The banking industry's premier operations conference is moving to sharpen its focus in an effort to reignite waning interest from bankers and vendors.

The American Bankers Association, which runs the National Operations and Automation Conference, is placing more emphasis on community banking and high-technology issues in this year's program, which begins today in Orlando.

The conference, a long-time indicator of bank operations trends, had been criticized as too broad, paying too much attention to the lower-tech side of operations - mailrooms, check processing, and the like.

Many attribute a drop in attendance during the late 1980s and early 1990s to the proliferation of niche-oriented conferences.

But organizers said the conference - this year dubbed "Technology-Based Banking: Forging the Links to Your Customers" - is still the main gathering for the banking operations community, and they rejected rumors of sliding banker attendence.

John C. Hall, a spokesman for the ABA, characterized the conference as a "supermarket for bank technology," adding that "NOAC has been remaking itself for the past four years."

Mr. Hall conceded that the ratio of bankers to exhibitors and other attendees has dropped - about 60% of this year's attendees are expected to be bankers, compared with about 70% to 75% in the late 1980s.

Much of this dropoff he attributed to consolidation in the banking industry. The larger banks that a decade ago sent as many as 50 representatives to the show are now sending one or two, he said.

Given this situation, conference officials have begun playing increasingly to community bankers. Representatives from smaller institutions now attend NOAC in greater numbers than before, largely because of the conferences focus on their needs.

Linda Elenbaas, this year's NOAC chairwoman and a vice president for information services at First Michigan Bank Corp., said the conference still achieves its goal of acting as a weather vane for the industry. She considers this to be a continuing need as other forums become increasingly specific.

She noted, however, that NOAC has changed its attitude in several ways.

It will offer an interactive video session during the keynote, a presentation by the Gartner Group consulting firm on PC-based operating systems, and a speech by Scott Cook, chief executive of the personal finance software company Intuit Inc.

To give vendors a better forum to display their wares, this year's version of NOAC will include demonstration theaters designed for specific exhibitors.

But for all this modification, NOAC is still battling to hold its place as a preeminent, must-go scene in the banking technology world.

Citing a drop in attendance by high-ranking bank executives, at least two major vendors have pulled out of NOAC. Sources say that several others are either doing the same or decreasing their presence.

The most significant of the no-shows is AT&T Global Information Solutions Inc.

Robert L. Donald, the company's assistant vice president in charge of financial industry marketing, said the decision not to exhibit was simply " a change in strategy." AT&T GIS plans to attend only one major banking conference this year: the Retail Delivery Systems show sponsored by the Bank Administration Institute.

He said the company is skipping NOAC because it is "more operations- focused ... and RDS better represents the diversification of delivery channels."

Another defector is Broadway & Seymour Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based technology company. It will dispatch only three of its employees to the show this year, and it does not plan to exhibit, according to Virginia Wiese, manager of marketing services for the company. Ms. Wiese is a former chair for NOAC's exhibitor committee.

Costing the company $40,000 to $50,000 a year, NOAC is too expensive a proposition for Broadway & Seymour, given the number of bankers expected to attend this year.

Ms. Wiese said the preshow mailing list she received three weeks ago had only 387 names, about 50 of which were consultants or vendors as opposed to bankers. She said the same list last year contained almost twice the number of bankers.

ABA executives appeared unconcerned about the vendors that have withdrawn or scaled back their presence.

"We've had large companies drop out," Mr. Hall said in reference to losing vendors. "And they usually come back the next year."

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