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Brew Thru at the Zoo is sold out. It still won’t raise enough to make ends meet for the Maryland institution.

The Maryland Zoo is trying to make up for the $4 million in revenues it lost during the pandemic.
The Maryland Zoo is trying to make up for the $4 million in revenues it lost during the pandemic. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Maryland Zoo has sold out its big fundraising event this weekend, Brew Thru at the Zoo. Even so, the popular animal conservation organization still won’t raise enough money to make up for the $4 million in revenue it lost during the pandemic.

“Every day is different in this new world,” said Kirby Fowler, the zoo’s new president and CEO. “While we expect to make north of $80,000 from this event, it won’t come close to solving our financial problems.”

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Brew Thru at the Zoo, described as “the zoo’s first ever drive-through fundraiser” is a new version of what previously was the organization’s biggest annual moneymaking event.

Nearly 1,500 customers have paid $65 per vehicle to drive through the Zoo on Saturday and Sunday. The roughly 20-minute tour will loop past giraffes, elephants and other animals. Visitors must remain in their vehicles, but before exiting the grounds, a gift bag and six-pack of a local craft beer will be placed in each car’s trunk.

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Animal conservation organizations in the U.S. and Canada have been on the hunt for creative ways to make money since the pandemic descended in late winter. Revenues may have declined, but animal care expenses did not. At the National Aquarium, for example, CEO John Racanelli is projecting a total shortfall of $20 million for 2020.

As a result, zoos from San Antonio to Phoenix to Toronto are opting for “drive through” experiences similar to this weekend’s fundraiser at the Maryland Zoo, according to their websites. Closer to home, New Jersey’s Six Flags Wild Safari Drive-Thru Adventure is open to motorists only; advance reservations are required.

Though these experiences promote social distancing, they’re not always big money-makers.

For example, the Maryland Zoo netted $380,000 in 2019 from its similarly titled Brew at the Zoo, or more than four times the profits expected from this weekend’s event.

Staff members had hoped to reschedule the gala once the Maryland Zoo reopened in late June. But health mandates made it impossible to duplicate the formula of live music, food trucks and free beers that made previous events successful.

“In the past, we’ve had people congregating near a food truck or a place that’s providing beer,” Fowler said. “We didn’t think that we could adhere to state and city regulations or achieve social distancing if we did things the way they’re normally done.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hit at the worst possible time for the zoo, closing it for the peak spring attendance months. Typically, March through June accounts for 50% of the Zoo’s annual revenues, Fowler said.

Sixty percent of the Zoo’s income comes from ticket sales and other sources of earned revenue, while the Aquarium derives 75% of its income from this source.

“It costs us just under $60,000 a day to operate the Zoo,” the organization’s former president, Don Hutchinson, said in an interview last month.

“Historically, the weekend between Good Friday and Easter Monday sees our biggest attendance of the year. But, it wasn’t only the front gate that dropped off. Sales of memberships, special events, rentals to private parties — all these sources of revenue went away.”

By the time its fiscal year ended June 30, the zoo was aware that it was facing a revenue loss of approximately 25% of its $15.6 million annual budget. The next day, another blow fell.

On July 1, the Maryland Board of Public Works cut the zoo’s annual allocation for the 2020-21 fiscal year by 10%, or $600,000.

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“The state is incredibly supportive of the zoo, and we completely understand why this happened,” Fowler said, noting that the trims were part of $413 million in budget cuts affecting organizations throughout Maryland.

“The state is facing its own major challenges. But we’re left with a multimillion-dollar gap that we have to address.”

There have been bright spots, Fowler said. In the four weeks since the Zoo reopened to the public, attendance has averaged between 75% and 95% of previous years.

Rather than throwing one mega-fundraiser annually, Fowler aims to make up the budget shortfall by presenting a series of smaller, lower-cost benefits similar to Brew Thru at the Zoo. Perhaps the organization will offer walking tours curated by the Zoo’s education team.

“This is a fantastic institution,” Fowler said. “No one ever anticipated being in this situation, so thank God our foundation is as strong as it is.”

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