While zoos and aquariums collectively draw more than 185 million visitors each year, many organizations still struggle to secure significant sponsorship revenue.

The reasons range from concerns over commercialization, an unwillingness to offer marketing-driven partnerships to staff without the necessary sales experience.

Below, sponsorship sellers from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Los Angeles Zoo, National Aquarium and the Philadelphia Zoo share tips and best practices on selling sponsorship to zoos and aquariums.

Play up competitive advantage. Unlike sports teams with a limited season, zoos and aquariums can offer sponsors year-round marketing value.

“Our competition is not the Cincinnati Zoo or the Cleveland Zoo. It’s the Columbus Blue Jackets and Columbus Crew. We need to think about what is unique to our business that can position us attractively,” said Hillary Bates, director of strategic partnerships with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Consider less is more strategy. A growing number of zoos have found success with a “less is more” packaging strategy by replacing low-level partners with a small number of high-value partners.

The Philadelphia Zoo several years ago revamped its sales strategy by focusing on a handful of partners, each of which pays a six-figure annual rights fee. The zoo now turns down $1,000 tabling opportunities and other low-level partnerships, a move that has reduced commercialization and increased sponsor value.

“People come to see animals and support conservation and sustainability. They don’t want to be force-fed a sponsorship,” said Patrick McMaster, Philadelphia Zoo’s director of sponsorship.

Philadelphia Zoo sponsors include Coca-Cola, KeyBank and PECO. The zoo recently secured a new partnership with St. Christopher’s Children’s Hospital, a sponsor of newborn animals and branded lactating stations for new mothers.

While a “less is more” sponsorship strategy may look easy on paper, the approach can be a challenge to implement. As institutions often seen in the public trust, it can sometimes be difficult to turn down companies—both big and small—looking to make a mark in the local community.

“It’s easy to say ‘focus on a few high-value partners,’ but it’s really hard to do. It’s challenging and takes vigilance to stay focused,” said Bates.

The Columbus Zoo works with Kroger, Fifth Third Bank and a few other companies as part of its less is more packaging strategy.

Focus on mission alignment. The National Aquarium in Baltimore has found success creating partnerships based on shared mission alignment.

Case in point: The aquarium’s new partnership with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

Rather than simply using a co-branded beer as the centerpiece of a cause marketing campaign, the brewer highlighted the aquarium’s research efforts by bringing its world-class water quality team into the story.

Aquarium experts created a replicable blend of salt and minerals that mirror the Chesapeake Bay’s composition that is used in the brewing process of their collaborative beer, SeaQuench Ale.

The aquarium also invited corporate teams to participate in its field conservation efforts, offering hands-on volunteer engagement opportunities to actively celebrate shared environmental and community values.

“In my opinion, standardized sponsorship packages are now far less valuable than providing sponsors with opportunities for authentic engagement, storytelling and impact,” said Stephanie Chall, the National Aquarium’s director of corporate membership & sponsorship.

Think beyond major events. While many zoos focus on selling sponsorship around tent pole events (Boo at the Zoo, etc.), the Los Angeles Zoo looks to balance out its portfolio with companies that receive a presence throughout the year.

One key selling point: a clutter-free marketing environment.

“They don’t have competition from other partners. They can activate throughout the year with fun activities that enhance the visitor experience,” said Brian Levitz, director of corporate giving and sponsorships with the Los Angeles Zoo.

Levitz points to an automaker as an example. The company will visit the zoo for 14 days throughout the year and activate the tie with street teams, special activities and surprise and delight experiences that will “impact each and every visitor.”

Treat sponsors as clients, not donors. The LA Zoo positions itself as an agency when servicing corporate partners. That includes account management, print and display media production, social media tracking and promotion management.

“Everything should be managed successfully, like an agency. That’s a different way of thinking compared to the way most fundraising departments work. You need to service sponsors as clients, not donors.”