Couple vows to press on with Balloon Extravaganza after chamber withdrawal

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Eastern Arizona Courier Article by Tom Bodus

There will be balloons in the sky come New Year’s, AZ Air Venture owners Greg and Susan Lindsey promise, whether the Graham County Chamber of Commerce is involved or not.

The Safford-based hot-air-balloon-ride company joined with the Graham Chamber of Commerce in organizing the Gila Valley Balloon Extravaganza, which brought 20 balloons to the region for a community festival held Dec. 30 through Jan. 2.

It was a much-expanded version of an event the Lindseys organized themselves with about seven balloonists in 2021. This year, 20 pilots along with about 75 crew members traveled to the Gila Valley from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California and Arizona.

Having the local skies dotted with colorful hot air balloons may be exciting and visually appealing, but it didn’t turn out to be profitable for the chamber, which said it lost nearly $28,000 on the project.

The chamber announced Wednesday in a release that it would discontinue organizing the event effective immediately.

Chamber Executive Director Vance Bryce accepted responsibility for the event’s failure, explaining the sponsor communication strategy, vendor contracts, and funding plan were not adequate to make the event financially successful.

“All chamber events are funded through staff negotiating sponsorships and soliciting in-kind donations,” the chamber said in its release. “The goal is to break even or make a little income in the process. In the case of the Balloon Extravaganza, the chamber was unsuccessful, and had to draw on much needed operating funds to pay all the bills. While the Chamber brought in $11,241.89 of revenue from sponsors and product sales for the event, the expenses totalled $39,169.16, leaving a deficit of $27,927.27 in the funding plan.

“The business model didn’t work,” chamber board President Reed Richins said. “We can’t have events that lose this much money. I have confidence that Vance is learning hard lessons from this and changing how we do business.”

Poor weather also played a part in the event’s lack of success.

“On the first day of the event, all of the pilots flew from Safford landing throughout the Valley, one as far as Klondike Road,” Susan Lindsey said. “On each of the following days, the rain, winds, and muddy conditions prohibited the balloons from even inflating. Saturday night, the rain stopped enough to allow the pilots to candlestick where they set out their baskets and lit their burners for the community in the Home Depot parking lot.”

Nevertheless, the Lindseys said plans were already in motion as of January to continue the event for 2023 and perhaps even increase it to 30 pilots. As the year proceeded, the couple said they secured commitments from the pilots who all planned to return, and they formed a waiting list of more pilots who hoped to be invited if the event expanded.

The Lindseys said the goal of the Extravaganza has always been to draw people to the Gila Valley and share the joy of ballooning with the community and the neighboring communities.

“We were excited when the chamber became involved because the goal also became to increase tourism while creating a fun event for our community,” Susan Lindsey said.

The Lindseys said they met with chamber officials as recently as Aug. 10 to discuss plans for the next Extravaganza.

However, on Aug. 11, the Lindseys said they received an email from Bryce informing them the chamber of commerce would not be moving forward with the venture.

The chamber said in its release its staff and board are disappointed, but understanding of the decision to discontinue the event.

“I’m certainly learning a lot about where I failed in leading this team,” Bryce said. “I didn’t have a plan B for bad weather or understand how much I underfunded the event. It was clear to me that the model that we used to pay for the event was critically flawed, and that I needed to recommend discontinuing our event. A first-year event is always challenging when it comes to paying all the bills, and we expected to make an investment the first time around, just not this big of an investment. I wasn’t able to come up with a plan that would be different enough from the first year to make a difference to justify having the event for a second year.”

Bryce said some procedural changes he is implementing to create more sustainable events include a significantly more robust budgeting process, a better sponsor communication plan, clear and binding vendor contracts, and incentives for all chamber staff to raise funds.

“I am disappointed in my performance,” he said. “I’m using this as fuel to do much better moving forward. I’m grateful for the patience of our team. I think the only people more disappointed are our most significant vendors, the staff and volunteer crew of our local balloon pilots. I’m terribly sorry that we aren’t able to continue to organize this event.”

He invited the community to email him with their concerns and recommendations at director@grahamchamber.org.

“We are very disappointed at the last-minute notice of this, but our crew met last night, and they all want to help the pilots return to the Gila Valley for the Extravaganza,” Susan Lindsey said.

As far as the amount of money the chamber reported it lost on the event, the Lindseys said they had no comment, as they were not involved in what the chamber spent or what money they brought in.

The Lindseys said they did need to find sponsorships to bring the balloons back, but “they definitely didn’t need as much money as the chamber reported.”

The said sponsorships include balloon rides as well as advertising options including social media and banners. Contact Greg or Susan Lindsey at info@AzAirVentures.com for more information.

“We just want to help make the Gila Valley a great place to visit and live,” they said.

Bryce said the chamber would be still happy to participate in the event on a more limited basis.

Reach Tom Bodus at tom@eacourier.com or at (928) 424-6231.


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