Balloons mean business
NATCHEZ — As colorful orbs bounce around the Miss-Lou skies next weekend, businesses in Natchez will be catering to those left on the ground during one of the busiest weekends of the year.
The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race is expected to draw large crowds — both in the air and on the ground — and local businesses say they have been preparing for weeks to welcome those crowds with open arms.
“It’s the biggest three days of sales we’ll do all year,” Fat Mama’s Tamales owner David Gammill said. “We start planning two or three weeks in advance to try and cover all of our bases because once it hits, you’re in it for the long haul.”
From stocking up on little things like trash bags to the big selling items like tamales and margaritas, Gammill said the last thing he wants to do is be unprepared for such a big event.
“It can either be a hellish weekend if you’re not prepared or a good weekend if you’re ready to go,” Gammill said. “There are a million things you have to do and it’s just a lot of planning.”
Gammill said Fat Mama’s has always been fortunate to be so close to all the balloon action going back to its previous location further down Canal Street.
“It certainly helps that we’re always so close to the main gate because we get a lot of the foot traffic,” Gammill said. “But getting out of that 600-square-feet log cabin definitely helped us accommodate the larger crowds that have seemed to grow each year from the race.”
But even if the business has every aspect of the weekend planned to a T, Gammill said there’s always unexpected factors they might encounter.
“One year when we were in the old building, the transformer we used was also being used by the balloon race people and that transformer blew,” Gammill said. “The stage last power, Fat Mama’s lost power, and it was just a huge panic for everyone.
“For those two hours we were out of power, I thought there was going to be a riot when we couldn’t serve the margaritas.”
But since the move to the new building and with a few years of experience under his belt, Gammill said Fat Mama’s will be ready to welcome the crowds next weekend — even with some new additions this year.
“This year we’re going to do a beer garden in the parking lot and have five different types of new beer on draft,” Gammill said. “We’ve kind of embraced the new beer laws and are just trying to bring in some variety to offer people something different.”
And the weekend isn’t just the biggest event for Fat Mama’s, as another downtown favorite is also preparing to wet plenty of balloon race whistles.
“Balloon race weekend is the biggest weekend of the year for us,” Bowie’s Tavern operations manager Malan Parks said. “It’s just huge, and it’s gotten better every year.
“We look forward to it and plan ahead for it every year.”
While the tavern is known for getting big crowds for a highly anticipated football game or during other annual events, Parks said those just don’t compare to the steady flow of customers from balloon race.
“The location Bowie’s is in is just awesome for us because we’re right there on the bluff, and we get a lot of traffic that way,” Parks said. “People are always walking on the bluff anyway, but the crowds are definitely larger for the balloon race.”
Apart from having plenty of inventory stocked and backups, Parks said the other big preparation for the tavern is staff.
“We always have extra staff on hand that weekend just as far as helping to clean or runners for whatever we need,” Parks said. “Everything we have to take care of is being done now to prepare for balloon race weekend.”
For businesses that sell balloon souvenirs or memorabilia, the weekend is also expected to bring in big sales from the big crowds.
“We definitely look forward to balloon race weekend every year because there are just lots and lots of people coming through,” Natchez Visitor’s Center gift shop clerk Bobbye J. Porter said. “The event is a terrific boost for Natchez and even if we didn’t see one person come through the shop, we’d still be happy because it benefits the whole city.”
But since the gift shop sells balloon race tickets and the always-popular T-shirts, Porter said the shop has already seen some balloon sales and hopes to continue that trend.
“We’ll move several hundred shirts that weekend and that’s not counting the ones we’ve already sold,” Porter said. “We got the shirts this week and have already had some groups in here buying them.
“There’s just a lot of excitement in town around this time, and we love it.”
That excitement around town is something from which Mayor Larry “Butch” Brown said everyone can benefit.
“It’s probably the biggest single event that we have year round because everybody benefits: hotels, food establishments, filling stations, grocery stores,” Brown said. “It’s a way that the entire city benefits profitably from one event.”
Since other tourism events that bring in large crowds, such as Pilgrimage and Christmas in Natchez, are spread out over a longer period of time, Brown said the economic impact can be greater from balloon race because of the short three-day event.
“There are lots of other events in the community that generate tourism dollars, but balloon race is a highly visible, high profile event series,” Brown said. “Once the momentum starts, it just keeps going all weekend long.
“It’s a very good event for the community that generates solid tourism dollars for our local businesses.”