The American Bankers Association has scrapped its annual bank card conference, a 27-year tradition, in favor of one that will look at Internet payments.

The recast Future Payments conference, set for Sept. 12-15 in Chicago, is meant to be more forward-looking and relevant than was the card-centered format.

ABA officials denied that they were reacting to an audience falloff, but the last card conference, in Philadelphia, struck some observers as a shadow of its former self. Vendors complained about low attendance by bankers, bankers griped about the thinness of the program, and by Day Three much of the crowd had left town.

Future Payments "is a totally new conference and not a reformatted conference," said J. Douglas Adamson, executive director of the ABA's professional development group. "It represents the evolution of the card industry into something much broader."

The traditional "state of the association" addresses by Visa and MasterCard chief executives are gone. There will be an exploration of the role of consumer and commercial card payments in electronic commerce. Sample "themes" described in an ABA fact sheet are "The Battle for Control of Payment Portals" and "The E-Corporation and the New World of Customer- in-Control."

The opening speaker is to be Richard W. Vague, chairman and chief executive officer of First USA Bank, the Bank One Corp. subsidiary. Joel P. Friedman, managing partner at Andersen Consulting, is to lead a panel on electronic commerce, and representatives of First Annapolis Consulting are to present a study of investments in emerging technology.

Another scheduled speaker is McKinsey & Co. partner John Hagel 3d, co- author of "Net Worth: Shaping Markets When Customers Make the Rules."

The ABA has scheduled a prelude to Future Payments, E-Customer Forum, for July 19-20 in San Francisco. Co-sponsored by Business Week, this event is to "take a broad look at electronic customers and the way they are transacting business," Mr. Adamson said. Presentations are scheduled by and "all kinds of players in electronic commerce that are not exclusively focused on banking."

Future Payments would "take what we've learned from the E-Customer Forum and focus more specifically on the banking industry's role in electronic commerce," Mr. Adamson said.

He said the changes reflect consolidation and other trends in banking. "What we're looking at here is the convergence of three industries- information technology, banking, and telecommunications," Mr. Adamson said.

The ABA put considerable research into reshaping its agenda, Mr. Adamson said. It commissioned PSI Global of Tampa to survey past conference attendees, and it held focus groups with vendors and bankers.

Vendors and sponsors had become quite vocal about getting their money's worth. Some said they would not return to the card conference. One sales executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "If there are only 10 institutions in the industry that matter, I don't need a meeting like that to find them."

Mr. Adamson said a new sponsor list is taking shape, but he declined to name the companies.

"We addressed the concerns of both the exhibiting firms and the customers," Mr. Adamson said. "More customer data" have gone into the development of this program than for "any meeting I can recall we've done," he said.

Gerard Hergenroeder, group executive, director of marketing for the ABA, said, "Our membership has told us that they wanted to get broader in scope" than the topics covered at the card conference. "What we're planning here is much more focused in terms of the payment systems industry."

Card industry veteran Jerry D. Craft, president of Inficorp of Atlanta and an adviser to the ABA, said, "If you go back and look at the 50 largest players in credit cards two years ago, over half of them have changed either because the parent company has merged or they've sold their credit card portfolios."

The ABA is recognizing that "the payment systems role of the card has been elevated, as opposed to just pure lending," Mr. Craft said.

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