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Advertising Gimmick Turns Into Balloon Business

Two decades after he bought an inflatable advertising balloon shaped like a hot air balloon to promote his U.S. Cellular business, Wil LaPointe of Parsons, Kan., is now a longtime hot air balloonist himself. The original 15-foot-high cold air inflatable was simply intended as an advertising gimmick, but in 1988 a man came to his business and struck up a conversation about using balloons for promotions, and LaPointe raised the idea of buying a much larger balloon for the business.

"The guy said it would have to be a regular hot air balloon to be that size," LaPointe says. "I asked him, ’Have you got one?’" In fact, the man was an employee of hot air balloon manufacturer Arrow Star, and after selling the balloon to LaPointe, he offered to teach LaPointe how to fly the balloon for real. Already a fixed-wing pilot at that point, LaPointe made his first-ever hot air balloon trip in his newly purchased balloon, and he saw how much attention it attracted from the ground. The next day, LaPointe took over the controls himself for the first time, and the ballooning bug has not left him since then—he got his private license in 1990 and started using the balloon not only for advertising but also for competitive racing, which went from being his pastime to being his new career.

"In 1990 and 1991, I had some pretty good years in the cellular business," he says. "I had bought several balloons, and decided I was going to get serious about ballooning." Ever since 1990, he has been Oklahoma state champion every year except for the one year he did not compete: "In ranking I’ve never been lower than 50th and there are approximately 3,700 competitive pilots. This year I slipped and I am only ranked eighth in the nation."

July 13, 2009

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