The Bluff City Balloon Jamboree is coming to Collierville, TN. With 30 hot air balloons, 16,000 expected attendees, carnival games, and more, it’s an event that you won’t want to miss. Bluff City Balloons’ co-owner, Toni Durham, discusses the upcoming event and her love of hot air balloons on this episode of the Main and Mulberry Podcast.
August 21 – 23, 2020 (“Special Night for Special Kids”: Friday, General Public: Saturday and Sunday)
Admission: ages 5 – 12, 65+: $5, ages 13 – 64: $10, children ages 0 – 4: free, VIP tickets available
Parking: $10/car, 398 New Byhalia Road, Collierville, TN
(for ticketing and other information, visit the event’s website: https://thebluffcityballoonjamboree.com/)
See the transcript below.
Anna Bell: Hello everyone. I’m Anna Bell and today, I’m thankful to have with us Toni Durham, the owner of Bluff City Balloons, and kind of talk with us about how she’s planning to operate under social restrictions as we all kind of phase into business post Covid-19 shutdown. So Toni, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Toni Durham: Thank you for inviting me.
AB: Tell me, I’d love to kind of get started and hear about how you got into the hot air balloon business. You know, tell us a little bit of background when you got started.
TD: My husband Skip, who is the balloon pilot, bought his first balloon in 2008 and um, we started dating in 2009. So I dated into it and I always tell everyone that I fell in love with the balloon and I fell in love with ballooning and I fell in love with Skip. And we got married in 2011. I asked him for a hot air balloon ride company. He said, absolutely not. I was persistent and six months later he went to Phoenix and got his commercial ticket and he told me I had to set up my own LLC and we have been partners and we’ve been flying out of Collierville for eight years now. Unbelievable. And it’s the best business you can have.
AB: Yeah, that is so cool. You know? And for those who don’t know, Toni and I have actually a few months ago got to work together and work on a really in depth piece about their background. So I encourage you to go over to tourcollierville.com check out that article, “Serenity Between The Sounds” because we really got to talk and get to know the full story. And it’s pretty cool. Not everybody gets to say that they end up with the love of their life in a hot air balloon too, right?
TD: Double bonus. That’s right.
AB: So tell me, how have things been? You know, since the shut down, you get to schedule a lot of really romantic rods from like engagements to anniversary rides. Did all of that have to come to a home walk with the shutdown?
TD: We chose for it to come to a halt. It is so, so interesting because from March on to right now, people have requested to fly and every time I talked to them about, you know, the COVID protocols and all that, people were like, we don’t care. You know, they just wanted to be outside in the air flying. It’s a happy thing to do. But we just thought it was prudent to follow all of the other protocols just like every other small business. But we will start flying June 1st, we had a brand new balloon built, bigger and it is a unique design. It has flowers and butterflies and dragonflies on it.
TD: Her name is Mischief. That’s our third one. Hijinks and now Mischief. And she was built in the Czech Republic. It took months to do it. And because of the artwork and all of that, she’s in Florida right now. We will, she’s here and we will pick her up in Foley, Alabama the last weekend of May. We’ll fly with the dealer cause it’s a little different system and then we will be home with this big beautiful balloon. And we’ll be flying in June and I’ve got a lot of flights booked up and this is a larger balloon so we’ll be able to take more people in the basket during the heat of summer. Y’all will love her and Collierville, she is gorgeous.
AB: Oh, I’m so excited. So there has been a bright spot in the middle of all this scary craziness. This new balloon has been a good thing, right?
TD: And I think if people go on the Bluff City Balloons Facebook page, I have um, video of her inflating in the Czech Republic before they put her on the boat.
AB: That is so cool. Mischief. Well we all have something to look forward to now, getting to see Mischief. So during the shutdown period though, you know, what were you having to think through or do a little differently to kind of stay connected with the community now that you had postponed flights?
TD: It was, it’s been really interesting because, you know, people still contacted us. We were still out there. For two or three weeks, You know, it got really quiet and I was really at loose ends because running a balloons ride company, it’s just a different kind of business and wherever I am is where the businesses, you know, I am not brick and mortar.
TD: And then the trailer and then the pilot and then the crew and the crew has just been heartbroken because they want to fly. And two or three weeks ago we pulled Hi-jinks out at the Honda library just to do a little maintenance on her and just because the crew were antsy about just touching the balloon again. But we’ve had a lot of phone calls and we have other things going on with the business. So it’s been pretty, pretty busy. The response of people, people really want to be up there in the sky flying. It’s been so pretty. It’s been so pretty and we haven’t been able to do it. That’s the worst.
