The National Operations and Automation Conference is dead.

Once the premier bank technology show, NOAC had been on life support in recent years, as attendance by bankers and vendors waned from a high of nearly 4,000 in 1987 to an estimated 2,400 last year.

The flagging numbers were enough to persuade the show's sponsor, the American Bankers Association, to retire the NOAC name in favor of Solutions '96.

The new moniker reflects a shift of focus from back-office topics, such as mail room operations, to subjects that affect bank retail customers more directly, such as electronic delivery channels.

But apparently the changes haven't convinced the industry of the conference's usefulness - at least not yet.

Fewer than 1,200 people are expected to show up Monday in San Antonio.

Still, Solutions '96 organizers expressed confidence that their program would reestablish the ABA's annual show as a must-attend event.

"The expectation is that word of the changes will get around and help the conference's turnaround," said Mark D. Johnston, director of business development at Checkfree Corp. and a member of the Solutions '96 planning committee.

By most accounts, conference organizers have some rocky years ahead. The reason is simple: Vendors are a major source of funds for conferences, and the vendors of bank technology are unhappy with this show's recent incarnations.

"The ABA just let NOAC go," said an executive at a bank technology firm who, like many interviewed for this article, asked not to be named. "They put no effort into adapting to the way the market changed, and that scared off the bankers."

On the basis of banker attendance and feedback from last year's NOAC, several technology companies - including Alltel Information Services Inc., Digital Equipment Corp., and Olivetti North America - have decided not to set up booths at Solutions '96.

This is the first absence from NOAC in many years for each of the three, officials said. And that is not an exhaustive list of those who will not attend.

On top of that, at least a half dozen other vendors said they plan to withdraw if this year's show does not improve on last year's. ABA officials said a certain amount of vendor pullouts are to be expected in any year, but observers said this year's runoff is far worse than the usual ebb and flow.

But vendors staying away this year said they were keeping an open mind.

"We have some people going this year to see how it goes, and we will evaluate our position," said a spokesman for one of the vendors that will not operate a booth.

He added that his company is rooting for the show to improve because "it is good to have a major conference in the spring," when many bankers are prepared to make technology buying decisions.

ABA executives said Solutions '96 does not have to return fully to its former glory in order to succeed. In fact, they said, it is unrealistic to expect attendance to approach what it was in the late 1980s, when some banks sent a hundred executives to NOAC without a second thought.

"Look, we're not going to go back to the days when 5,000 people came to this thing," said Mr. Johnston.

However, he said, the conference could be useful and successful if the program adjusts to changing times. Conference organizers said Solutions '96 does just that.

"It has adapted and changed. It is no longer a version of an old conference," said Dan M. Fisher, chairman of the Solutions '96 planning committee and a senior vice president at Victoria Bank and Trust, a unit of Norwest Corp.

"It is a completely reformulated program designed to provide a broad brush of solutions for the executive that is being asked to do more," Mr. Fisher said.

"No one has to kill NOAC, because the ABA already did," added Mr. Johnston. "This replaces NOAC."

Solutions '96 boasts several high-profile banking speakers, among them Denis J. O'Leary, Chase Manhattan Corp.'s chief information officer, and Colin Crook, Citicorp's head technologist.

It also features a roundtable discussion of outsourcing by the major vendors of such services to the banking industry: Alltel, Bisys Group Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp., Fiserv Inc., and M&I Data Services Inc.

Access to the vendor exhibit hall has been expanded, and there are fewer concurrent sessions than in years past.

The package is designed to give bankers a general view of the state of banking technology. This, the ABA said, should differentiate Solutions '96 from the myriad topical conferences that have emerged in recent years and drawn people from NOAC.

Vendors said this differentiation is important.

Holly Tilley, manager of marketing communications for Alltel, said her company is confronted with more conference choices than ever before.

For example, the Bank Administration Institute's Retail Delivery Systems conference has become the premier bank technology show. And a dizzying array of meetings also has sprung up around specific topics, such as electronic data interchange, data warehousing, and home banking.

With limited money to spend on exhibiting, vendors are being forced to pick their spots more carefully.

"If it's an either-or situation, we want to go with what the best show is," said Ms. Tilley. "This year it is an either-or situation."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.