Step right up. Witness the greatest display of marketing tactics the financial services world has to offer. Humans wrestling alligators, men of magic turning dollars into hundred dollar bills. Take a chance and win a BMW or a painting.

Just step inside, ladies and gentlemen. Enjoy the show.

More than ever, the Bank Administration Institute's annual Retail Delivery Show sported a carnival atmosphere as swarms of technology and bank software companies jammed the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

Having spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on their booths, the exhibitors' thrust, as always, was on how to get the attention of the thousands of attendees. The gimmicks were ubiquitous.

At Sun Microsystem's booth, a magician made his youthful female assistant disappear every 30 minutes. Hordes of Sun exhibitors stood at the boundaries of the booth, persuading onlookers to stop and watch the show.

It was a marketing coup. The show was difficult, if not impossible to ignore: a big stage and a loud magician. The audience, usually large, was provoked into feedback. The boisterous emcee had the crowd screaming, "Sun! Sun!" As he described the innovations that helped Sun put the "dot in dot-com," he turned dollar bills into hundred dollar bills. And there was a bonus for all: a free Sun T-shirt.

The fun went on. FISI-Madison Financial and Funds Xpress Financial raffled off a bright red BMW 325 CI convertible. It was won by a gleeful Kathy Cady, senior vice president of member services for California Coast Credit Union in San Diego. FISI-Madison Financial claims the car was the most valuable giveaway in the history of RDS.

Meanwhile, Unisys, one of the convention's sponsors, took up enough space to hold a golf course. Attendees could practice their shots at putting greens, and swings were analyzed by a golf pro. Away from the floor, on the second level of the Convention Center, the "Unisys Country Club" sported an 18-hole golf course. Each hole represented a different Unisys software "solution."

In addition to the golf, Unisys sponsored Cyber Cafes, which were spread around the convention center, giving attendees free access to e-mail and the Internet.

And then there was Fiserv Inc. The company offered cash prizes from its "money machine" booth. Attendees could jump inside the machine, about the size of a phone booth, and try to grab cash. Swirling winds made it a tough challenge.

More common giveaways were bouncing balls with colored lights and glow-in-the-dark yo-yos.

Show biz was not limited to the exhibition hall. As the convention program formally opened, dancers floated across a scarcely lit stage, which was reminiscent of the bridge of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise. They stomped, they tapped and they sang--about banking, no less--while video confessions of disgruntled bank customers periodically interrupted the spectacle.

It wasn't clear the audience appreciated it. Much of the crowd applauded only half-heartedly. And it wasn't clear whether all the glitter and all the gimmicks actually sold any products.


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