You are seated at a bagel-shaped table in a circular room listening to a multimedia presentation about your corporate goals. Your host stands up to press a button near the door.
With a click., the curved walls begin to unfold around you, revealing a larger room that could pass for a high-tech department store. Giant-screen televisions broadcast colorful images from the Internet; interactive loan kiosks stand near a display of smart cards; mock-ups of a living room and an executive office surround a model of a call center.
The setting is Andersen Consulting's Financial Ideas Ex-change, a technology theme park for high-ranking executives.
"It's like a trip to Disney World," said Robert T. Brockbank, managing director of retail banking systems and planning at Chase Manhattan Corp., who visits the site regularly. "Every time we go there, we seem to come away with a different idea."
It is not the only such living laboratory for banking delivery technologies - NCR Corp. has its Financial Services Knowledge Lab in London, John Ryan Co. its Merlin Project in Connecticut. But Andersen put up its futuristic promontory in the middle of New York City. With a striking 19th-floor view of Rockefeller Center, it is open by invitation to representatives of Andersen's 400 to 500 "Tier One" clients around the world. Visits to the exchange are free to the companies that are already paying hefty consulting fees.
William E. Storts, managing partner and the Financial Ideas Exchange's master of ceremonies, who previously was Andersen's relationship partner for Banc One in Columbus, Ohio, moved to New York to establish the center.
"When you're working with senior executives, it helps the thought processes when you can bring things to life - really touch and feel - the capabilities of technology," he said.
The idea was that corporate brass would view the Financial Ideas Exchange as a comfortable place to roll up their sleeves, hash out knotty technology problems with experts, then unwind over poached salmon and white wine.
"We target senior executives," Mr. Storts said. "Last quarter we had 27 CEOs, which I was proud of.
"The CEOs love it because it's one of the few places they can go and put their hands on everything."
Before their merger, executives from Chase Manhattan Corp. and the former Chemical Banking Corp. used to stop by regularly for respites from the reorganization rigors. The London Stock Exchange has rented the facility to show to its own clients. Chase recently brought a delegation of 50 French bankers in for a telephone banking demonstration, then whisked them to Jericho, on Long Island, to see the Chase call center.
The Andersen tour begins in an art-deco-style foyer that is permeated by the lush drone of a glassed-in waterfall. Mr. Storts and his colleagues show off a wall of bank memorabilia, including a check Charles Dickens wrote in 1860 for five pounds, from an account at Coutts & Co.
A British visitor - Queen Elizabeth's husband - was particularly impressed by the display, since his family still banks with Coutts & Co.
"When Prince Philip came through," Mr. Storts recalled, "he wanted to know how to use an ATM."
A door near the wood-paneled history wall leads into the circular "boardroom," where a ring of pea-green, high-backed leather chairs beckons.
"This room was designed to put the financial services executives at ease," Mr. Storts said. "We try to force clients to go out of their environments and think creatively."
Once ensconced, the executives are treated to a slide show featuring Andersen's interpretation of their corporate goals. Often Mr. Storts ends with a color image of the distinctive opera house in Sydney, Australia.
"We tell them, 'That's year 2000 - the Sydney Olympics - so you'd better have your act together soon," Mr. Storts said.
At the climactic moment, the walls part and the futuristic delivery systems come into view. Executives rise from their seats and tour the enlarged area.
The first stop is an interactive loan kiosk, a sample of one used in Britain. Customers can also make travel arrangements and talk to service representatives through the kiosk.
"I could actually book a holiday through this kiosk," said Jonathan M. Gray, a London-based Andersen consultant who sometimes comes to New York to show off the technology. "We're now changing the branch process by hiring the customer to do the work for us."
Next comes a stroll past a smart card display, where executives can examine the Mondex wallet and other products. Another exhibit, featuring several airplane seats, shows how business can and will be conducted in midair.
Then the Andersen staff scatters to various dioramas - a living room with a giant-screen television, an office, a call-center operator's station - to demonstrate their call center technology. They also wheel in a wall- sized electronic flow chart to illustrate how the performance of each call center operator can be measured.
Across the room is an Internet display, with a row of screens mounted in tall kiosks. In the center is a set of mirthful and unusual stools that bend and compress when one sits on them.
To demonstrate electronic commerce, the Andersen executives show Web pages - most not yet commercially available - from which consumers will be able to buy video games or listen to rock songs while they purchase recorded music.
"To some CEOs we'll show their own home page and they haven't seen it, or they don't even know it's out there," said Andrew J. Hosking, an associate partner who works as director of operations at Andersen.
Lunch typically follows, then a visit to the "strategy room." Walls of white boards surround a waist-high table that looks like a board game. Bank executives pick up chips the size of shuffleboard disks and place them on the table's grid to indicate where they view themselves in the context of their competition. Some chips are labeled with bank names - Security First Network Bank, Citicorp, Banc One - and others are blank, so that CEOs can set them down near the labels they favor on the grid, like "complete standardization" or "proprietary systems."
"This is about very complex topics, and we put it into something you can visualize," Mr. Storts explained. "This is not a trip to the zoo."
The final stop is what Mr. Storts described as the "suitability/usability lab and multipurpose room." A one-way mirror lets bankers watch people try out new products, or look in on focus groups.
On the way out, the Andersen staff points to a brass plaque on the wall naming the technology companies that have helped outfit the Financial Ideas Exchange: Xerox, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and Gemplus, among others.
"I visit a lot of vendors, and with most of them it's like visiting an automobile showroom - you get to see the hardware on display," said Mr. Brockbank of Chase.
With Andersen, he said, "You see the hardware as a participant in a much larger process, whether it's linking somebody to the Internet or simulating some sort of customer service."
Some visitors come with specific objectives in mind. If the bankers are interested in call centers, the entire floor can swiftly be turned into one. When the topic is cyberspace, "We can drop a screen around you and have you fly around," Mr. Storts said.
KeyCorp's interest was branch automation.
"They set up a mini-branch for us," said Allen J. Gula Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Key Services Corp., the technology arm of KeyCorp.
Mr. Gula said he was "very impressed" by his tours. "It's one thing to talk about ideas and concepts, but it's another to show it."
KeyCorp executives so enjoyed their visits they plan to replicate Andersen's center in their Cleveland headquarters.
"We're going to build a mini-branch, a mock-up of a family room, a mock-up of an office, so we can show the same technologies," Mr. Gula said. "We'll show it to internal and external customers and investment analysts.
"If you were visiting us and we were talking about our call center, we might take you there to show it to you hands-on."
Andersen Consulting has about 20 "centers" around the world geared toward helping executives make the right decisions. The Financial Ideas Exchange in New York is the only one dedicated to banking-style technology.
"I've lived in or near New York all my life and I've never been to the Statue of Liberty, but I've been to the ideas exchange about 10 times," Mr. Brockbank said. "Every time I go, they seem to have something different."