The National Bank Card Conference is getting a makeover.

Acknowledging that one of its major meetings has lost luster in recent years, the American Bankers Association is out to create a distinctly different impression at the 1995 event, scheduled for Sept. 10-13 in New York.

In a nod to the past, this 24th annual edition will include a gala dinner to confer distinguished service awards on three industry luminaries, the start of a hall-of-fame-like honor role.

Looking ahead, the ABA is working with Mitre Corp. to create an Internet demonstration room, open throughout the conference, where participants can get a hands-on introduction to business opportunities and payments in cyberspace.

And in the conventional part of the program, planners went to great lengths to revamp the seminar structure and open it up for the first time in years to nonbank rivals like American Express. (See box at upper right.)

Officials at the ABA and bankers active in its card area deny there is any emergency. "All the numbers are still good," said James Shanahan, a consultant who played a key role in conference planning.

But the reformatting effort took on great urgency. Mr. Shanahan, from the Business Dynamics consulting firm of Nyack, N.Y., was called in relatively late to help design and implement the changes.

"It's a broader conference, and it had to be," Mr. Shanahan said last week. "It's not just bankers anymore, and it's not just credit cards.

"There's a realization that what has happened in other parts of the banking business - the loss of market share in savings and commercial lending, for example - could also happen in cards and payment systems, and this conference reflects that.

"If we kept this conference the same as it's been for the last five years," Mr. Shanahan continued, "it would wither away."

"I wouldn't call what we did a reaction to any 'change or perish' feedback we may have gotten," said Keith Coughey, group vice president for credit cards at PNC Bank Corp. and chairman of the association's bank card executive committee.

"We want to be proactive and make sure we remain as fresh and relevant as we can be, and not get complacent."

Mr. Coughey and others connected with the ABA meeting play down the notion that they are responding to competition from other conferences. But the momentum is clearly with the Bank Administration Institute's Retail Delivery Systems Conference in December, the fast-growing Cardtech- Securtech conference in the spring, and several popular forums held by newsletter publisher Faulkner & Gray.

The ABA card conference remains the biggest in the consumer banking and payments area, Mr. Coughey said. Registrations are running ahead of last year and total attendance could surpass 2,000. Though only a few hundred will be bankers, that's enough to sell out the exhibit hall for the fifth year in a row, with 140 companies staking out 280 booth spaces.

Chuck Cogar, the ABA associate director responsible for relationships with service members and suppliers, said the ratio of companies to booths has risen in recent years, which, aside from benefiting the association's bottom line, indicates there is "more technology that they want to show."

Despite the healthy numbers, the ABA has faced considerable grumbling from the vendor community.

"A lot of the impetus for the changes we are implementing came from the exhibitor side," Mr. Cogar said. "They wanted us to appeal more to the emerging parts of the business. The credit card business is seen as mature."

The advice was taken right into the agenda, which carries a theme that goes well beyond cards: "Electronic Commerce: Positioning for Tomorrow."

On arrival day, Sunday, Sept. 10, "Internet Business Guide" author Rosalind Resnick will lead a two-hour "Internet Primer." The idea is to expose the audience to the realities of leading-edge technology that they may only have read about, and encourage further explorations at the 15 workstations in Mitre Corp.'s demo room, which includes computers from International Business Machines Corp. and network linkages through MCI Communications Corp.

Mitre personnel will be on hand to "supervise surfing," Mr. Cogar said.

"This will be one of the things that will make the conference stand out," Mr. Shanahan said. "If you want to create an industry, you have to know the grassroots experience, and many people in this business don't yet have that."

Mr. Shanahan said the ABA also wanted to seek out new voices and otherwise counter a growing disenchantment with conferences - "the idea that they always have the same people and don't break new ground."

The meeting does away with "breakout sessions," dividing the time instead among major speeches, panel discussions, and smaller "discussion groups" that will be led by "facilitators rather than presenters," Mr. Shanahan said. This will foster the networking and idea-sharing that bankers say they go to conferences for, he said.

The conference continues its tradition of opening the Monday session with a noted business thinker. This year's keynote speaker will be Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard professor and author of "The Change Masters," courtesy of First Data Corp.'s sponsorship.

Yankelovich Group futurist Watts Wacker and IBM finance industry manager Robert M. Howe will also give major addresses, and Kenneth Howes, a card group executive at London-based HSBC Holdings, will provide a "global overview."

William Gregor, vice president of Gemini Consulting, will lead a Monday panel on technology's role in development of future payment systems. The speakers will include Fred Gumbel of Electronic Data Systems Corp. and David Van Lear of Electronic Payment Services Inc.

The most telling product of the new format may come the next day in the panel called "The Importance of the Brand: Key Asset or Bottleneck to Growth?" Mr. Shanahan's partner at Business Dynamics, Joanne Black, will be moderator for Anne Busquet of American Express Co., Dudley Nigg of Wells Fargo Bank, John Delany of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Nikki Waters of Star System Inc., the California-based electronic banking network.

As in past years, the presidents of Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard's U.S. region will close the show. They were asked to speak on electronic commerce rather than give "state of the association" addresses, a strategy Visa's Carl Pascarella said he prefers to the "rah-rah" tendencies of the past. It will be the first conference appearance for Alan Heuer of MasterCard.

Will the freshness of the program carry over into the exhibit halls? Many suppliers are already expressing concern about cramped quarters at the New York Hilton Hotel, with exhibits spread across three cavernous floors. But in contrast to the ABA's operations conference in June, where banker attendance sagged, none are threatening to pull out.

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