Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald: Balloons launch during the inaugural Gila Valley New Year’s Balloon Extravaganza last year. The Graham County Chamber of Commerce will not be funding the event this year, but local hot-air balloon company AZ Air Ventures vows to continue it.
AZ Air Ventures will continue the event
“We’ve done this for a number of years. We plan to continue to do it.”Greg Lindsey AZ Air Ventures
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – On a crisp winter’s morning in late December 2021, 13 balloons lifted off from a field at Ruth Powell Elementary School in what was the initial and ultimately final flight of the 2021 Gila Valley New Year’s Balloon Extravaganza. Now, a local hot-air balloon company is looking to ensure it won’t be the only flight.
The event, put on by the Graham County Chamber of Commerce, drew 20 hot-air balloon pilots to the Gila Valley. Unfortunately, the weather limited the balloon flights to that inaugural trip, and the extravaganza was not a financial success.
The extravaganza was born out of the mind of Greg and Susan Lindsey of AZ Air Ventures, who started the Safford Balloon Extravaganza over New Year’s weekend 2020/21.
“For the last several years, a few of our pilot friends would come over the holiday weekend and fly with us. Two years ago we decided to expand the event and create the Safford Balloon Extravaganza by inviting a few more friends,” Susan Lindsey said.
The first Safford Balloon Extravaganza brought seven pilots to the Gila Valley who traveled from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Indiana with their families and crews. The group gathered to enjoy the Arizona sunshine and fly community members who wanted to come out and help crew. “We had excellent weather and flew all four days and we also were able to put on a drive-by balloon glow for the community along 20th Ave. The pilots loved it and planned to continue the tradition of coming over New Year’s,” Greg Lindsey said.
Following the first event, multiple community members and some city council members who were excited to see so many balloons in the valley started contacting the Lindseys excited about the balloons coming to the valley. According to the Lindseys, they were interested in what it would take to make this into a bigger, annual event similar to the ones currently held in Pinetop/Lakeside or Lake Havasu. The Graham County Chamber also wanted to support and expand the Extravaganza as they saw the value in creating a large community event. As planning for the 2021-2022 event proceeded, the name was changed from the Safford Balloon Extravaganza to The Gila Valley Balloon Extravaganza and New Year’s Eve Block Party with plans to involve as much of the Gila Valley as possible. The idea was to create a big New Year’s Eve party on 14th Avenue including a band, vendors, and a balloon glow which could provide a great community event as well as a source of income to help offset the costs.
The Lindseys served as balloon meisters coordinating the incoming pilots and balloon details of the event while the Chamber was coordinating the surrounding event including planning the block party, coordinating the vendors, finding sponsorships, and finding community support. The Chamber ran into some hurdles in trying to coordinate the block party, so in lieu of a party, a New Year’s Eve glow was planned for the Mt. Graham Golf Course and a glow at the Pima rodeo grounds was also planned.
On the weekend of the 2021-2022 Extravaganza, 20 pilots along with about 75 crew members traveled to the Gila Valley from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Unfortunately, a terrible multi-day rainstorm also came that weekend. On the first day of the event, all of the pilots flew from Safford landing throughout the valley, one as far as Klondike Road. 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.
Following the event, in January plans were set in motion to continue the event for the 2022-2023 New Year’s weekend and perhaps even increase it to 30 pilots. As the year proceeded, the Lindseys 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. After the meeting in January, meetings started again in August where the Chamber shared plans for the event which included a band already booked and a downtown block party for New Year’s Eve. After two August meetings, the Lindseys received an email from the director of the Chamber informing them that the Extravaganza had been canceled indefinitely.
According to a news release, Graham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vance Bryce recently recommended to the Chamber Events and Finance Committees that the Chamber discontinue organizing the extravaganza.
In a news release, the Chamber stated that while roughly $11,240 in revenue was brought in from sponsors and product sales, expenses totaled roughly $39,169, leaving a deficit of about $27,927. According to the release, the Chamber’s sponsor communication strategy, vendor contracts, and funding plan were not adequate to make the event successful.
“The business model didn’t work,” said Chamber Board President Reed Richins. “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.”
The release states that the Chamber’s board and staff are disappointed but understand the decision to discontinue sponsoring the event.
“I’m certainly learning a lot about where I failed in leading this team,” said Bryce. “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.”
The Chamber said it would implement procedure changes to create more sustainable events and include a “significantly more robust budgeting process, better sponsor communication plan, clear and binding vendor contracts, and incentives for all chamber staff to raise funds to create amazing events for everyone in the Gila Valley and beyond.”
For the Lindseys, 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.
While the Lindseys are disappointed at the last-minute notice of the Chamber withdrawing their support, they have no intention of letting the Extravaganza die. “We’ve done this for a number of years. We plan to continue to do it,” said Greg Lindsey.
In order for this to continue as a community event, the Lindsey’s are looking for sponsors for the event. “We need to provide hotel rooms for our pilots and propane for them to fly and glow. That takes some investment from the community,” Greg Lindsey said.
The Lindseys hope that the Gila Valley can create an event that encourages local residents to stay in town for the holiday weekend by giving them something fun to do but also draws large crowds to the Gila Valley.
“The Pinetop/Lakeside event sells out their local hotels three months before their event,” Susan Lindsey said. ” They draw people from all over Arizona. The Gila Valley community has an opportunity to create a community event like a New Year’s Block Party and include balloons as one of the attractions, but it needs to be something the local municipalities want to do. We want to help by having balloons be part of an event like this.” The Lindseys travel to similar events in small communities all over. “We know what this can do for smaller communities,” Susan said.
“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 reported as being lost by the Chamber, the Lindseys said they had no comment as they were not involved in what the Chamber spent or what money they brought in. They did mention that not all of the sponsorships seemed to be sold. 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. Sponsorships include balloon rides as well as advertising options including social media and banners, so anyone interested in helping make this event successful can contact Greg or Susan Lindsey at info@AzAirVentures.com. “We just want to help make the Gila Valley a great place to visit and live,” they added.
The mission of the Graham County Chamber of Commerce is to increase the quality of life for everyone in the Gila Valley through connection, leadership, and tourism. The Chamber and Safford Lions Club will host the popular SalsaFest on Sept. 23 and 24 at Firemen’s Park in Safford in front of City Hall.
AZ Air Ventures contributed to this report.