AB: I know for me personally, just getting the sunshine and getting outside has done a world of good. So the hot air balloon ride, that really should lift the spirits,
TD: It lifts my spirits.
AB: Now that we’re in phase one of businesses re-opening, tell me, kind of talk to us about how things might be changing for you guys going forward in the foreseeable future with the social restrictions that we’re all under right now?
TD: Well, we thought about it, we’d put a lot of thought into it and because our business is so different, the way, the model of it, and we can’t social distance inside the basket, right? But it’ll just be the passengers and Skip. We are, we always meet our passengers at the Collierville public library. And so we will take everyone’s temperature when we make, that’ll be the crew, the pilot, me and the passengers to do that due diligence.
TD: Passengers may bring their own masks and wear that. We will sanitize the balloon basket. And we will not do that until we are out at the launch site so everyone can see us doing. So we’ll have hand sanitizer. The manufacturer of the balloon has sent the crew and Skip and I masks that look like the balloon, which is, I might wear it all the time, even after corona. It’s so cute. But we will wear masks. Skip will probably not fly with a mask on because just for the pilot there’s, you know, um, but he would, if someone felt very uncomfortable, but everyone I’ve talked to, they understand the dimensions of the basket. And no one has been afraid. No one has. So people can go on and look at our website. The balloon ride package will not change. And you know, we’ll do the best we can do.
AB: I think everybody’s looking for too, like we were saying earlier, a little bit of fresh air and what better way going up in a hot air balloon. That sounds so fun.
TD: Well, it’s like we’re not confined. I mean we are in the air so you’ve got a lot of fresh air and that sort of thing. So you know, it’s not like being in a closed environment. The other thing too is that people are standing under a burner and they say that COVID and warm are a good combination. So yeah, we have your fire in the air, so.
AB: So typically how long does the balloon ride last?
TD: For about an hour and Skip does a good job. Where we launch, depends on wind direction and wind space, but he tries to fly over Collierville proper and then rural so people can see the wildlife and that sort of thing. So we try to give people, you know, that full experience, you know.
AB: You know, last time we really got together, you had some exciting news about an upcoming event that you’re planning to host right here in Collierville. And you know, I’m wondering if you can kind of tell us a little bit about that event and it has been affected due to the coronavirus? Cause I know originally we said maybe Father’s Day of 2020, which is like mid-June I think. Tell us about that event.
TD: Well, going forward it will always be on Father’s Day and this is as an aside, we’ve worked with the Town of Collierville. We want this to be a legacy event, like other major balloon festivals, so that 40, 50 years, so Skip and I when we’re dead and gone, that Collierville will still have this festival.
TD: So every year it’s going to be on Father’s Day weekend. This year we decided to move the event until August. We felt like that was the prudent thing to do. And so it’s scheduled for August 21st through 23rd. The fabulous thing about the festival and we didn’t have this plan when you and I talked. On Friday night, it will be a privately held event called a Special Night for Special Kids. And the Jamboree is going to host 500 special needs children and their families and they will have their own mini balloon festival. So there’ll be tethered rods, we’ll feed them, there’ll be, you know, bounce houses, games, face painting. Home Depot is going to bring things out, but it will all be at no charge to these families. So different organizations to help us provide this. And that’s really special. And so it’ll end with the balloon, but he’ll be a safe, relaxed, spread out environment for everyone.
TD: And then the festival will start really on Saturday at 5:30 in the morning, 30 balloons will launch off the fields on Maynard Way behind Walmart. So balloons, carnival ride, everything, everything. If you can think of it, we’re going to have it.
AB: Where did that idea come from to do the special needs night? You know, it sounds like you’re planning a weekend and beyond, but I love the fact that you’re willing to do something like that. That’s so great.
TD: Well, you know, the Town of Collierville was concerned, as our we, we’re projecting, when we started planning this, we’re projecting attendance of about 16,000. And so the festival will be on Maynard Way, so Maynard Way will be closed at Byhalia and at Poplar. And there was a little bit of concern of what the Friday night traffic would look like.
TD: So we had that. Then Skip and I, you know, we want to give back to the community, what we have been so freely given and do not deserve. And so we thought, how can we do that? And we have worked with some organizations and some special needs children before and we thought, why don’t we just make this huge and 500 kids is huge. We would love to do a thousand but not year one, we can’t. So people have been, the families are just wonderful. And the organizations we’re working with are just wonderful. And so this will be a yearly event too. So Friday night it will always be that event and then two days of the actual open to the public festival on Saturdays and Sundays.
