When Northern Trust Corp. opened in Florida some 15 years ago, it tried to underscore its exclusivity by copyrighting the term "The Private Bank."
But today, some say "The Party Bank" would be more appropriate.
Northern is host to several big bashes a year, ranging from concerts on exclusive Fisher Island to soirees where Julie and David Eisenhower address the crowd.
The Florida outlet of Chicago-based Northern Trust is not alone in coming out of its social shell. No longer content to sit at their desks and wait for referrals, private bankers are stepping out. They are organizing events at which they can reach out to new customers and get better acquainted with old ones.
Bankers Trust New York Corp.'s private bank, for example, recently formed a business development group to organize special events, such as a fly-fishing expedition for women.
"There is so much competition" especially from nonbanks, said Alessandra Di Giusto, a Bankers Trust vice president. Lawyers and accountants are increasingly sending their wealthy clients to brokerages and investment management firms, forcing more traditional private bankers to act.
Previously, most private banking parties were dull affairs, consisting of seminars on investing and managing money. Today they are more likely to be lavish events held at off-beat locales - on yachts, in museums or embassies. Current clients are encouraged to bring their friends, who bankers hope to mine for additional business.
Of course, entertaining the wealthy is not cheap. Though private bankers would not reveal what they spend on special events, they were quick to say that whatever the cost, the strategy is worth it.
"They pay off for us, or obviously we wouldn't do it," said Ray E. Marchman Jr., Northern Trust of Florida's senior vice president.
Northern's Florida unit is one of the most active banks on the social scene. It sponsors events for the Concert Association of Florida on Fisher Island, throws wine-tastings and art shows with Sotheby's and Christie's, and hosts Miami's annual "Northern Forum," where the Eisenhowers are set to speak to some 1,200 guests next year.
Mr. Marchman said about 30% of the guests who attend Northern's events become clients. To keep costs down, the bank constantly updates its invitation list; guests who attend three or four events and don't become clients are dropped, Mr. Marchman said.
Banks have also found another way to keep entertainment expenses in check: They require their guests to pick up the tab.
Last year Peter E. "Tony" Guernsey, managing director of domestic private banking for Union Bank of Switzerland, personally organized a weeklong golf game in Scotland and Ireland for current and prospective clients. The bank did not sponsor the trip; the golfers had to pay their own way.
"This game of golf is very important," Mr. Guernsey said. "There is very rarely a chance at the opera or theater to spend four or five hours with a client talking."
According to Mr. Guernsey, UBS was the big winner of last year's game. Six participants, with an aggregate net worth of $6 billion, are now clients.
At Northern Trust, Floridians are clamoring to join the Brickell Avenue Literary Society, a group the bank modeled after New York's tony Park Avenue Literary Society. Despite its annual membership dues - $200 per person and $300 per couple - the Florida group has a waiting list of 200 people. Northern Trust of Illinois has recently launched a similar group, dubbed the Heartland Literary Society.
"We do not put out a pitch at these events, but because officers attend them they become familiar to prospects," Mr. Marchman said. "We're going after the kind of prospective client where you really need one-on-one contact. They don't respond to an ad in a daily paper."
Ms. DiGiusto at Bankers Trust espoused a similar philosophy."If you come up with a unique program, you get a higher response rate per dollar spent versus an ad or direct mail," she said.
Unlike advertisements, events can effectively target a small, upscale segment of the population, Ms. DiGiusto added. Bankers Trust, for example, is the official sponsor of the Hampton Classic Horse Show, a hunter-and- jumper competition held over the Labor Day weekend on Long Island.
Observers, however, say it is difficult to gauge how successful these events are.
"I have no idea if it pays off. I'm not sure if anyone does, either," said Charles B. Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting. "Everybody thinks they need to do it because everybody else is doing it."
But not Bank of New York. Its private bank stays out of the party limelight. It markets itself by introducing current and prospective private clients to its chairman, J. Carter Bacot.
"We take the quieter, more personal approach," a spokesman said.
That puts Bank of New York squarely in the minority. Other private banks have been pulling out all of the stops to impress their clients.
Earlier this year, Credit Suisse's North American private bank hosted a nautical slumber party aboard the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy during Fleet Week, the U.S. naval forces' annual celebration of Memorial Day. After sailing from offshore Virginia to New York, the bank's guests were flown by helicopter to the U.S.S. Intrepid, where they were introduced to President Clinton.
More recently, Credit Suisse invited clients to special tours of an exhibit of Picasso's portraits at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
National Westminster Bank's private bank, Coutts & Co. is co-sponsoring an art auction in Mexico City this October, along with BMW. Earlier this year, the bank's chairman was the host of a reception at the British embassy in Buenos Aires.
"In the Americas region we have more money earmarked for those kinds of activities then we have had in the past," said Maryanne McWilliams, a vice president of communications for Coutts' in New York. The events are part of a push by Coutts to raise its profile outside of England, she said.
"It's a way to make an impression," observed Mr. Wendel, the consultant. "Frankly, the more cynical side of me that thinks that the guys who work there like to do this."