Former President George W. Bush apologized after abruptly correcting a moderator at Hart Energy's 2013 DUG East conference, before a crowd of more than 4,000 oil and gas executives.
"It's OK," replied Richard Mason, Hart Energy's chief technology director. "I have a wife. I'm used to getting corrected."
Hearing the crowd chuckle, Mr. Bush quipped, "Look, I'm the funny guy. Not you."
Mr. Bush was the headliner Nov. 14 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, drawing almost a dozen laughs during his "fireside chat" with Mr. Mason. He talked for almost an hour about issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan, the bank bailout, immigration overhaul, life after the presidency and his newfound love of painting.
The former oil executive spent less than three minutes talking about energy policy, though his listeners paid $995 a head for the two-day convention to learn about the newest technological advancements and regulations that could affect their investments.
But Mr. Bush's job was not to add another technical presentation in an already long day. His was to be "the funny guy," to give convention delegates an hour of recess during a long day of school. And at an estimated $150,000 per appearance, his work doesn't come cheap.
The oil and gas industry spends millions annually bringing in high-profile keynoters to their events, and Pittsburgh has seen the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, oil executive T. Boone Pickens and political consultant Karl Rove (twice), most of whom charge more than $50,000 per appearance. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett addressed the DUG East convention the same day as Mr. Bush, though he wasn't paid to do so.
Frequently, the speeches touch on energy only tangentially, but all of them have a cheerleading component.
"It's nice being in a room full of revolutionaries," Mr. Rove told the lunchtime crowd at DUG East's 2012 event.
At the most recent DUG East conference, Mr. Corbett praised the crowd for creating jobs and explained to the country's biggest oil and gas executives that directional drilling means going horizontally through the earth. He even swooped his hand through the air to demonstrate.
"I don't think the luncheon speakers are really there to add to our knowledge base," said Greg Wrightstone, a petroleum geologist based in Wexford. "No one knows our industry better than the people sitting there listening to the speakers. It's the high-profile celebrity that people don't otherwise get a chance to see."
Maybe the lunchtime celebrity isn't the reason you buy a conference ticket, but, as the president of Hart Energy, Richard Eichler, said at last year's conference, "It's at the luncheons that we get to have fun."
"Really, it's entertainment," said Andy Cohen, managing partner at the Collaborative Agency Group, a speakers bureau based in Newton, Mass. "These guys, they tend to bring in more conservative players because those are the ones that support policies that help them. You're not going to see many guys bring in [liberal pundit] Paul Begala, unless he's bringing a debate partner."
Indeed, between the DUG East conference, the Marcellus Shale Coalition's Shale Insight conferences in Philadelphia, and Hart's Marcellus Midstream conferences in Pittsburgh, the keynote politicians are most often high-profile Republicans, some still in office and some former leaders, who assure the crowd that they're doing a good and important job.
"The Marcellus boom isn't simply about advancing business, it's about advancing society," Mr. Corbett said at last year's Insight conference. "Real prosperity comes from the private sector, not from government spending."
Oftentimes, convention planners target a high-profile keynote speaker to generate media interest. And it works. Mr. Bush's visit generated a lot of media coverage.
"Any time there is a president, there is going to be a pull no matter what he's speaking about, no matter if you voted for him or not," said Mark Sonder, a lecturer of tourism studies at George Washington University and chief entertainment officer at Mark Sonder Productions, an event, entertainment and production company based in Alexandria, Va.
They lend credibility to convention planners, entice high-dollar sponsors with meet-and-greet opportunities and motivate convention delegates, Mr. Sonder said.
The oil and gas industry is not alone. Banking, medicine, software, education and even nonprofit groups are spending lots of money to bring in big-name keynote speakers. The financial services industry is one of the biggest spenders in the field.
"It puts energy to shame, frankly," said Mr. Cohen, whose firm represents speakers such as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, Watergate journalist Bob Woodward and TV host Anderson Cooper, among others.
Some engagements cost as much as $200,000 for big-name speakers, depending on the size of the crowd and the nature of the event.
Speakers bureaus big and small struggled during the recession, when businesses and trade groups cut back while planning conferences and retreats. But business has picked up in the past year and a half.
"This year, we're noticing more and more companies wanting that high-profile name," said Brittanny Kreutzer, co-founder of the Olathe, Kan.-based Speaker Exchange Agency, a firm that represents celebrities such as former first lady Barbara Bush, conservative pundit Sean Hannity, author Maya Angelou and former Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
Many of the speakers that have appeared at oil and gas conferences in Pittsburgh were plucked from the Washington Speakers Bureau, which represents Mr. Bush, journalist Ted Koppel, who moderated a panel during last year's Insight conference, and T. Boone Pickens, who headlined the lunchtime entertainment at the 2011 DUG East Conference.
Mr. Pickens, though an oil and gas industry veteran, stuck to mostly political and world affairs during his talk. He recalled drafting an energy plan for then presidential candidate Barack Obama using marker on a tablecloth and promised that "next time I'll write on the wall."
Mr. Rove, a close adviser to Mr. Bush during his presidency, is represented by the Harry Walker Speakers bureau, and his luncheon address at the 2012 DUG East convention sounded as if he were back in campaign mode.
"You're changing the face of the American economy," he said, "without waiting for the government to give you permission or guidance or a blueprint."
He regaled listeners with tales about quail hunting with veterans and shared a story he heard about a Navy SEAL who was severely injured in a gun fight in Iraq and volunteered to forfeit his bonus when the Navy asked him to re-enlist, since it was a noncombat position.
"How can you not be optimistic about a country that grows people like that?" Mr. Rove said. "If given the chance, we can overcome anything. You overcome it. You overcome the physical difficulties of drilling thousands of feet under the surface for hydrocarbons."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino. Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.