The 16th annual New England Mortgage Bankers Conference was held last week at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. The conference previously had been held in Newport, R.I., for many years.

Gone were the views of picturesque ocean landscapes, yachts and Vanderbilt mansions that define the luxury of Newport, R.I. – the new backdrop of the 2003 New England Mortgage Bankers Conference was city lights and neon signs, as the association held its 16th annual convention last week in Providence.

Amid the hustle and bustle of Providence’s city life, the Rhode Island Convention Center served as home base to more than 2,000 professionals in the New England mortgage industry.

Centered between the Westin Hotel and the Providence Place Mall, the Rhode Island Convention Center gave conference-goers over 60,000 square feet of exhibition space to educate fellow mortgage experts on individual companies’ business initiatives, listen in on industry-specific seminars hosted by national and local organizations and spend leisure time perusing the three-story Providence Place Mall before heading out for a night on the town at one of Providence’s famed restaurants or the annual Waterfire Event – an award-winning fire sculpture, which is located on the three rivers in downtown Providence.

Kevin Cuff, executive director of the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Conference, described this year’s trade show as “state of the art.”

“The workshops provided the most up-to-date and industry-sensitive information. The lender/vendor workshops allowed companies to showcase their products and services, all the while generating an atmosphere of goodwill and social interaction,” said Cuff.

‘National Flavor’

After a morning of golf and hands-on cooking demonstrations and city tours throughout the day, the conference opened on Wednesday, Sept. 24, with a welcome reception and an early peek at the exhibition hall and exhibitors hosted by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. Conference-goers were treated to carving stations, hors d’oeuvres and beverages while walking the exhibit hall and viewing booths.

At the booths, exhibitors went to all lengths to draw potential customers.

First Franklin Financial, which is based in Woburn, Mass., welcomed attendees with half-yard beer glasses at their booth. After refreshing their glasses, attendees could drop their card into a glass bowl at the Equity Title & Closing booth to win a cigar, rolled fresh at the booth.

“They drop their card in the bowl and then they have to come back to receive their cigar. It’s a good way of getting people to the booth – if we don’t get to talk to them when they drop their card off, we’ll get to talk to them when they pick up their cigar,” said a spokesman at Providence-based Equity’s booth.

Other booths offered a chance to win a motorcycle or New England Patriots tickets.

On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 25, conference-goers were greeted with a continental breakfast sponsored by Stewart Title, and some of the booths offered fresh cappuccinos and Krispy Kreme donuts.

But aside from the tasty edibles available in the exhibit hall, the mood of the conference was eager and exciting as the doors opened for the first time in Providence.

“It was a particularly slow Wednesday night, but we are anticipating a strong turnout overall,” said a spokesman for Argent, a wholesaler mortgage lender based in Orange, Calif. “It is a huge plus to be under one roof – there is more of a conference feel to the event. With [former New York] Gov. [Mario M.] Cuomo giving the keynote speech at lunch and the seminars offered, there is a serious quality this year that appears to be an improvement to the overall conference. I absolutely prefer this type of venue. There are more entertainment events in Newport, but more action on the floor in Providence.”

Representatives of CATIC Title Insurance Co., a company providing service and education for attorneys in real estate transactions, said the space in Providence was far better than the setup in Newport.

“This venue is great,” said Stephen McAdams, director of marketing for the Rocky Hill-based company. “Newport has its qualities, but this is better. We are not on top of one another [in booths], as in past years. It’s more convenient for the companies who are exhibiting, too.”

Boston-based First American Title Insurance Co, a national provider of business information including title insurance, mortgage credit reports, appraisals, document preparation, tax services and other mortgage-related transactions, was one of the largest exhibitors at the conference. Employees said the visitors at the First American booth were delighted.

“First American has been doing this for years, and I’ve been doing the convention for five years. This new venue is great and the conference has a more national flavor to it this year,” said Louis Chinappi, associate vice president of First American’s Lending Division. “We always get the same spot at the conferences, but the fact that everyone is in one space makes for more traffic to the booths. Seems like people are getting more for their money in Providence. The attendance numbers speak for themselves. It’s a more centralized location and there are more people coming in for just the day.”

Overall, Cuff said that the NEMBC had simply outgrown Newport, and while the ambiance and history of a port city was captivating, it was not effective in portraying a professional business atmosphere.

“I am optimistic that beginning this year and hopefully evolving over the years, NEMBC in Providence allows the MMBA and others to showcase all that is positive in the industry – including its professionalism,” said Cuff.

Cuff said his one conference goal was for all attendees to walk away last Friday afternoon “genuinely satisfied” after a three-day event representative of the mortgage industry, a profession that he hopes “they are proud of.”