The American Bankers Association's annual gathering was billed as the "UnConvention" this year - a title meant to suggest that this year's meeting wasn't just business as usual.

Of course, much of it was business as usual. A large part of the convention showed off the same old stuff - "meet the regulators" panels, receptions, and a sprawling exhibit hall.

But the meeting also featured a new approach to topics that appear to be at the top of the agenda for the community bankers who attended.

Take "technology day," for example.

In a break from the past, the ABA turned over an entire day to a single subject. From the "virtual bank" to "Virtual confusion - how to avoid becoming roadkill on the information highway," the convention's sessions roamed through a range of technology topics.

Even the sessions for spouses were high-tech that day: an update on medical news and "The ABCs of the Internet."

One well-attended session featured a tour of Security First National Bank, an institution that will exist only in cyberspace. The fledgling institution, though up and running as of Thursday, wasn't yet on-line during the convention. But James S. Mahon, chairman of Cardinal Bancshares, which owns a majority interest in the institution, was able to walk convention goers through the bank anyhow.

From the Internet, customers can enter the bank by way of a "virtual lobby" - a home page with pictures representing different services. A click on the payments icon, for example, brings up the customer's checkbook. (See related story page 18)

"If Bill Gates decides to offer banking on his network," he said, referring to the chairman of Microsoft Corp. and the computer giant's new on-line service, then "customers will drop their bank and go with the Microsoft Network."

Banks would still be involved in providing payment services, he said, but the industry's role "would be little more than that of a check processor."

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The ABA itself is jumping onto the information highway with a bit of help from BEN - the Bankers Electronic Network.

BEN offers bankers access to an array of services, from the pages of this newspaper to updates on legislative and regulatory issues. Bankers can also access credit reports and Uniform Commercial Code filings, and dozens of other data bases.

Prices vary according to a bank's asset size. For example, institutions under $100 million in assets will pay $400, while banks with more than $1 billion in assets will pay $1,600. All banks also pay connect charges of 22 cents a minute.

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Exhibitors went out of their way to attract bankers to their booths. Nearly everyone offered either cookies, candy, golf balls, or pens. Two companies went a step further.

Sage Health Services, which provides management advice about the health care industry, brought Kirby, a four-year-old chimp. More than 600 bankers had their picture taken with him.

The award for the most popular toy has to go to the National Research Center, a flood-plain analysis company that gave away stress balls. About about a dozen middle-aged bankers were flinging these tennis-ball-sized, squeezable spheres across the convention center lobby.

"They are supposedly a stress reliever," said John W. Smith, president of People's Bank and Trust of Tupelo, Miss. "But after three or four days here I don't think I have any stress."

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Bankers love to complain about their regulators. But apparently they'd rather do almost anything other than confront the agencies with their problems. The ABA's sessions with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve Board drew about 20 bankers each. The session with folks from the Comptroller of the Currency's office drew about 40. More than 3,000 people attended the convention.

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The ABA spent $30,000 for the hand-held devices that allowed bankers to record their responses to various questions posed during the general sessions. For their money, the ABA learned that 37% of attendees blamed the media for their image problem, while only 25% blamed themselves. Consumer groups came in third with 23% of the vote.

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