If this year's version of the Bank Administration Institute's flagship conference is any indication, retail banking is entering a new era.

Attendance at Retail Delivery '97, which kicks off in earnest today in New Orleans, is at an all-time high. About 9,500 people are expected, 3,500 of them bankers.

The population explosion-there should be at least 20% more attendees than last year-comes as little surprise to those who follow retail banking closely.

The last year has seen banks interacting with technology companies and nonbank financial services firms as never before, and the conference has become the place for bankers to catch up on what they might have missed and to get a jump on what is to come.

"This is the most important banking conference, and over time has not only been viewed that way by the industry but also by investors," said Thomas K. Brown, vice president at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

Rockwell Clancy, BAI's executive vice president, said the retail delivery conference has become to banking what Comdex is to the computer industry-a mammoth, must-attend event.

Though the show can be overwhelming-over 350 exhibitors will be on hand- it offers a chance to put the avalanche of partnerships and contracts into perspective.

With this year's program, BAI aims to show how technology advancements fit into an overall retail banking strategy. The most obvious sign of this broadened focus is the shortening of the conference's name from Retail Delivery Systems to simply Retail Delivery '97.

Another sign of this is the speakers' list. Those delivering general- session presentations tend to be chief executive officers rather than chief information officers or operations managers. Scheduled presenters include Edward E. Crutchfield of First Union Corp.; Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp.; Paul Hazen of Wells Fargo & Co.; Lewis E. Platt of Hewlett-Packard Co.; and John Cleghorn of Royal Bank of Canada.

Though the conference will focus on new ways to deliver services, James M. McCormick, president of First Manhattan Consulting Group, said banks should be practical about the kinds of technology they purchase.

Financial institutions need to "look for approaches to slow down the attrition of the most profitable customers and for solutions for reducing the losses from the 40% to 50% of customers who are now unprofitable to serve," he said.

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