SAN FRANCISCO — Reflecting an auto industry in recovery, an upbeat mood prevails at the 94th annual National Automobile Dealers Assn.'s convention and exposition here in February.

An air of cautious optimism marked last year's gathering. At the 2009 event, worried dealers spoke about surviving in an awful economy that saw auto sales plummet.

But today, dealers, as well as auto executives attending the big pow-wow at the Moscone Center, are feeling much better.

“The good news is we're starting to see some real evidence that things are getting better,” 2010 NADA Chairman Ed Tonkin says. “The auto industry's revival appears to be on solid ground.”

In another cited sign of better times, registration for the convention was up 14% compared with last year.

Total attendance this year is 18,028 compared with 15,171 attendees at the 2010 convention in Orlando, FL. “Participation in the NADA convention is often a bellwether for the overall health of the auto industry,” says Jack Caldwell, convention committee chairman and a dealer from Conway, AK.

Adds 2011 NADA Chairman Stephen Wade: “This was one of the best all-around NADA conventions in recent memory. Auto sales are up. Dealers are getting back to business.”

Dealer-auto maker relationships are a standard topic of discussion at NADA conventions. This one isn't different, as the two sides seek common ground, even though their business interests can clash.

“When dealers and manufacturers work together, that's when the magic happens,” Tonkin says,

This annual confab is a chance for dealers to speak with auto executives in person, especially at closed-door “franchise” meetings where goals, strategies and conflicts are discussed.

“It's a must for dealers to attend the franchise meetings,” Tonkin says. “(They) provide dealers with access to top auto maker executives in a forum they can find no place else.”

Auto executives agree.

“The NADA convention provides an opportunity for us to hear directly from dealers about the issues that matter most to them,” says Jim Bunnell, General Motors Co.'s general manager-U.S. sales operations. “We are able to talk to a large number of dealers, answer their questions and share news about our business plans and performance.”

Last year, something of a stir was created when top GM executives broke precedent by not attending the convention. They were miffed at the NADA for fighting the auto maker's widespread dealership terminations in 2009 and 2010.

But GM and NADA leaders ultimately held a make-up meeting at that convention in Orlando, FL. Otherwise, it was “pretty rough,” recalls Mark Reuss, GM's president of North American operations.

Ken Czubay, Ford vice president-U.S. marketing, sales and service, says the annual gathering allows executives to spend quality time with dealers.

“Continuing to focus on dealer profitability through growing our sales and market share and enhancing the customer experience is a top priority for us,” Czubay adds.