A big turn-out in the Big Easy underscores the banking industry's growing commitment to selling insurance products.

Last week, 385 bankers and insurance providers gathered here for the fall conference of the Financial Institutions Insurance Association, the largest bank insurance trade organization. Turnout has grown steadily in the past three years.

"The attendance tells us that more and more financial institutions are getting involved," said Gregory D. Vacca, first vice president at Calfed Investments, a unit of California Federal Bank, Sacramento. "There is a lot of opportunity here."

The optimistic mood was tempered by the notion that insurance programs will take time to develop.

Karen J. Bennett, vice president insurance and retirement services at BankAmerica, said insurance-though not a panacea-could make up a sizable share of nontraditional revenue but that banks have yet to serve the retail mass market.

One problem is that banks are simply replicating insurance agency distribution methods-with their attendant inefficiencies-rather than developing programs that leverage the rest of the bank retail apparatus.

"You're really getting the worst of both worlds," she said. "We've got to improve productivity no matter what the model. We've got to deliver more for less."

Ms. Bennett also criticized a focus on selling to the affluent. Though the wealthy buy insurance with higher premiums, competition for that market is heavy, she said. The mass market is a staple of banks, and that's where success will lie, she said.

Many speakers said the key to serving bank customers is to rethink product features.

Prices are too high, and many customers have forced down prices for financial products, notably mutual funds, said James M. Benson, chairman, president, and CEO of New England Financial, Boston.

To succeed, banks must tailor products for customers, he said. More people are living longer, more active lives, and they want to have products with guarantees to cover that additional span, he said.

Executives at the conference voiced optimism about revenue growth.

"There is greater opportunity on the insurance and investment side of the industry than there has been on the banking side," said James H. Overholt, senior consultant and manager of financial institutions at Milliman & Robertson.

Along with having strategies and management support, Mr. Overholt said, a bank must be able to articulate why it's selling insurance.

David L. Holton, president of Wachovia Corp.'s insurance services division, talked about focusing on the importance of insurance sales.

He said he likes to talk with other bank departments. For mortgage brokers, he asks why a certain loan soured. If the answer is cash flow, Mr. Holton asks whether the portfolio would be improved if a customer had insurance covering a particular risk. That would take a loan off the past- due list.

"We went right to their heart," he said. "Banks understand cash flow, but they don't understand insurance."

Mr. Holton had advice for getting bankers to accept insurance salespeople.

At Wachovia, he situates agents next to bankers from other departments. Then he tells the agent that "your No. 1 goal is to get invited to the company picnic" for that department.

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