Tourist Attractions and Indianapolis Zoo and Fundraising and Tourism & Hospitality and Philanthropy

Zoobilation sells out fast despite $200-plus admission

May 5, 2008

This year, tickets sold out in just six days and at least one scalper tried to profit from demand. And if history holds true, the desperate will show up at the event in hopes of talking their way in with hard-luck stories.

Colts playoff game? Hannah Montana concert? Not quite. The big event this time of year is Zoobilation, the annual black-tie fund-raiser for the Indianapolis Zoo.

Far from the typical rubber-chicken fund-raiser attended mostly by board members and their friends, the zoo's 22-year-old event attracts 4,300 ticket holders eager to spend an evening wining and dining at the zoo.

"With the economy not being so great, [special event] ticket sales have been down, but with this event, it doesn't even seem to matter," said Carol Howard, the zoo's special events manager. "In the last couple of years, the tickets have just gone crazy fast."

Indeed, the zoo made 200 more tickets available to this year's June 13 event--at a cost of $200 for zoo members--and sold them in six days. Last year, it took twice as long. Corporate sponsorships also sold out, with 139 businesses snapping up deals that started at $3,000. About two-thirds of the tickets are given out as part of corporate sponsor packages. The rest are sold to individuals. And those unlucky masses who miss out? There's a waiting list.

Bucking the trend

Demand this year was strong enough that one entrepreneurial ticket holder had to be asked not to scalp them. An e-mail offering some of a corporate sponsor's tickets--at a premium--found its way to Howard, who stopped the sale and barred the unnamed company from future sponsorships.

The party raised $1.1 million total in 2007, with $800,000 going directly to help cover the zoo's $22 million annual operating budget. The income from Zoobilation represents about three-fourths of the zoo's total fund-raising revenue.

This year, Zoobilation has already brought in $1.2 million, and that's before revenue from partners comes in, including a deal with the Omni Severin Hotel where half the proceeds from an after-party there go to the zoo.

The event is unlike any other. About 70 restaurants set up free food stations throughout the zoo grounds and on a bridge leading to White River State Park. Add in the multiple open bars, stages featuring live music, and private booths where corporate sponsors can entertain guests, and its allure is apparent.

Zoobilation is popular enough among the city's power players, in fact, that restaurants line up for the opportunity to donate food.

Kimberly Fisher-Everette, director of Cafe Nora, said she gets calls every week requesting that the upscale restaurant donate its Southern European cuisine for fund-raisers. Zoobilation is always on the short to-do list.

"You feel like you're at a New York City event," said Fisher-Everette. "They could double in size and they could still sell all their tickets."

That's a far cry from where the fund-raiser started, as a private party for a few hundred guests at the home of zoo benefactors Herb and Diane Simon in 1986.

The growth is even more remarkable considering that black-tie events are losing popularity and even successful fund-raisers don't have a long shelf life, said Judy Burnett, a former event planner and owner of Judy Burnett Solutions Inc., a local public relations firm.

"Most events have a 10-year life span," Burnett said. "Attendance peaks and then starts downward and organizations have to either re-energize the event or throw it out all together."

Black tie but not stuffy

Zoobilation has many things going for it, she said. While attendees get a chance to dress up and show off, they usually do so wearing comfortable shoes given the outdoor setting.

"Honestly, as any woman who's worn heels can tell you, there's a real appeal in that," she said.

Also, once guests arrive, their only responsibility is to party and mingle. Other formal dinners often mean sit-down service at a large table where it's hard to talk to anyone but those seated nearby. And once dinner is served, the host organization often launches into speeches making yet another request for money on top of the ticket price.

"People are kind of tired of those things," she said.

But at Zoobilation, there's alcohol, food, music and no set schedule, giving corporate sponsors more of an opportunity to entertain clients.

"You're out together, walking from station to station and introducing them to people," Burnett said. "It's a much better networking opportunity."

Some regular attendees agreed.

"It's the premier corporate event in town," said David Barrett, CEO of the Gene B. Glick Co. Inc. "Even though you're putting on a black tie, it's nice to walk around in the open. It's not a stuffy, sit-down event."

As platinum sponsor this year, Glick Co. made a $20,000 donation and got 80 tickets. Barrett said the company invites both clients and employees and asks them to stop by the booth at specific times for a short greeting from company officials and door prizes.

"It's a great way to showcase the company," he said.

But once word was out that the company was a sponsor, calls rolled in.

"We got a lot of requests from friends who want to come join us," he said.

Another sponsor, St. Vincent Health, gives many of its tickets to employees, said spokesman Johnny Smith. Each department gets an allotment to award workers who "are exceeding at an exceptional level."

At BKD's central Indiana regional office, Managing Partner Ted Dickman said part of the magic is the venue.

"You've got the animals, the expansive and beautiful grounds, and everyone in fun and festive attire," he said. "You're experiencing the venue in a truly unique way."

Zoobilation envy

The success means the event has its own momentum that many not-for-profits would like to emulate.

"Especially in today's economy, the smaller non-profits are hurting," said Kari Eisenhooth, owner of Fishers-based Exclamation Point Events. "Everyone wants to create the next Zoobilation, but it's so hard."

Many not-for-profits don't have such an impressive venue at their disposal and must line up strong board members to help launch events.

Zoobilation started that way when hosted by the Simons and continues the tradition today. For example, board member Scott Jones' foundation sponsors the VIP portions of Zoobilation.

And aspiring events should start small, just like Zoobilation did, Eisenhooth said.

"You have to get the right class of people to attend that love it and the next year they bring more friends," she said. "For Zoobilation, its reputation is so strong, it's its own brand."

Howard took over management of the event when she joined the zoo two years ago. She said the main changes she made were to increase the cost of corporate sponsorship and to add more sponsorship opportunities. And while the final touches are made to this year's party, she's already brainstorming for themes to next year's event, which will play on the zoo's planned exhibit of Komodo Dragons.

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