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Shop Talk: Balloon Express

Shop Talk: Balloon Express

Listen to your mother when she tells you what to do


The success of Balloon Express in Hutchinson, Kan., is the result of a lot of hard work, but also the result of a wish from owner Maribeth Borders' dying mother. She told her daughter that after more than 40 years in nursing, she should seek a change - something happier day in and day out.

After losing both her mother and younger brother in 2008, she decided to do just that. Borders got out of nursing to "do something fun in life" and by January 2009, she was doing business as Party2U out of her home, providing unique special event planning for nursing homes that included taking the party to them.

For Borders, balloons were always an important part of any celebration, and it soon became apparent that there was a lack of balloon special event design and decorating in the area. Looking to fill this need, she located a wholesale balloon store in Andover, Kan., and invested in a Qualatex Balloon Network Certified Balloon Artist (CBA) kit to learn the balloon business.

"I'll never forget the day my husband came home to find a helium tank in the garage," Borders said.

Décor and Display
After watching, studying and practicing the CBA content, she opened Balloon Express in September 2009 at a storefront in Hutchinson, determined to provide balloon décor, on-site decorating and unique gift bouquets. She located a building with a great location, called her husband at work to ask if she could open the store and he said yes. Borders said they developed a business plan, the business was born and they haven't looked back since.

"I focus on the customers, retail sales, design and decorating aspects of the business (the fun part) and let my husband take care of the business/accounting/contracts side of the business in addition to his full time job," Borders said. "I call him the CEO or marketing director, but he jokingly insists that his title is more accurately described as the senior volunteer."

The store soon had a regular client base that kept her occupied full-time with retail sales, balloon bouquets and gift operations. As a result, she didn't have the time to focus on her goal of decorating for special events until January 2010 when the business added the first employee. This enabled Borders to start focusing on growing the special event decorating side of the business. By Valentine's Day, it was necessary to bring in additional part-time help to deal with the increased demand for holiday sales and special event decorating.

"Our typical customer is one that sees the storefront display and feels compelled to come in and view the merchandise," Borders said. "When they walk in, they experience the ‘wow' factor and usually say they had no idea that could be done with balloons."

Borders tries to keep displays changing so customers will experience something different with every visit, and it seems to be working. She said they will come back simply to see what's changed and then Balloon Express ends up with a sale. Aside from the storefront and displays, they get a lot of word of mouth referrals and do brick and mortar marketing with local businesses, something that has provided a strong foundation based on repeat business.

Start Small and Specialize
While she acknowledges that the current location is too small to add additional products for revenue, it meets their current needs.

"My goal is to start small and grow bigger by focusing on the current product offerings and then expanding as I get the opportunity," Borders said. "I foresee the need to expand in the future, but I'm not too concerned about it now. Business is great and I want to get excellent at what we are currently doing."

These days most of their sales are a result of the special event decorating side of the business, as Balloon Express is now doing multiple events weekly - weddings, Quinceañeras, anniversaries - and is actively booking more each week for future events. Borders noted a couple recent occasions that reminded her once again why she chose this profession.

"A couple came in wanting a bag of balloons," she said. "They were getting married the next evening and were going to do their own decorating at a local country club. By the time they left, Balloon Express had booked the decorating job for the wedding reception. At the head table, there was a high chair between the bride and groom with fantasy clouds floating overhead behind them. It was an amazing job and is a great conversation topic."

Later that month a young man came in to purchase a gift in a balloon for his 1-year-old son's birthday, but requested that the bottom of the balloon include three gold foil stars with the words, "Will U Marry Daddy?" written on them surrounding a diamond ring in a porcelain container. Shredded paper was filled in over the stars with the child's gifts on top, and he planned to have his son pop the balloon, letting the child's gifts spill out and revealing the foil hearts and the ring. Borders added that, "she said yes, and they're now planning the wedding with us."

To hone her craft, she attends most of the balloon design seminars in the area and attended the World Balloon Convention in April, stating that she was amazed at the talent and designs displayed, including the talented professionals teaching the classes on designs and business and the opportunity to network with other balloon and industry professionals.

"My business has and will continue to benefit from what I learned at the convention by incorporating new designs into my current product offering," Borders said. "Cinco de Mayo was a big success for me by incorporating some of the new designs for the local businesses. They were amazed and I'm anxious to incorporate more in the very near future."

With success comes challenges, of course, and Borders has found that hiring the right people to work for her and training them can be difficult. In addition, she is working on efficient ways to minimize inventory and still satisfy walk-in customers; improve the cost structure; refresh and incorporate new designs; and most importantly, improve the quality of the product and experience that the customer has.

"When I started the business, I could not have imagined where it would be today and I'm excited about what the future holds for growth," she said. "I do work a lot of hours, but when I complain to my husband, he says, ‘You're living the dream.' I know that my mother would be proud because I am living the dream."

By Abby Heugel,Managing Editor

Originally posted Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010