The first time the Electronic Transactions Association held a conference, 34 people showed up, and the highlight was a scuffle between a board member and a sales agent who refused to pay a registration fee until he determined the conference was worth it.

That was in San Diego in 1991, a year after the ETA's founding as an interest group for people who sell bank card processing and acceptance services to merchants. At the time, these smaller merchant acquirers had what they themselves say was an unsavory reputation, based on pockets of abuse.

The ETA was a brainchild of Charles Burtzloff, chief executive officer of CardService International Inc. of Agoura Hills, Calif., who hoped to bring spit and polish to the industry. If attendance by acquiring executives and major vendors is any measure, the association continues to gain attention and legitimacy: the recent midyear conference in Baltimore, held Aug. 19 to 21, drew a record 800 people, and 1,000 are expected at an annual meeting next March in Las Vegas.

The association now has more than 200 member companies, accounting for more than 75% of all credit card processing nationally. But "we always remember from where we came," said Charles M. Creamer, this year's ETA president, and senior vice president at the Michigan Retailers Association in Lansing, Mich.

In a speech titled "The Future of Card Associations," electronic banking consultant Charles Marc Abbey promised to say "something to offend everybody."

For card association loyalists, the offense no doubt came with the observations that Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International -- while still the most powerful entities in the credit card payment system -- have lost market power in the last decade, and that the "acceptance gap" between them and the nonbank card brands is narrowing.

For acquirers, there was the prediction that industry changes and the outcome of two major legal proceedings could have a "huge negative impact" on their industry.

Mr. Abbey, a principal at First Annapolis Consulting in Linthicum, Md., said merchant acquirers and processors have "a vested interest in the status quo." He outlined several "disaster scenarios" for the acquiring business:

In what Mr. Abbey called the "Citibank factor," Citigroup Inc. could decide to use its newfound muscle at MasterCard to diminish the influence of both associations and "perhaps ultimately to marginalize them as acceptance, authorization, settlement, and clearing utilities."

If Citibank or other major issuers decided to take their volume to American Express, the acquiring industry could lose 20% to 30% of its earnings, Mr. Abbey said.

If the nation's retailers win their class action against Visa's and MasterCards' off-line debit products, those products -- and the acquirers who handle them -- could lose market share to the automated teller machine networks' on-line debit cards. On-line debit cards produce lower-margin transactions for acquirers, and this outcome could shave 10% or more off industry earnings, Mr. Abbey said. However, he said he would be surprised if retailers won the lawsuit, now pending in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York.

If the Department of Justice prevailed in its antitrust case against Visa and MasterCard -- now in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York -- and duality were abolished, acquirers could be drawn into the fray by policymakers who do not understand the distinctions between issuing and acquiring banks, Mr. Abbey said. In the worst case, a merchant could be required to have a separate acquirer for each card brand. But Mr. Abbey predicts "rationality will prevail" and duality will remain intact.

In contrast to the larger-scale annual ETA exposition, the midyear conference included 38 exhibitors in what the association called a "more intimate setting" for showcasing products and services. Among the exhibitors were First Data Merchant Services Corp., Vital Processing Services, Verifone Inc., and Hypercom Corp.

Hypercom used the opportunity to introduce a new product: SmartICE, a handheld, wireless card payment and order entry terminal. The Phoenix-based terminal and software provider is touting SmartICE as ideal for businesses that want to bring the payment system directly to the consumer: car rental companies, stadiums, medical facilities, restaurants, or taxi companies.

The terminal, to be available in January, can handle credit, debit, smart card, electronic benefits transfer, and fleet card transactions. Models can be ordered to support different communications options, including a variety of wide area network and wireless technologies.

SmartICE can also be adapted to support electronic signature and receipt capture, storage, and retrieval, and loyalty-card-based applications.

For example, in a restaurant the menu could be downloaded from a personal computer to a waiter's SmartICE terminal. The waiter would input the customer order, and SmartICE would communicate it to the kitchen. When the order is ready for pickup, the kitchen signals the waiter's SmartICE; when the customers finish their meal, the waiter could use SmartICE to let them pay the bill right at the table.

"SmartICE is easy to use, and the card, cash or other payment method remains in the cardholder's possession throughout the transaction," said Jairo E. Gonzalez, managing director of global sales and marketing for Hypercom.

When ETA organizers named their conference "Strategic Success on the Playing Field," it created lots of opportunity for sports puns, particularly those relating to baseball legend Babe Ruth, who was born in Baltimore.

Appropriately, the event was also punctuated with golf-related activities.

Day One included a golf tournament sponsored by Verifone, the Hewlett-Packard subsidiary, with prizes awarded the next day. But when Mr. Creamer announced the tournament winners, none were present in the lecture hall where the speeches were being delivered, prompting him to wonder aloud at just how much educational value the golfers were gleaning from the conference.

About 50 people -- mostly golfers -- did show up for the last speech of the ETA convention, given by a woman who describes herself as a "business golf consultant," Suzanne Woo of Bizgolf Dynamics in Berkeley, Calif.

Ms. Woo, an attorney who said she turned her "passion for golf" into her profession, talked about how to conduct business on the golf course. "Do's" included letting the client bring up business first, and checking course conditions in advance to avoid embarrassment. "Don'ts" included wagering on the game, and bringing a cellular telephone.

If, however, a client neglects to turn the conversation to business matters, the host may delicately steer matters that way. When to pitch the sale? Ms. Woo suggests between the sixth and 13th holes.

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