June 24, 2020

Reimagining Special Events For The New Tomorrow

For many AZA member organizations, special events represent a unique opportunity to connect with constituents from outside their typical cohorts, as well as a critical source of operating revenues. The current crisis has created stressors across a range of operating areas at cultural attractions—special events functions among them.

On June 18th, we hosted the twelfth in our series of weekly webinars for a panel discussion on Reimaging Special Events for the New Tomorrow. This discussion featured panelists from four U.S. facilities who discussed their outlook and thinking, as well as the strategies they’re pursuing in their own special events programs.

The discussion began with a presentation by Eugenia Vasels, Vice President of Institutional Advancement at the Greater Los Angeles Zoological Association (GLAZA). Genie shared with the audience a recap of her team’s recent experience adapting and executing their annual Beastly Ball fundraising event in the digital space. Challenging under any circumstances, the GLAZA team achieved an incredible feat by adapting on very short notice what for years had been an in-person, high-dollar, ticketed event into a virtual fundraiser accessible to all.

The outcome? GLAZA far exceeded their net income estimate for the event—including the original budget based on the in-person format. Key takeaways from Genie’s presentation follow:

  • For virtual events, production value is important! Presenters need coaching and practice, lighting and cameras matter, and invest in a teleprompter.

  • Extensive marketing and communication through your email, social media, and PR/marketing channels is essential and pays off. Over 21,000 participants “attended” the event through Facebook, YouTube, and the LA Zoo website.

  • Digital silent auctions work. At nearly $200,000 raised, the event was one of GLAZA’s biggest auction hauls ever and exceeded the in-person auction budget by approximately 16%!

  • Create auction packages at a variety of price levels. A digital event that is accessible to all will attract a broad range of constituents with varying degrees of financial capacity.

  • Big savings! The expenses of operating the event digitally were substantially lower than in-person. GLAZA spent about 12% of what it had budgeted for the in-person format on the digital event—significantly impacting the program’s financial success.

Other key takeaways from the panelists in the session included:

  • Try many different things with your events programming—see what sticks! The “anything and everything” approach worked well for Josh Rupp, Events Director at Lincoln Park Zoo, who is currently running virtual happy hours, yoga/meditation classes, garden tours, keeper talks, and even a magic show.

  • “Mission” themed events are “stickier” and seem to be attracting larger audiences than general-interest virtual events.

  • Virtual events are likely to be the norm, at least for a while. We all want to get out of the house, but it may be some time before constituents feel comfortable returning. Even in the long-term future, virtual aspects to in-person events are here to stay.

  • Your constituents want to help you. Make sure they know that you need their support, and that they can support you by taking part in your programs. Even though the experiences will be different for a while, you still have something unique to offer.

  • We need to market differently. Pivot your messaging away from the “attraction” concept and towards an emphasis on safety, especially with your tourism targets.

  • Work with your sponsors—they will likely allow you to keep sponsorship dollars for previously planned events, especially if you can offer them visibility in other ways. Look at your sponsors’ (or potential new sponsors’) missions to find ways to align them with yours. Suggest alternatives to event sponsorship opportunities that keep everyone happy.

  • As always, remain agile and flexible. Even the short-term outlook is uncertain, so you’ll need to be ready to seize on opportunities as soon as they present themselves. Get ready to respond to changes in regulations and public attitudes on a moment’s notice.

  • In the medium-term, spread the risk of your events program by not putting all of your eggs into one basket. By planning a series of small- or medium-sized events (as opposed to fewer large ones), you have fewer resources and less time invested into a single event that may be cancelled or postponed.

Thanks to our panelists for being so generous with their time. They were:

  • Page Kiniry, President, Brookgreen Gardens

  • Harriet Resnick, Vice President of Visitor Programs & Business Development, Chicago Botanic Garden

  • Joshua Rupp, Director of Events, Lincoln Park Zoo

  • Eugenia Vasels, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Greater Los Angeles Zoological Association

Click here to watch the recording of the full session.

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