Generating revenue at non-profits is always top-of-mind as budgets are never guaranteed. This is especially true at zoos and aquariums dependent upon seasonal attendance, memberships and donations to carry them through an off-season. Staying ahead of economic impacts, operational challenges, and Mother Nature is difficult to manage successfully.

With so much riding on your financial health, here are some best practices and principles that top sites across the country keep in mind to stay healthy when navigating any financial climate: 

1. Improve guest engagement: Guests will come back, time and time again, based on the experience they have. Creating a memorable experience and becoming a ‘go to’ location is your top priority. Even in the worst economic climate, guests will return if they feel like what they got in exchange was worth their time and money. Notably, more non-profit attendance comes from word-of-mouth and repeat guests than any dollars spent on marketing and advertising. Evaluate how your memberships are doing, and see if they are adding to your bottom line or taking away from it. If memberships are right for you, be sure your pricing, CRMs, and member benefits are maximizing your guest experiences and contributing to the bottom line.

2. Revenue matters, and so does your front-line team: For most zoos and aquariums, over 60% percent of revenue comes through the front gate. That’s why it’s crucial to hire front-line staff that are focused, confident and engaging. They will pay for themselves! Instill in your team that revenue at the front gate is a top priority, and make sure that they’re comfortable offering packages and add-ons to your guests. Remember, packages aren’t just about making money. The more value you demonstrate during their visit, the more guests will want to come back! 

3. Donation and membership programs: Sites like Phoenix Zoo’s Pride Campaign (Elephant Round Up) and Mystic Aquarium’s Pennies for Penguins encourage guests to ‘round up’ their purchases to the nearest dollar and donate for specific initiatives. Selling memberships as holiday gifts or for any occasion can be surprisingly profitable while generating future attendance. Watch out for certain times of the year such as right after the holiday season when guests are more likely to be money-conscious. Be prepared to talk about the difference your programs make. Sometimes a “no” is automatic, but getting your staff in the habit of asking will show results! 
*Look for more on our upcoming post: Top 5 Tips for Successful Donation Programs

4. Expect the unexpected: No one is alone on this. All of us know to try and prepare for a rainy day…and then comes the Hundred Year Flood. Anyone can be affected by severe weather, the loss of major donors, or an economic downturn. The effects of just one major hurricane can close a site not only for the duration of the storm and recovery, but for the economic recovery that could take months or even years. Bronx Zoo (WCS), for example, was hardest hit in the 2008 recession where so many major donors were wiped out by Bernie Madoff. Not only were budgets tightened and exhibits closed for the first time in 50 years, it put many capital projects on hold. Thankfully, just like all storms, that one passed and WCS is doing better than ever.

5. Strategic partnerships: Don’t go at it alone! So what do you do when your major donor pulls the plug on your zoo lights, and you lose one of your biggest revenue streams? Look for partnerships with companies that offer fantastic add-on experiences such as 4-D theater experiences, ropes courses, or other attractions. Not only are these ways to draw new and repeat guests with family-friendly entertainment, they are great ways to create packages to increase revenue. Having a strategic partner can help you address up-front build and installation costs, marketing, and staff training. Look at travelling exhibits that also offer a short-term investment that can keep your site fresh with a new ‘must see’ each year. Know your up-front costs and package what you are offering to generate the most revenue and the best value for your guest experiences.
*Stay tuned for more on our upcoming post: Package sales that work! 

Some challenges are more predictable than others, but with some advance planning (and a little luck!) you should be able to weather any storm. Keep in mind that even the most difficult times are temporary. Most importantly, keeping your best foot forward through excellent guest engagement will pay dividends when things are in your favor again!