When the American Bankers Association decided to shift the focus of its 27-year-old bank card conference to electronic commerce, its aim was to make the gathering more relevant and popular.

Instead, the first of the new-format Future Payments conferences, held last week in Chicago, seemed mired in an identity crisis. Was it an Internet conference or the old credit card meeting in disguise?

The explicit focus was on the Internet and how it could be a lost opportunity for banks if they let other companies use it to siphon customers. The speaker list drew from credit card companies as well as the electronic commerce world.

Straddling the old and new worlds, the event had lackluster attendance. The 1998 ABA bank card conference in Philadelphia drew 1,500; Future Payments, only 600. In Chicago there were 33 vendors in a much smaller exhibit hall, and many griped about the poor traffic (as they did last year). Several speakers canceled at the last minute, and unlike previous years' conferences, there were no lavish evening parties.

"The slate of speakers was excellent, but the jury is still out on the future of this conference," said Genie Driskill, senior vice president of research at Synergistics Research Corp. of Atlanta.

"This is sad," said Donna Embry, senior vice president of Vital Processing Services of Tempe, Ariz., a merchant processing firm and conference exhibitor.

Several factors may have abetted the poor turnout, Ms. Embry said. For one, the Electronic Transactions Association -- a trade group for processing and service companies in the credit card merchant-acquiring field -- no longer holds its conference just before the ABA in the same city. The result is ironic because the ETA used to rely on the critical mass of the ABA conference to attract its own audience.

Year-2000 system distractions may have played a role. And the Future Payments title may have been too nebulous to attract bankers, Ms. Embry said.

Some people may have thought, "Well, if it's the future, I'll be there next year," Ms. Embry said.

Among the card conference mainstays absent from the exhibit hall were MasterCard International, NCR Corp., Diebold Inc., Verifone Inc., and the major credit bureaus.

"This is a new conference for us," said Patricia J. Boerger, manager of public relations for the ABA. "We are planning to do it again next year."

The keynote speaker was Richard Vague who, as chairman and chief executive officer of Bank One Corp.'s First USA division, has come to personify the credit card industry's migration to the Internet.

His message was simple: The Internet is the future of the card business.

"Historically, we have thought of our mission in this business as competing against cash and checks," Mr. Vague said. "That is changing."

Some disagreed.

Whereas Mr. Vague's vision included the notion of an electronic wallet for simplifying on-screen shopping and payment choices, Bruce P. Brett, senior vice president of Wachovia Operation Services Corp., said electronic wallets "don't feel like a strategic issue."

Nevertheless, electronic wallet vendors were plugging their products in force, encouraging banks to get them in customers' personal computers in time for the Christmas season.

"Electronic wallets are in their infancy," said Nancy C. Goldberg, executive vice president of Cybercash Inc., which is a supplier to First USA. One increasingly popular variation is the permission wallet, which lets parents control where their children can shop on-line and how much they can spend.Ms. Goldberg predicted that consumers will try as many as four electronic wallets before settling on a favorite.

Electronic bill presentment is another way for banks to capture business on-line, according to conference speakers. Several start-ups have targeted this business and are beginning to "steal banks' lunch," said John McGuire, chief executive officer of Trintech Group, a Dublin-based company with offices in Campbell, Calif. It provides Internet payments software.

"Banks are losing a huge potential profit margin," said Mr. McGuire, whose company serves merchant-acquiring processors and banks, and counts Visa among its early investors.

He urged banks to provide bill presentment services directly rather than through service providers.

Stephan W. Pardue, vice president of marketing for the on-line banking systems company Security First Technologies, said banks can and should become customers' primary information source on the Web. He said people would probably be more loyal to the Web site that contains most of their personal financial information.

But Dan Springer, chief marketing officer of NextCard Inc. of San Francisco, said he is "skeptical" that banks have "a huge opportunity to be aggregators on the Internet, because of their lack of success in cross-selling financial products."

One carryover from the bank card conference was the presentation of distinguished service awards for lifetime achievement in the industry.

This year's honorees were Thomas O. Bennion, former president of Honor Technologies Inc., the Florida automated teller machine network that recently merged with Star System Inc., and Russell Hogg, former president and chief executive officer of MasterCard International Inc.

Mr. Bennion, who worked 14 years at Honor and 17 years at Southeast Bank of Miami, recently became vice chairman of Star's board of directors. The ABA commended him for setting in motion the consolidation of electronic funds transfer networks.

Mr. Hogg was president of MasterCard from 1980 to 1989. During those years Master Charge changed its name to MasterCard; bought the Cirrus ATM network; introduced gold cards, corporate cards, and travelers checks; and added holograms to the card design for security.

After leaving MasterCard, Mr. Hogg started a charity, the Institute for International Sports, which aims to help youths 16 to 18 years old.

Mr. Bennion and Mr. Hogg were honored at a private dinner before the conference and again during the proceedings. "Each of you has the challenge to take the Visa and the MasterCard trademarks, the most recognized trademarks in the world, to the next level in the electronic field," Mr. Hogg said during a brief acceptance speech.

Visa and MasterCard have been in a public scuffle with the regional ATM networks over debit card rules, interchange rates, and the like, but the tiff took a humorous turn during a session featuring the top executives of NYCE Corp. and Cash Station Inc.

An audience member asked whether the networks plan to raise merchant fees, perhaps to attract banks' transaction business away from the national card associations.

"Is that a Visa accent that you have?" asked Dennis Lynch, chief executive officer of NYCE, picking up on the questioner's British-sounding voice -- not unlike that of Malcolm Williamson, president of Visa International.

The new version of Visa's debit card, known as Visa check 2 and only lightly accepted so far, combines features of on-line and off-line debit. It has a lower off-line interchange rate than a regular Visa off-line card but a higher on-line rate than ATM cards.

Mr. Lynch said that the networks made their pricing attractive to get merchants to sign on but that now the networks must find a way to bring more value to their financial institution members.

"We don't make as much money for the issuers by a long shot," he said. "That's a dilemma, and we have to look at all the business opportunities by which we could help ameliorate that."

Merchants that embrace electronic check conversion at the point of sale benefit from lower bad check losses, lower handling costs, and faster processing all the way around, said Stephen A. Schutze, senior vice president of technology and operations at Bank of America.

But Mr. Schutze said check conversion -- transforming a paper check into an electronic debit at the checkout by scanning in pertinent data off the check -- could be short-lived. When customers begin writing out checks in stores only to have them handed right back, they may start to get annoyed, he said.

"How many times is this average consumer going to go through this before they say, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I paying to have checks printed that I'm going to get right back?' " Mr. Schutze said. "This whole scenario we're walking through may be a short-term that drives customers to use debit cards or credit cards."

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