Hot Air Expeditions
Prior to the pandemic, in early 2019, business was booming for sisters Amanda and Stephanie Long, co-owners of Hot Air Expeditions. “It was busier than we had seen in years,” Amanda recalls. Then, COVID-19 hit and they experienced the opposite: Reopening after being forced to shut down for two months, business was slower than they had ever seen. So, along with increasing their sanitation efforts and reducing their tour capacities, they made some strategic pivots in their business operations. They shifted their marketing and promotions from shared hot air balloon rides to private hot air balloon rides. “We also adjusted operations to account for last-minute bookings, which became more prevalent,” Amanda relates, “as well as adjusted our cancellation policy to account for last-minute cancellations due to the pandemic.” Additionally, as travel came to a standstill but they saw an increase in staycations and road trips, they shifted their focus from visitors to Arizona, which had been their primary customer base, to those who live locally and those within driving distance of Arizona. “We are fortunate to be an outdoor activity, which has made guests feel more comfortable with enjoying the hot air ballooning experiences we have to offer,” Amanda says.
The Economic Roller Coaster
Furloughing their employees and closing for two months with no incoming revenue, the Longs still had bills coming in. “We worked diligently to apply for any assistance that was available due to the pandemic,” Amanda says. This included applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, disaster loans made available by the Small Business Administration, and any grants that were available. “We were successful in many of these efforts,” she says, adding, “We are forever grateful for these programs that kept our small business open, and allowed us to provide some enjoyment during these tough times.”
Thanks to a PPP loan, the Longs were able to keep their core staff members employed during this time. Says Amanda, “Though we are typically open year-round, our high season is October to May and we had no idea what to expect in terms of demand with the pandemic.” They were excited when business began to pick up after Labor Day, but also overwhelmed. “There was no way to forecast this demand, and we were running on a skeleton crew,” she explains. “But because of this demand, we were able to bring our remaining staff members back to work, and interest in our hot air balloon tours has continued to soar.”
Staying Strong and Moving Forward
Hot Air Expeditions is still recovering from the height of the pandemic and is currently down 20% from where business was in 2019, Amanda shares. “But things continue to improve week to week, which is promising.”
Explaining that their goal has never been to be everywhere but rather to make their hot air balloon rides and experiences memorable from start to finish, Amanda says, “Instead of just a balloon ride, we aim to elevate our tours to make them unique and truly one of a kind, with additions like post-flight catered fare in the desert, combination tours with other local activities and attractions, and exceptional customer service.
“Moving forward, we will continue to enhance our hot air balloon tours, and also cater to the local/road trip market. We look forward to taking the lessons learned from the pandemic and using them as a source of strength to propel us to new heights!”
Hot Air Expeditions is one segment of the June 2021 cover story “Fun Is Our Business: Survivors of a year that’s been anything but fun.”
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