Fantasyland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland beckoned last week when more than 2,000 bank card industry people descended on Disney World.

Instead, they encountered Mysteryland: The Case of the Missing CEOs.

For the first time in anyone's memory of American Bankers Association bank card conferences, and for reasons difficult to discern, no chief executive officer from MasterCard or Visa spoke to the assemblage.

As a topic of conversation, the absences were rivaled only by the fact that a top American Express Co. official did speak - in the bank-owned organizations' customary slot on the conference's closing day.

As expected, Amex vice chairman Kenneth Chenault offered bankers an olive branch while blasting MasterCard and Visa for not allowing their members to issue American Express cards. The only public rebuttals came from lower-level card association executives during a panel discussion after Mr. Chenault and more than a few members of his audience had left the Dolphin Hotel ballroom.

The mystery - why MasterCard U.S. president Alan Heuer and his Visa U.S.A. counterpart Carl Pascarella did not appear - remains unsolved.

There were plenty of explanations to go around. Depending on the source, they could sound like accusations or complaints, alibis or denials.

Meanwhile, American Express basked in a tactical triumph. It managed to dominate an agenda historically controlled by MasterCard, Visa, and their member institutions. The banking camp was bickering, and the ABA got caught in the middle.

Did American Express have means, motive, and opportunity to wreak such havoc? Maybe. But other principals pointed fingers elsewhere.

Charlotte Rush and Francine Schall, senior vice presidents, respectively, of MasterCard and Visa U.S.A., responded identically: "We weren't invited."

"Absolutely not true - they were invited," insisted ABA press spokeswoman Nancy Judy. Several of the "conference co-chairs" - the closest thing there was to a planning committee - scratched their heads in disbelief at so many prominent noses' being bent out of shape.

The co-chairs were sure the fault wasn't theirs. They also wanted credit for broad-mindedness in putting Mr. Chenault on the program.

He jumped at the chance to reinforce a message delivered at a Faulkner & Gray conference last May by Amex chairman Harvey Golub. Seeking banks to co-market his cards, Mr. Golub was especially harsh toward Visa, which in turn let conference organizers know its objections in no uncertain terms.

Might Visa and MasterCard - now joint objects of Amex's scorn - have withdrawn their high-ranking executives in protest of Mr. Chenault's appearance? Strongly implied and rumored, but not verifiable.

Even if some feathers were ruffled, should the MasterCard and Visa executives have laid low? (MasterCard's Alan Heuer arrived in Orlando late Monday and left Tuesday, the day before Mr. Chenault spoke. Mr. Pascarella of Visa did not show at all.)

Were they right to delegate to senior vice presidents the panel discussion to which the CEOs were allegedly invited?

While Randall Chesler of Visa and Jody Hancock of MasterCard acquitted themselves well - Mr. Chesler argued forcefully that Amex wants to take profits "out of the pockets of everyone in this room" - they sat alongside far more seasoned industry luminaries: Walter Hoff of First Data Corp.'s card services group, Hatim Tyabji of Verifone Inc., and Richard Yanak of NYCE Corp. (who officially retires today as CEO of the regional electronic banking network).

An advance conference brochure listed the two international CEOs - Eugene Lockhart of MasterCard and Edmund Jensen of Visa - as "invited" to that all-star panel. But in the program handed out at the conference, no MasterCard or Visa person was listed; it was billed as a three-way discussion.

"Don't you think Gene and Ed would have been here if Ken Chenault was not?" said an industry source who claims to know them and their ways. "They should have been here."

"They ought to wake up and enter the real world," a senior card industry executive said of MasterCard and Visa's stance against American Express. "The associations are in business to serve members," said the executive, sounding much like Mr. Chenault and speaking freely when assured he would not be named here. "This business is bigger than MasterCard and Visa."

"The pressures of competition may have gotten the better of the desire for cooperation," said First Chicago NBD Corp. vice chairman Scott Marks, a Visa director and one of the highest-ranking bankers at the meeting.

None of this will have much bearing on the card business, the services delivered to customers, or even American Express' attempts to reclaim market share from banks. Strategies play out in real-world settings far removed from the Magic Kingdom.

But for sheer amusement, for gossip and escapism with a serious-business twist, the 25th ABA bank card conference will not soon be matched. It may turn out to be a winning formula. In 1995, fearing the event was in decline, the ABA called in consultant James Shanahan to revamp the format; it attracted a record crowd in New York that was about equaled in Orlando.

Mr. Shanahan, a Business Dynamics Consulting partner, was retained this year, but the traditional planning committee, with participation from MasterCard and Visa, was dropped. So was the big conference reception that MasterCard and Visa had been cofinancing since the 1980s. Visa's exhibit area was sparer than in past years; officials used the words "scaled back."

For all the squabbling, what happened last week may actually say something meaningful about the "state of the industry," which was the standard subject of the association CEOs' erstwhile speeches. These messages just happen to be laced with irony:

*Mr. Pascarella, who inherited the ABA-speech tradition three years ago, never liked it and contended there were better ways to use the time. He prevailed - and Amex took the spotlight.

*Mr. Chenault delivered a lecture on what others have called "coopetition" - that corporations must form alliances, and that a partner in one business might be a competitor in another. He described the card associations as backwardly resisting openness, "against the grain of the times, against logic, against your self-interest." While he had some friends in the audience, he caught a competitively besieged card community in a generally ornery mood.

*First Data Corp. may have accomplished its goal set two years ago to gain card conference parity with MasterCard and Visa. With them out of the party business, First Data (a night at Tomorrowland, with a concert by Huey Lewis and the News) and rival Total System Services Inc. (Universal Studios and "Terminator 2: 3-D") were the big games in town. Mr. Hoff of First Data, shrugging off past suspicions about his motives, was a voice of bank- friendly moderation: "We have the most wonderful distribution channel in the world - our bank clients," he said of First Data's merchant processing alliances.

Then there was the Freudian slip of the conference, by ABA executive director Douglas Adamson. Introducing former MasterCard executive George Fesus to receive a career distinguished service award, Mr. Adamson said, "His 26-year banking career began at American Express..."

Was the card family happier back then?

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