AB: That’s so awesome. So kind of tell me about Saturday and Sunday. What will those days kind of look like? Will you have morning or evening rides?
TD: It’s going to be fabulous. We are going to, hot air balloons can only fly early in the morning or late in the afternoon. So we’re having an early morning mass ascension, which means all 30 balloons launch at the same time. That will be free to the public, parking will be free. And if you want to be out there to see it, that will be free. The rotary club is hosting what they call Biscuits and Balloons and I think sponsoring that, it’s sort of a fundraiser, so you’ll be able to get Chick-fil-A sandwiches, coffee, juice. I think Thomas Meat and Seafood are working with us to make all that happen. And so then after everyone leaves the field, we’ll clear and then we’ll open up the festival grounds at two, there’ll be the carnival rides for the kids, lots of music, just an artisan marketplace, informational booths.
TD: And then the balloons will start about 4:30 with tethered rods. And then there’ll be some balloons that launch and fly. And then by 7:30-ish, after dark, we’ll do a 30 ballooning club and it would be choreographed, choreographed to music, just like the 4th of July fireworks. We’ll do the same thing on Sunday.
AB: Oh, Tony, what a site that really gives us something to look forward to. You know, it’s community. I’m speaking on behalf of everyone, but I know a lot of us just are itching to get back together again. So that is something to look forward to. Now. We all don’t know, you know, where this thing is going to go, how long we’re going to have to wear our mask and be because cautious and careful, but kind of are you thinking through those things yet? You know, if we have a big gathering, are you thinking through those things?
TD: We are and Dean Wingo has been graciously working with us. We have both fields behind Walmart big, that’s a lot of space. And so people will be able to social distance. And we will be, we will sell tickets online and then at the gate and so we’ll be able to keep up with the count of how many people are on the field at one time. And then, you know, I think that all of our pilots will be tested before they come and we will take every precaution because there’s only one other pilot in Memphis and he’s out of Germantown. So all of our pilots will be coming in from outside of this area, but we are going to follow the protocols and very best that we can.
AB: Sure. Oh, it’s something to look forward to. Like I said, that’s what we’re all kind of just excited to have something to look forward to. And this would be it. Go through the details again for us. The name and the dates again, just so we all can write it down real quick.
TD: It’s the Bluff City Balloon Jamboree and the dates are August 21st through 23rd. The 21st will actually be the Special Night for Special Kids. So the festival open to the public, we’ll kick off on Saturday the 22nd. So it’ll have 30, We’ll have 30 balloons, a main stage with live music, all kinds of food. Carnival rides about 25 carnival rides for the kids, an artisan marketplace, informational booths, probably things that I’ve been contacted by a circus, a small circus that would like to be there. And what I think is important to know is that the closest ballooning festival is in Decatur, Alabama.
TD: And they been, this is the 43rd year of the Decatur Jubilee. There’s nothing like this around. And so, you know, Collierville has welcomed our business for so many years and my family’s lived out there since ’79. My son went through the whole system, the whole system and my heart belongs to Collierville. This festival can’t be held anywhere else but Collierville. And so I dug in my heels and then the Town of Collierville, Parks and Rec, Collierville Education Foundation, Rotary Club, other organizations had just been so generous to us and helping us out so much. And we could not be putting this thing on without them. We just couldn’t.
AB: That’s so good to hear. You know what, if there’s one thing about Collierville we all know and those who had just come into the area, this is a community focused area. Collierville is community and so I’m so glad to hear you got that support.
TD: Well, I also want to tell people, this is on the ride, the Bluff City Balloon, people chase with us, they pick up and follow us around. But when we land, we invite the community to come out and take photographs and be a part of it. We occasionally land on neighborhood streets and it’s just like that becomes a carnival. All the neighbors come out and we talk and we let the kids be very hands on. So, we invite everyone to participate just in the balloon rides.
AB: You know, so much fun. It’s good stuff you’re doing. Good stuff, Toni, I’m so glad you know that you’ve taken the time to talk with us today. We sincerely appreciate your time and your insight into your business and what you guys are planning and doing for Collierville. Thank you.
TD: Thank you for inviting me.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. All right guys, until next time, I’m Anna Bell sending you all well wishes.