be room for services to help small businesses become more resilient to change in order to improve their prospects – with the development of network partnerships and strategic planning abilities as well as company reserves being a key part of this.

In his interview with Oil & Gas Australia, Dr Steen cited examples of programs which clearly communicated a company’s future plans and future needs as a way to support regional economies.

These could include future development plans, drilling sequences and needs in terms of technology and pre-qualification processes, he added.

“Obviously there is some commercial in confidence stuff they can’t talk about, but – what are they doing? What are they having challenges with?” he said.

But once they have this information, it is up to small businesses to help themselves by developing strategic partnerships or new ideas to better meet these company needs.

In our Services and Supply Chain feature, journalist Sarah Byrne meets some companies that have done just that – with OGS Group using new technology to make its work more visible to all stakeholders, and Nexxis adapting its company model to meet the demands of operators with fewer resources than before.

Where companies adapt to the changing circumstances by shifting their product offering and in finding new efficiencies, they are also collaborating to take joint efficiencies to project operators.

But to make the most of this companies need an opportunity to build these connections in the first place – in places where ideas flow and industry professionals are free to pursue innovation.

There is cause to believe some groups would get more out of a boardroom than a conference centre – where smaller niches of the industry can get together and discuss their options during a one to two hour meeting.

Events such as these are already co-ordinated by smaller industry organisations, but arguably the development of business incubators and development workshops will also help to advance innovative thinking.

Conferences will always be vital for the spread of new ideas, for hearing from leading industry figures and to meet colleagues in the industry – but they should not be treated as the be all and end all for collaboration across industry.

After all, there is plenty of time for networking drinks after the working day is done.