Popularity of Walla Walla Balloon Stampede lifts costs

April 14, 2013 

— The 39th annual Walla Walla Balloon Stampede is facing inflation this year. As in more balloons and, consequently, increased costs to support the event.

More of the colorful hot air balloons are scheduled to fly the skies in Walla Walla next month, said Betsy Hadden, director of member services for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event.

As of last week, 42 balloonists were booked for the festival and scheduled to come from as far away as Texas and Missouri.

Although approximations have put the number of balloons around 40 over the past many years, the actual number has typically ranged from the mid- to high-30s.

Increased outreach to balloonists has helped bump the number, which Hadden said is the maximum the coming 39th annual Stampede can handle. Last year’s banner four days of flawless flying conditions also likely contributed to the spike, she said.

“It was a glorious year last year,” she said before making the inaugural check on weather predictions for the May 10-12 production. “It was really, really nice.”

The one hitch to the calm weather is that the more frequently the balloons rise, the more fuel costs there are to cover. It’s a good problem, but one that needs help, Hadden said.

Sponsorships -- which range from the $50-$100 Balloon Booster level to $1,400 for a Balloonmeister level -- are down at just a month away.

Hadden said the economy has hurt the free public festival. She’s trying to get more creative with how organizations can contribute.

“It can be businesses or individuals or partnerships between different organizations,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be one business.”

The Balloonmeister sponsorships also come with the ultimate prize -- a balloon ride for two during the event.

Every year the Chamber receives hundreds of calls from people wondering how they can get a ride in one of the balloons. But the rides are reserved for sponsors only, thus making it virtually “priceless,” she said.

The financial contributions -- along with vendor fees for those operating booths during the Stampede at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds -- help cover venue space for everything from the first night’s champagne reception to the pancake breakfasts, propane for the pilots and a stipend intended to cover three nights of discounted lodging in Chamber-member hotels and a couple of meals.

For someone coming from halfway across the country, it’s hardly enough to cover their actual costs.

“They’re spending a lot of their own money to come here,” she said. “It’s the sponsors, the community volunteers and you have to have the pilots who have the passion for the sport” to make it all work.

Hadden said eight of the 42 pilots coming are designated as unsponsored, meaning they won’t receive the stipend. Pilots can be unsponsored for one of two reasons: either they request it, which means they also aren’t committed to giving sponsor rides, or the pilot does not have a commercial balloon license.

And while the event costs can go up with the calm, smooth weather, most of the expenses are set whether rain or shine.

“There’s nothing that we don’t have to pay for,” Hadden said.

In addition to more balloons, a few other changes are in store this year. The champagne reception that typically kicks off the weekend will be moved from the fairgrounds to the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center. Hadden said the move was prompted by logistics of putting on the dinner, but will run comparably in cost for the $35-per-ticket event.

Also changing will be the addition of parking options and the possible closure of Orchard Street for safety as pedestrians cross the roadway throughout the weekend.

In the meantime, Hadden said the Chamber welcomes volunteers interested in putting things together. Volunteer meetings take place at the Chamber every Monday at 5:30 p.m. “I hope this year we have another banner year.”

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