By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Katya Wachtel

Balmy temperatures and sunny skies greeted hedge fund industry managers, investors and lawyers as they gathered in Boca Raton, Florida, for 2012′s first prominent industry conference.

Despite clear skies overhead, the mood was decidedly grimmer at the GAIM 2012 USA meeting, held at the swanky Boca Raton Resort and Club, as the industry faces dramatic regulatory changes after having ended 2011 on a losing note.

As managers drifted between sessions that promised “unique insights” from top traders about where to make money to how regulation will affect the industry, many quietly shared tales of woe about last year’s losses, when the average fund lost 5 percent. Top investors conceded that times would be tough in the months ahead but that hedge funds are still the way to go for pension funds and others that need to boost investment returns with strong performance.

Prominent managers like Marathon Asset Management’s Bruce Richards and Oak Hill Advisors President Glenn August mingled with investment chiefs for the states of Florida and Wisconsin.

For the first time ever the organizers of this conference had invited media to attend, but then reversed the decision at the last minute saying many of the sessions were closed to the press, which is not uncommon in the historically secretive industry.