ZAG History


  • ZAG is a loose collection of about 60 non profit AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums that meet once a year for dinner during the November Smoky Mountain Gift Show in Gatlinburg, TN.
  • Donations are sought from key merchandise vendors to pay for the dinner.
  • During these years the dinner is organized by one person, which at times include Greg Cain of Zoo Atlanta, Charlie……? of the Columbus Zoo, and finally Laura Romano of the Santa Barbara Zoo.


  • Laura Romano steps down as the organizer of the annual dinner. Dave Albert of the Brookfield Zoo, Steve Fairchild of the Sedgwick County Zoo and Judy Jones of the North Carolina Zoo volunteer to take over. They begin to make ZAG into a more formalized and structured organization.
  • Membership is opened up to include for profit, non AZA-accredited facilities, and expands beyond zoos and aquariums to safari parks, marine science centers, butterfly houses and other wildlife facilities.
  • A members’ contact list, which includes the merchandise buyer’s name, job title, mailing and e-mail addresses, phone and fax numbers, is created.
  • A quarterly newsletter is begun.
  • A sponsorship program for merchandise vendors wishing to target the zoo and aquarium retail industry is created. ZAG is now funded entirely by these sponsorships, which pays for the annual dinner and the mailing costs of putting out the quarterly newsletter and members’ contact list.
  • The annual dinner in Gatlinburg is revamped and expanded to make it more informative for members. Immediately after dinner come roundtable discussions between the members about merchandise trends, successes and failures of the previous year, and these topics are later reported in the newsletter. A merchandise display table of the best or newest products from ZAG sponsors exhibiting at the shows is created at the annual dinner. A guide to the ZAG sponsors exhibiting at the Gatlinburg and Sevierville gift shows is created, showing their booth locations, product line summaries, and any show or ZAG members only specials they are offering.


  • Membership grows from 80 to over 240 people, representing approximately 200 wildlife facilities.
  • Sponsorships, each $500 annually, increase to about 80 sponsors.
  • ZAG begins promoting regional meetings, informal, one day get togethers for ZAG members located near each other.
  • ZAG begins to build relationships with several gift show organizers who help promote ZAG and provide break rooms, snacks and networking opportunities during major trade shows.
  • ZAG begins to offer its members complimentary subscriptions to three zoo/aquarium/museum/resort merchandise trade magazines, Museums and More, Souvenir Gifts and Novelties, and Edplay.
  • A board of directors is formed to make the organization more professionally run and financially accountable.  The first board includes Steve Fairchild as President, Dave Albert as Vice-President, Judy Jones as Treasurer and Mary Jane Brown of the Akron Zoo as Secretary.


  • ZAG incorporates as a non-profit organization.  Its mission is to increase communication and networking opportunities between merchandise buyers in the zoo and aquarium industry so that through sharing information all members may operate their gift shops more profitably for their facilities.
  • The board expands to nine people.
  • Membership exceeds 300 people from about 280 facilities.
  • Sponsorships exceed 100 vendors, including 6-8 trade show and trade magazine sponsors who are given complimentary sponsorship in exchange of their support of ZAG.


  • ZAG sends out its first members survey, meant to provide a quantitative performance guide to members on how they compare to others in their industry from similarly sized facilities on financial benchmarks such as per caps, margins, cost of goods sold, seasonal labor costs, sales by square foot, etc.


  • The first ZAG web site ( is created, which features back issues of the newsletter and links to the sponsors grouped by merchandise category.
  • ZAG works with several gift show operators, including Sevierville, Gatlinburg and Las Vegas , to provide ZAG members with breakfasts and activities designed to increase networking opportunities and help promote the sponsors’ products to the members at the shows.


  • ZAG is on Facebook, Twitter.
  • Membership exceeds 360 people from over 315 wildlife facilities.
  • Sponsorships continue to include about 100-110 vendors.
  • ZAG sends out its second members survey.
  • ZAG switches from mailing out hard copies of the quarterly newsletter to an electronic version, saving paper and money.
  • ZAG initiates the first two “travel scholarships,” where ZAG pays for the transportation, hotel and food costs of two ZAG members who have never been to a major gift show and work for facilities that are too small to afford to send their buyers to these shows.  The first two winners are Cheyl Lopes of Buttonwood Park Zoo and Laurie Vanderwal of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.


  • ZAG Membership exceeds 401 people from over 320 wildlife facilities an all time record!
  • ZAG Sponsorships continues to grow to about 133 vendors and trade show promoters.
  • ZAG expands their resources to help membership increase profits by providing best business practices in their resource section.
  • ZAG members are featured in Museums and More Magazine.
  • ZAG is featured in a special section within Souvenir Gifts & Novelty Magazine.
  • ZAG Board members participate in AZA Conference showcasing the value of “Independent” Brand Management, provide product resources and conservation commerce partnerships.
  • ZAG Vendors continue to provide year long specials and discounts to all their members.
  • ZAG Continues to provide “travel scholarships,” where ZAG pays for the transportation, hotel and food costs of two ZAG members who have never been to a major gift show and work for facilities that are too small to afford to send their buyers to these shows. 2015 winners Amy Lohr (Austin Zoo) and Vicki Lantz (Lazy L Safari).