Fleet Financial Group has hit the road in an effort to increase its name recognition. The $47 billion-asset bank holding company has rolled out a new marketing tool - traveling automatic teller machines - and it's attracting an awful lot of attention.
Fleet's two-ATM vehicle regularly travels to county fairs, Buffalo Bills football games, tennis tournaments, and other events that draw large crowds.
Fleet launched the mobile ATMs to improve customer service and increase consumer awareness about the bank, said Chris Fredrick, a senior vice president in the Providence, R.I.-based company's corporate administration department.
Although permission to operate the mobile ATMs in New England is still pending, Fleet executives see plenty of opportunity in New York State, where they have been holding their road show since last summer. Plans are in the works to send the Fleet24 Mobile ATMs to a variety of events in the coming months.
Fleet executives are also considering new ways of deploying the vehicle. For instance, the bank may take the ATMs to factory sites on paydays. That should attract even more attention to the Fleet name.
The traveling ATMs do indeed attract attention. In large blue letters, the words "Fleet24 Mobile ATM" are emblazoned on the front, back, and sides of the vehicle. The two ATM terminals made by Interbold, a joint venture of Diebold Inc. and International Business Machines Corp., are located on one side of the vehicle and a satellite dish sits on the roof. To activate the ATMs, the satellite dish is opened up and pointed to the sky.
Mr. Fredrick said that on roads like the Massachusetts Turnpike and the New York State Thruway, cars slow down and children point at the traveling ATMs. At rest stops, ATM card holders often rush up to the vehicle's driver and ask him to open the cash machine so they can take some money out.
Theatrics also factor into Fleet's presentation of the special traveling ATM. Floodlights are attached to the vehicleto highlight the operation at night. Along with the sounds of a portable generator, they help create a mood reminiscent of a Steven Spielberg movie.
"I have to admit that, at night, the mobile ATM looks a little bit like a lunar landing module because of the satellite dish. People just come over and gawk at it," Mr. Fredrick explained, adding that the possibilities offered by lighting design impressed Fleet executives that they had two additional floodlights built into the Winnebago when it went in for a tune-up this past winter.
Another feature that attracts customer attention is the television monitor located between the two terminals. The monitor is used to screen Fleet advertisements and promotional videos as well as information about the particular location or event. For example, at a ski resort, advertisements for hotel accommodations or discount travel packages might be presented. At the Bills' Rich Stadium, the monitor displays the game telecast so that ATM users won't miss a minute of the action.
The Fleet24 Mobile ATM can accommodate any individual whose bank is on the NYCE, Plus, or Cirrus networks. Cardholders are able to execute the same transactions they could at any Fleet ATM.
When someone enters a request into the ATM, the satellite dish - also known as a very small aperture terminal - sends a signal to a satellite in orbit some 22,000 miles above Brazil. The satellite then sends that signal to Fleet's earth station hub in Albany, N.Y. This earth station is part of Fleet's central data and operations center.
Fleet's satellite network was developed by AT&T Tridom, a satellite communications company based in Marietta, Ga.
According to Donna Barrett-Muridis, a spokeswoman for AT&T Tridom, Fleet is one of the few U.S. banks to operate mobile ATMs and the first to use satellite communications for this purpose.
When the mobile ATMs made their debut last summer at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, more than 7,000 transactions were made over an 11-day period. Even Gov. Mario Cuomo used one.
By comparison, an average branch ATM within the Fleet family of banks handles approximately 6,000 transactions a month.
Fair organizers were enthusiastic, and plans are in the works to bring the mobile ATMs back this year.
"The public is accustomed to using ATMs and they look for them," said Joe LaGuardia, marketing director for the fair. "For us, the Fleet24 Mobile ATM represents an opportunity for customers to increase spending at the fair."
To insure that transactions are made in a safe environment and to reduce the risk of robbery, a security guard is present at all times. In addition to transporting cash and guarding the vehicle, the guard is responsible for driving and for deploying the VSAT antennas. Two or three Fleet employees are usually in attendance at the various events to help answer customer questions.
The fact that the mobile ATMs can be moved from place to place so quickly raised some questions about how to license and regulate them. Fleet executives had to consider laws that applied to branches because there were no regulations governing ATMs in trailers.
According to Mr. Fredrick, they had to ask themselves questions such as, "If the mobile ATM was seen as a branch would we be required to provide regulators with advanced notice as to where it would park and then open?" and "Would we have to submit paperwork every time we turned on the ATMs?"
Mr. Fredrick said that a great deal of time and effort went into presenting Fleet's ideas to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
"Because this is a new concept in banking services, we've been working closely with the regulators to explain to them what we are trying to achieve," he said.
There is also discussion concerning how a mobile ATM could be of service during disaster situations such as floods and hurricanes.
Randy Plattsmier, a senior account manager at AT&T Tridom, said that during a recent storm in Tennessee, one of their customers, an insurance company, drove a portable VSAT dish on a flatbed truck out to the devastated area. The VSAT enabled the insurance company representative to hook directly into the home office network and begin processing claims for customers.
Fleet came close to having a similar experience. During Hurricane Hugo, a Florida bank asked Fleet if it might borrow the mobile ATM to serve customers in devastated areas. Before Fleet could send the vehicle on its way, the bank came up with another solution. Nevertheless, the incident raised Fleet's awareness as to what role the new service could play in emergency situations.
As Mr. Fredrick said, "The possibilities inherent in the mobile ATM are enormous."