Shop Talk: American Balloon Co.
Spotlight On: Alexandria, Va.
From singing sales to government goods
By Abby Heugel
Not many people can say that their business was responsible for having their “Marilyn Monroe” sing to Sen. Strom Thurman for his 100th birthday celebration or that they’ve sent performers to the Capital building multiple times. However, Lori Viera of American Balloon Co. in Alexandria, Va., can, as adding singing telegrams has been a great add-on to their party business.
“We actually purchased all the costumes from a going-out-of-business sale,” Viera said. “We’re friends with some local actors and performers and started taking gigs for them and providing the costumes. We don’t offer the personalities on a regular basis because we have to arrange with a specific performer in advance, but the regular characters like the pink gorilla, puppy dog, teddy bear, etc. are offered everyday because any performer can do them.”
And of course they deliver balloons when they do any singing telegram, as that is the core of American Balloon Co.
Viera and her husband had always wanted to own their own business and set their own schedules so that they could spend more time with their children. Neither she or her husband had retail experience — she was a CPA and he had been working in construction for 12 years — but they felt they had a pretty good mix of skills.
So when the opportunity came up to start a business in 2002, they took the leap and started as a balloon decorating business working out of a small office where they took balloon decorating, balloon delivery and singing telegram orders over the phone and via the Internet. That took off, and in 2006 they opened a retail party store focusing on balloon sales.
They currently have a 2,100-square-foot store and offer everything from balloon décor and balloon deliveries to party supplies for every occasion and singing telegrams in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Two-thirds of the store is for party supplies and the other third is for balloons, including a large balloon counter located at the back of the store with the walls behind and in front of the counter displaying Mylar balloons for purchase.
“The balloon decorating is a very active part of the business and runs together with the store,” Viera said. “We always keep a balloon design at the front of the store like a balloon column or balloon tree and frequently have customers come to the store to see pictures and place their decorating orders in the store. The balloon deliveries go through Balloonplanet.com and we are a charter partner of Balloonplanet.com which is now worldwide delivery.”
Viera said they learned a lot from the Qualatex CBA course, but they mostly learned from doing it (and doing it again and again.) Although they never sat for the CBA exam, both of them have been through it many times and feel that they would rather turn down a job than take it and dread doing it.
“Our general business philosophy is that we do the jobs we want to do, when we want to do it,” she said. “We love what we do and it shows in our work.”
Latex balloons sell the best in the party store, but when it comes to everyday party, solid color products rate at the top in terms of popularity, followed by baby showers and 1st birthday. Viera said they make sure to decorate the store with lots of balloons and they recently moved all the baby shower merchandise to a prominent place at the front of the store, a spot that most often features the seasonal party supplies display and the latest family movie related party supplies.
“We always ask suppliers for their displays,” she said. “It’s great not to re-create the wheel, so if there is a plan-o-gram available we use it. If there is a display available we ask for it.”
They decorate mostly for corporate events, including a lot of work inside the U.S. Senate and House office buildings.
“We decorate the Senate staff lunch room for different events and have also done singing telegrams in the Senate staff offices,” Viera said. “In addition, we also look forward to inaugural balls and events in the area and New Year’s Eve is big here.”
They do a lot of holiday, casino and football parties and decorate annually for the Susan G Komen race for the cure survivor dinner.
“Every year we decorate for a Susan G Komen Race for the Cure event in Washington, D.C. and since we have been doing the event for the last seven years, the organizer allows us to come up with the design on our own for their approval,” Viera said. “They give us a theme and we suggest the design. For 2011 is was ‘game night’ so we came up with a huge ‘Game of Life’ wheel made of balloons. It was a big hit. People stopped to take pictures with the balloon display all night, even people just walking by and not associated with the event.”
Viera said the biggest obstacle they face right now is competition in their area, but they’re always out actively meeting prospective customers and trying to win area hotel business especially.
“We keep our prices competitive and make sure we are on par or lower than the big party store up the street,” Viera said. “We offer great customer service and greet every customer as they enter and always offer assistance, never waiting for customers to ask for help. We’ve had many customers tell us they come back because of the service and the friendly staff.”
Her best advice? It is the best way to keep your customers confident and always be on time — especially if that customer is a 100-year-old senator. You don’t want to keep him waiting.