In our first article we explained the difference between a hot air balloon "operator" and a hot air balloon ride "broker." To quickly recap, a balloon ride operator owns and operates (that is they fly or pilot) the balloon that you will actually fly in. They are in business to sell you the tangible ride. A ride broker does not own any balloons and is in business to sell you only a gift certificate. Care must be taken when looking for a balloon ride company, online or when responding to a newspaper advertisement, to ensure that you are dealing with a reputable balloon ride operator. If the differences are not clear to you or the issue of why you should deal directly with an operator vs. a broker, I suggest you spend a few minutes reading about it here in our January 12, 2009 publication by the same title.
Some Quick Ways to Tell an Actual Hot Air Balloon Operator from a Broker in a Web Search
None of these descriptions, by themselves, are clear indicators of a broker. Taken together they will help you narrow your search for a legitimate hot air balloon ride operator.
Search Engine Listing Results
Brokers are often the top listing on any search in the "sponsored links." They have huge advertising budgets and run hundreds of identical sites with different domain names and web addresses to mislead you into thinking they are local. One such broker actually has 1600 web sites for their product. These sites share the same page design and use the same street address. They change the city or state name for the individual site.
Balloon Ride Operators are usually farther down the list and not in the sponsored links or the pay per click section at the top and they rarely have more than one site.
Number of Locations
Brokers have rides available nationally and at hundreds of locations.
Balloon Ride Operators usually have only one, two, or three states that they list as flying in. Often only one state, especially if that state is geographically large. If they operate in multiple states it is usually in border areas where the state lines are close together, ie MD, PA, and DE or MD and VA.
There is a simple reason for this; ballooning is a very weather dependent activity and the decision to fly is often made very close to flight time. If passengers have a substantial travel distance it poses logistical problems for the balloon company; the weather could be uncertain or it could change making the decision about whether to fly or not to fly very difficult for the balloon ride company! Most companies don't solicit passengers from more than two hours drive time away. If they do, they are more interested in your money than the inconvenience to you of having to drive a long distance for a possibly postponed flight. Depending upon the geographic location of your flight, and time of year that you intend to fly, you may only have a 50/50 chance of the weather cooperating on any given day!
How Many Types of Rides
Brokers offer rides in everything – Balloons, Gliders, Skydiving, Helicopters, etc. A new innovation on the web is the birth of the adventure gift company. These are companies that provide experience gifts in just about everything from adventure traveling to scuba diving. Most include hot air balloon adventures. You are usually better off dealing directly with the company whose service that you wish to purchase. Keep in mind that the actual company specializes in what it is that it does, whereas the broker only specializes in selling a commodity represented by a piece of paper.
Balloon Ride Operators are most often one stop shopping for just a balloon ride. A few companies have diversified and added airplane or biplane rides. This is because those companies have an actual pilot or pilots on staff with multiple licenses for different categories of aircraft and they also own an airplane.
Brokers are volume dealers that rely on the number of rides sold to make their profit. This is why they advertise so heavily. They advertise prices that are substantially lower than the area market. They advertise in all major newspapers and other media especially during peak gift giving times. There are various offers of discount coupons, holiday specials, and the lowest price available anywhere. They have to attempt to garner the market to stay in business. Beware of pricing that seems substantially out of line from the rest.
Balloon Ride Operators will not usually have the lowest price due to the fact that they have to purchase, maintain and insure the equipment necessary to fly you. In addition to the hardware, the operator must hire personnel and learn the skills to provide you the service. This burden adds up in actual dollar cost and years of commitment.
Why the Huge Price Variations?
There are many reasons for price differential. Brokers do not own aircraft and have none of the costs associated with owning and operating them and this is one of the reasons they are so low cost. Ownership costs include: initial purchase of the balloon which could be 30 to 60 thousand dollars, or more, depending on the size of the balloon. There is insurance, fuel, a chase vehicle, and crew. There are significant variations of price among legitimate balloon ride operators. Full time, professional ride companies will often be the best value for the price. They may not be the least expensive but are often the most experienced. Many companies may be part time and are actually subsidizing a hobby. Since they do not rely on the income from ballooning to live on, they are often lower in price. Ballooning is an expensive hobby that pushes many sport enthusiast pilots to find a way to make it pay for itself. Geography also plays a role in pricing. Many parts of the country are seasonal for balloon flights; This is because the weather stops cooperating, or passenger demand ceases during the winter months, or both. Areas that do not enjoy year round flying, have higher pricing during their normal flying season. This is done to offset the months that the companies do not or cannot fly. Places that have mild seasons and good flying conditions all year around, generally have lower pricing as a result.
Toll Free Numbers
Brokers will often use toll free or 800 numbers for their telephone. Many have also begun using a local number that forwards to an out of state headquarters to appear more local. Pay attention and listen to see if your call is being handled at a call center, if it is, you have called a broker.
Balloon Ride Operators may also use a toll free number and this fact alone makes this the least reliable indicator. If you are speaking to a member of the balloon crew or a pilot you have called a ride operator.