As a guest at the New Jersey Bankers Association convention last month, the first thing I noticed was that the group was considerably smaller than in years past.

The chief reason, of course, is mergers and acquisitions. The fewer the banks, the lower the attendance at bank conventions.

And with the high cost of travel and hotels, most banks are sending fewer representatives. Not long ago, a convention was a good excuse for a bank to reward directors with a free vacation at a resort hotel. These days, those attending conventions are largely high-ranking executives.

Also conspicuous by their absence were correspondent bankers. In the days when the Federal Reserve would let nonmembers keep balances in larger banks, big banks from New York and Chicago and other major cities would come to conventions like this and throw lavish parties in an effort to woo correspondent balances.

Another change was that the state legislators who attended paid their own cab fares and hotel tabs. With all the adverse publicity about handouts from special interest groups, lawmakers have apparently decided they are better off paying their own way.

But this isn't necessarily bad for the convention hosts. No longer are trade groups faced with either paying all expenses for legislators or not having these lawmakers there to hear their message.

Though fewer attended, the group was all business. It used to be that a state convention would have 1,000 people registered but the business sessions could be held in a phone booth.

The convention topics were more micro in nature-concentrating on banking issues and giving less attention to the overall economic scene.

It seems a much higher percentage of registrants attended the serious meetings on such topics as expanding product lines or competing against big banks.

This was in part because banking problems concern the bankers in today's strong economy far more than economic issues do. Secondly, the major economics speaker, Ed Boehne, the unusually forthright and informative president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, was hamstrung by the "blackout" on economic topics that is imposed just before Federal Open Market Committee meetings. As Mr. Boehne put it, "I have to see Brother Al (Greenspan) on Monday."

If the conversations I heard at this convention are indicative of industry issues, bankers are most concerned about the right to sell insurance, what the Internet means for the industry, and big bank-small bank competition. Naturally the topic of most interest was whether they should sell their banks and what they would fetch in the market - issues I'll discuss in a future column.

So the way state conventions are run, who comes, what they do with their time, and who provides entertainment have changed over the years, but the basic reason for attending this annual ritual remains pretty much the same: sharing common interests.

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