With total attendance trending well ahead of last year's event, the National Apartment Association kicked off its annual education conference and expo with solid energy and a positive outlook for the future.

Nearly 4,600 attendees, up 8 percent over 2009, and 329 exhibiting companies were on hand despite the sweltering Big Easy weather to discuss the current economic conditions and on-site challenges that today's owners and operators face. Sessions covering social media, fair housing, and other key issues are planned for the three-day event.

Opening keynoter former President George W. Bush, who was appearing in New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, offered an upbeat, humorous, and self-deprecating look at leadership and his years in the White House. He did not talk about President Obama, the current BP oil crisis, or, even, the apartment industry. But attendees generally thought the presentation was lively. "I went in not knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised. He was very charismatic," said Julie Smith, president of Greenbelt, Md.-based Bozzuto Management Co.
Smith was one of several dozen key apartment leadership professionals who attended the pre-conference executive forum held by the NAA to focus in on some of the top-line management issues that companies today are facing. Several companies also held employee meetings in conjunction with the event, including Pinnacle, UDR, Camden Property Trust, Kettler, Buckingham Cos., and others.

"The buzz on the floor has all been really positive," said Paul Bergeron, director of communications for the National Apartment Association. "We're really pleased with the turnout this year and the outcome. And there's more to come."

In addition to the opening events, the NAA announced the winner of its Paragon Award for the Community of the Year, which was presented to Kettler Management's Metropolitan Park mega-development in Arlington, Va.