Changes give balloon race lift

Published 12:13 am Sunday, September 4, 2016

NATCHEZ — Great Mississippi River Balloon Race officials say strategic changes have the annual festival flying in the right direction.

Three years ago, Friday night rains and weather forecasts for a weekend of inclement weather led to a net profit of only $18.32 in 2013.

Faced with the prospect that another bad financial year could potentially kill the festival forever, balloon race organizers made incremental changes to begin rebuilding the festival’s rainy day fund.

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In 2014, fees for balloon sponsors increased $200 from $800 to $1,000 per sponsor. Profits that year of $15,810.24 were due in large part to increased sponsor fees.

The weather helped in 2014, too. Balloons flew on Friday morning, Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. High winds canceled the Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning races.

In 2015, organizers raised T-shirt prices by $2 and added a craft beer festival to the offerings. High winds forced the cancelation of all the weekend’s races with the exception of the Friday morning media flight. Despite the winds, the festival profited $32,291.61 in 2015.

“We had a stellar Friday night from the year before,” Director Trevor Brown said.

The goal of the balloon race is to have a rainy day fund that can sustain at least two successive rainouts, Brown said.

“At this point, we could sustain one rainout and then come back on a much smaller scale,” Brown said.

Expenses for last year’s festival were a little more than $330,000, Brown said.

Balloon race committee member and Historic Natchez Foundation Executive Director Mimi Miller said many of the expenses, including entertainment, insurance and hotel rooms for balloonists, have to be paid for rain or shine.

“The only expense we don’t incur is the cost of gas to fly the balloons,” Miller said.

More changes are planned this year, Brown said. Ticket prices have been adjusted to compare with other regional events.

This year’s festival is scheduled for Oct. 14-16.

Tickets for Friday night’s balloon glow on the festival grounds are $10 for adults and $5 for children, up $5 for adults and $2 for children from 2015.

Admission to the festival grounds on Saturday is $25 for adults, up $5 from 2015.

Tickets to Sunday afternoon’s events are $10, down $5 from 2015.

Tickets for children on Saturday and Sunday will not change from 2015 prices.

Weekend passes for adults are up $5 to $35 for adults and up $2 to $10 for children ages 7-12.

“The increase is in response to becoming more in line with other festivals,” Brown said.

A rain-free weekend doesn’t necessarily lead to an event filled with colorful balloons. In recent years, the public has been disappointed by high winds that kept balloons on the ground.

Some have suggested moving the event to another time of year, Miller said. Weather data shows October to be one of the best months for the balloon race, Miller said.

Historically, October is the driest month of the year. Only July and August, the two hottest months of the year, beat October for the lowest winds speeds of the year, she said.

Brown said the festival relies on balloon race officials to determine when balloons fly. Although it may be frustrating for the public, some times the weather is not safe for flying.

“Safety is the highest priority we have,” Brown said. “We have been blessed to not have any accidents.”

This year, organizers plan to expand the craft beer festival and the arts and crafts festival that were unveiled last year, Brown said.

“Both were very successful last year,” Brown said.

In a recent letter to sponsors, Miller said the annual event is the single most important weekend of the entire year.

The event also helps support many local non-profit organization that help provide the manpower necessary to make the event successful, Miller said.

Proceeds are shared with the Vidalia Women’s Club, the Natchez Festival of Music and Natchez-Adams County Humane Society and other organizations

“This is such an important event to the community,” Brown said. “We want to make sure it continues well into the future

“This is why it is important that we make money instead of break even from year to year.”