Lori Derkay of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association hugs Susan Sarfati, the winner of the ASAE’s Lifetime Achievement Award. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

After two years of membership losses, budget cutbacks and a scaling back of annual conventions and expos, many professional and trade associations are staging a cautious comeback.

“Most of us are not back to where we were in 2007 and 2008, but we are back from where we were in 2009 and 2010, which for most associations were the worst years,” said John H. Graham IV, president and chief executive of ASAE, formerly known as the American Society of Association Executives, which represents 22,000 association executives.

Nearly 80 percent of all associations and nonprofits expect staffing to stay flat or grow marginally in 2012, according to a survey of 3,200 employers in the Washington area by the Human Resource Association of the National Capital Area.

Professional associations play a small but important role in the regional economy. The Washington area has about 500 trade associations that employ roughly 61,000 people, according to ASAE. Nearly one out of 10 private sector employees here works for an association, and more than a quarter of the 3,000 nonprofit organizations in the city are trade, membership or professional associations. Last year, nine of the 10 largest meetings in the city (by number of hotel rooms used) were held by nonprofits.

Associations and nonprofits “were the ones to feel the effects of the recession first in 2008 and 2009,” said Angelo Kostopoulos of Akron Inc., which conducted the survey on behalf of the Human Resource Association of the National Capital Area. “So I think they’ve been operating for a while under very lean conditions and have pushed productivity to capacity, if not beyond.”

Kristin va Ogtrop, editor of the magazine Real Simple, was the keynote speaker at the ASAE luncheon. Professional organizations are beginning to see increases in membership and attendance at annual meetings. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

Perhaps no group better illustrates the recovery than the association of associations, ASAE. The group saw membership drop 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, but regained about 2 percent this year. Revenue from dues; registration fees at annual meetings, exhibit and trade shows; advertising; and sponsorships fell a collective 15 percent in 2009, flattened out in 2010, but recuperated 3 percent this year. And ASAE’s annual meeting and expo in August drew about 5,400 attendees — which is more than the 5,000 that went to the 2009 event, but still less than the 6,300 that attended in 2008.

An indicator of health

The health of trade associations tends to mirror that of the industries they represent, and associations representing the real estate, lending and financial services industries are facing a steeper uphill battle to recovery than health care, medicine and education — which were hit less severely, Graham said.

For instance, membership at the National Association of Realtors, the trade group for real estate agents, has fallen steadily since peaking at more than 1.3 million members in 2006; today, the group is nearly 25 percent smaller with about 1 million members. Attendance at the group’s annual conference this week is projected to be around 18,000 — significantly less than the record-setting 30,600 at the 2007 conference, but a modest uptick from last year’s 17,000.

Retail, legal are up

Comparatively healthier are trade groups representing the retail and legal industries, some of which are even beefing up beyond pre-recession levels.

The Association of Corporate Counsel, which represents in-house lawyers at more than 10,000 organizations, has seen membership jump 28 percent from 2008 to 2011 (from 22,859 to 29,225). Also up are staff size in the group’s District headquarters (12 percent, from 52 in 2008 to 58 in 2011) and organizational budget (18 percent, from $13.5 million in 2008 to $15.9 million in 2011). The ACC has cut spending for its annual meeting, though, from $1.64 million in 2008 to $950,000 in 2011).

The National Retail Federation is expanding its budget, adding members, hiring staff and seeing attendance at its annual trade show climb steadily. The group’s 2011 budget is $40 million, which is more than 10 percent higher than the last two years, said president and chief executive Matthew Shay. Attendance at NRF’s annual trade show has grown from 17,000 in 2009 to 20,000 in 2010 and 25,000 this year.

“If you’re looking for a bright spot in the current economy, the retail industry is probably it,” Shay said. With the exception of May 2011 when sales were flat, retail sales have been up for 15 consecutive months (though that growth has been modest, between 0.1 percent and 1.2 percent each month), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

ASAE held its luncheon at the Capital Hilton earlier this month. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

The group is bringing on 12 new staff members, mostly concentrated in government affairs and public policy. The association is pushing for legislation requiring Internet retailers to collect sales tax and redistribute it to states where the purchases were made, evening the playing field between online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

“The goal is to generate revenue through income streams and reinvest it on behalf of the industry on policy matters,” Shay said. “There’s no point to make money to put it in the bank. The point is to hire more lobbyists ... that’s why we’re in Washington.”