Trying to shake off a bad case of the convention blahs, the American Bankers Association will put on a revamped show next week in an effort to rekindle interest in what once was the industry's premier event.

The city is new -- nobody at the ABA can recall its having met in Boston before -- and even the name is different. Now it is the ABA annual convention and banking industry forum.

But what is most significant is that the program content has been overruled. After years of bland presentations in which nary a discouraging word was spoken, the ABA plans to kick off the show Saturday with a discussion of why Americans hate banks.

Leading that session will be John McLaughlin, the imperious, booming-voiced moderator of television's "The McLaughlin Group." His guests include Rep. Barney Frank, the acerbic liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, and community development activist Allen Fishbein.

A Learning Experience

"It's a very different convention," said Donald G. Ogilvie, the ABA's executive vice president.

The ABA, Mr. Ogilvie said, has been surveying its members to find out what they want to see at an annual convention.

"I think everybody recognizes that bankers demand more education and value out of any meeting they attend," he said. "They expect to learn something that will help their bottom line."

To accommodate that view, the ABA has scheduled sessions that explain how to buy and sell community banks and how to reduce the risk of serving on a bank's board of directors.

Other sessions cover "balance sheet engineering," asset-liability management, and fee-income programs.

Interactive Opportunities

And in stark contract to past years, when general sessions were lights-off stage shows in which bankers were expected to watch and clap, this year's sessions will be interactive.

Hand-held devices will permit the audience to register opinions on various subjects. Bankers will be given an opportunity to express their views on the presidential race, for example, but not on issues such as what price they would be willing to pay to secure interstate branching powers or securities underwriting authority.

"I don't think we will use this particular forum for that," said Mr. Ogilvie. "That's what we have the bank leadership conference for."

The leadership conference brings together hundreds of bankers at different times during the year to set legislative and regulatory policy goals for the trade group.

4,000 Expected

So far, the ABA's leadership is pleased with its convention results. Attendance appears likely to hit 4,000, about the same as last year's show in San Francisco. That's not bad, considering that San Francisco is generally considered a more popular site than Boston.

Still, 4,000 is well below the 6,500 drawn to Dallas in 1987 and 8,600 a year earlier to Honolulu. And those numbers count not only bankers, but spouses, vendors, journalists and anybody else who shows up.

Most of those attending will be from community banks. An informal survey of the 25 largest institutions suggests that relatively few big-bank chief executive officer will be attending--a stark contract to the conventions of only a few years ago in which virtually every major figure in banking was present.

Notable Absentees

Citicorp's John Reed will be absent, as will Bankers Trust New York Corp.'s Charles Sanford, NationsBank Corp.'s Hugh McColl, and most of the other big bank chairmen.

But Fleet Financial Group's Terrence Murray and Chase Manhattan Corp.'s Thomas G. Labrecque will attend the convention.

Mr. Ogilvie isn't surprised. The changes in attendance patterns, he said, reflect changes in the industry.

"A lot of people went to conventions before because of the correspondent bank connection," he said. In the olden days, those interbank networks were so important that an annual convention was worth attending if only to maintain those ties.

"These days, those links have declined," he said, noting that a number of large banks have deemphasized correspondent business. Some have not.

"We're a correspondent bank, so a lot of our customers are there," said a spokesman for Chase Manhattan, which is sending a delegation of about 10 officers.

Political Overtones

In contrast, a spokesman for Mr. Reed said the Citicorp chairman isn't attending because the convention doesn't provide much in the way of a political forum.

"There are a lot of places where Reed has the opportunity to talk about banking to other bankers," the spokesman said.

Still, there will be events for the politically minded. Sunday evening will be clear for those who want to tune in the presidential debate. And the ABA has lined up two commentators to handicap the race on Saturday: Republican advertising maven Roger Ailes and Democratic consultant Bob Squier.

Even the Sunday morning fellowship gathering has political overtones: The featured speaker is Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator who mounted a strong challenge to Bill Clinton in the early Democratic presidential primaries.

The former lawmaker, who has recovered from what was once diagnosed as an incurable case of cancer, will discuss overcoming personal adversity through optimistic realism.

In the face of an increasing regulatory burden, unflattering reports on loan discrimination, and tightfisted examinations, bankers could use a little advice on coping with adversity.

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