After the past 12 months, no one knew what to expect from this year’s International Builders Show. A Las Vegas message board for taxi drivers reportedly suggested preparing for as few as 15,000 attendees—a far cry from the boom years, when attendance exceeded 100,000 people.

Mercifully for the housing industry, that message board proved to be wrong—both in numbers and in attitude.

“It’s obvious that there’s a tremendous difference,” commented Mike Benshoof, a partner with home building management firm SMA Consulting in Orlando, Fla. “People are walking the halls again, and the rooms are filled with people.”

According to NAHB estimates, between 50,000 and 55,000 people attended this year’s show in Las Vegas, packing seminar rooms and crowding show floor aisles in unexpected numbers. (Last year, more than 60,000 came, according to the NAHB.) Even more surprising was the level of hope and energy among the builders, particularly in contrast to recent years.

“Attendance is down, but it seems like there is more energy on the floor,” said John Girard, who is national vertical solutions manager for Sprint’s construction and field service solutions. “Maybe the people who registered are more optimistic, because the ones who are here are really interested. I haven’t stopped talking since I got here.”

“It’s all about the management of change,” said Rob Brooks, green building program director at iLevel by Weyerhaeuser. “A lot of changes have happened due to the downturn. A lot of [employees] aren’t there anymore. They need to differentiate their product. They’re trying to meet new requirements such as Energy Star and others. The conversation is about ‘how do I manage that, how do I sequence that, and where do I start next?’”

Builders weren’t only talking with vendors; they were also attending educational seminars, taking notes and asking questions on green building, social media, business management, land development, and more. “I’m trying to become more knowledgeable about what our industry will be like when it comes out [of the downturn],” said Bill Kinnebrew, who builds as Homes by Indian Wood in Birmingham, Ala. “You don’t know what it will be like when [the recovery] comes.”

For Kinnebrew, that meant complementing his luxury custom builder background by attending as many land development seminars as he could. “It’s important, because there are a lot of properties out there and a lot of opportunities. For the first time ever, I can get into the development business.”

Nathan Cross, who builds and remodels homes as NWC Construction in Orlando, Fla., also concentrated on education at this year’s IBS. “I spent more money than ever [for IBS] because I did some education classes” for a certified graduate remodeler designation, said Cross, who is already a certified green building professional and is pursuing a master builder credential. Why hit the books so hard? “There are only a few [certified graduate remodelers] in Orlando,” he said. “It’s another way to out qualify my competitors.”

The popularity of educational sessions among attendees this year didn’t surprise Benshoof. “Builders realize this is the best training value per dollar out there,” said the consultant, who believes that desire for ideas and insights for managing this unpredictable market brought many people to Vegas. In contrast to IBS 2009, when many builders were still just “shell-shocked” by the rapid deterioration of the economy, builders in 2010 are ready to do battle, Benshoof said, with an attitude of “If I’m going to go down, at least I’m going to go down swinging.’”

After all, they might just hit a grand slam.  “In every economy, good or bad, there’s opportunity for somebody,” Benshoof said.

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Las Vegas, NV, Orlando, FL.