Fear and loathing in the lobby

The subhead to Hunter S. Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is ”A savage journey to the heart of the American Dream.” If the real American Dream is to live a life of comfort and mobility, then oil has to be at the center of it.
For journalists who travel to Vienna several times each year to cover the OPEC meetings, Tuesday is the most important part of that assignment. It’s dubbed ”lobby day” and consists of hours and hours of sitting around waiting for ministers to arrive at their respective hotels, punctuated by brief fits of frenzied questioning when they do. It’s boring until it’s exhilarating. And a reporter’s worst fear is taking a quick bathroom break and missing all the action.
Even though the oil cartel officially meets at its headquarters on Wednesday, it is when the ministers arrive in town on Tuesday that reporters have a chance to corner them to ask questions.
Some care about the price of oil, others about whether OPEC will cut production. But Tuesday is also a time to shout out big picture questions, too. Are the Saudis on track to expand their production? Can China’s demand for crude hold up? What other markets can Venezuela send massive amounts of crude to if not the U.S.? You get the idea.
The ministers don’t stand still for long. They whisk into the lobbies of hotels from their towncars and limos like they’re rock stars, and are instantly mobbed by journalists from Paris, New York, Tokyo and Dubai.
The ensuing scrum can be brutal. Sometimes, amid the crush of cameramen and notebook toting journalists, shoving matches break out and reporters have been known to trip over a garbage can or luggage rack and land in a mess on the marble floor. Lobby roadkill.
It’s all part of the job. There are daily newspaper reporters, those from the energy trade magazines and wire service reporters from outfits like Bloomberg, Dow Jones and Reuters. Almost all have to be aggressive. They are racing to report any meaningful statement back to editors in London or New York or Singapore and they’re judged by who can break even one sentence of news first to the traders and financial community so hungry for any bit of information that could move the oil market. Mere seconds matter.
But between arrivals, boredom sets in. And that’s what is happening around 2 p.m. Vienna time today before the Venezuelans, Qataris and Saudis arrive this afternoon.
Unlike Thompson’s narcotics-laced tale, the only drugs present in the lobby today – at least to the naked eye – are caffeine and nicotine. But they are swilled and smoked in abundance this afternoon and they’re starting to take effect.
The Venezuelans should be here any minute and this lobby full of reporters is keyed up and ready to pounce.

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