‘Like a family reunion’ - Albuquerque Journal

‘Like a family reunion’

Despite being a member of the longest-serving vendor of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Neida Courtney of the New Mexico Quilters’ Association can rarely be found behind a booth.

The balloonist and quilter, who wears a hot air balloon necklace, can always be found trying to catch a balloon ride instead.

“It’s so different on the field – the excitement is palpable,” Courtney said.

The New Mexico Quilters’ Association is one of 80 vendors setting up tents at the 50th Balloon Fiesta this year. Vendors start preparing months, or even years, in advance for the Balloon Fiesta.

Every year, for example, the New Mexico Quilters’ Association designs a balloon-themed quilt that is raffled off at the end of the fiesta. The 50th anniversary quilt has been two years in the making, and took 10,000 hours of work from several NMQA members. The quilt pictures the 13 original balloons that flew in the first Balloon Fiesta in 1972. Balloon aficionado Courtney found archival photos to identify and re-create the original balloons in miniature, stitched form.

“It’s a bewildering amount of work,” said NMQA member Susan MacKenzie.

Heated competition

Vendor slots are coveted – and not guaranteed. While 80 spots are available, Erica Hahn, head of concessions and artisans at the fiesta, said between 80 and 100 applicants compete for the spots.

Josh Lange, a lemonade and coffee shop owner who has been selling at the event since 2000, said it’s tough to get in.

“Getting into the fiesta isn’t necessarily easy, it’s a pretty competitive industry,” said Lange, who’s operating three stalls this year.

Lange’s lemonade and coffee companies, Just Squeezed and Just Brewed, rely entirely on sales from fairs and festivals. His newest business, La Luz Coffee, is his first brick-and-mortar business in Albuquerque. La Luz will join Just Squeezed at this year’s fiesta.

To prepare for October, Lange starts hiring new baristas in August. Because the stakes are so high at the fiesta, Lange said, he’s selective about his employees; he’s even flown in out-of-state baristas to work the event. His company also has to make massive orders and start roasting beans for its exclusive Balloon Fiesta grind.

“The amount of coffee we go through is insane,” Lange said.

Diane Karlsson, owner of Plano Pin Co., says she can’t imagine doing anything in October other than the Balloon Fiesta. Karlsson is both a vendor and a pilot; her Jimmy Buffett-inspired balloon features a pair of flip-flops and a deck chair.

Every year, Karlsson brings her entire team of employees (except for one employee who keeps the lights on in Plano, Texas) to Albuquerque to sell their iconic balloon pins.

New to fiesta

Although there are many longtime vendors, like Karlsson and Lange, the fiesta will see a handful of brand new faces selling their products.

Beekeeper Bernadette Barnaud has been running her South Dakota business, Owl Creek Organics, since 2014.

This will be her first year vending at the Balloon Fiesta; it’s also her first time attending.

Barnaud sells jams sweetened with honey, flavored honeys and homemade pickles. The beekeeper has vended at other events, but none as high-profile as the Balloon Fiesta – and none as far from her family ranch in South Dakota.

“I’ve never been to a vendor event this big,” Barnaud said.

Barnaud has to up production to prepare for the fiesta; at the same time, she has been setting up a brick-and-mortar storefront in South Dakota, which is set to open this fall.

“I know that everything will come together in time,” Barnaud said. “It was a risk … but I kind of enjoy taking those risks.”

A boon for vendors

The fiesta brings in hundreds of thousands of guests each year – and for vendors, that means hundreds of thousands of potential customers.

“This is the largest event in the city. It brings in people from all over the world,” said quilting association fundraising committee member Bobbie Mallory. “There are no other ways to make that much money in a week.”

Last year, the raffle for the Balloon Fiesta quilt garnered $20,000, which was donated to a variety of nonprofit organizations around the state.

An analysis of the 2019 fiesta found that out-of-state guests spent over $30 each on concessions and artisanal products.

Plano Pin Co., one of the most well-known fiesta vendors, only vends at one event each year: the Balloon Fiesta. The fiesta alone brings in about 10% of the company’s yearly revenue. The rest of the year, they make custom pins for clients.

However, vendors can reap more than immediate financial rewards. The fiesta can also advertise their businesses.

Josh Lange of Just Squeezed hopes that the fiesta will introduce his new business, La Luz Coffee, to locals.

“This is the perfect opportunity to advertise our local company,” Lange said. “You need the local support.”

A vendor family

Many returning vendors look forward to seeing familiar faces at the Balloon Fiesta.

“It’s just like this family gathering,” Lange said.

Plano Pin Co. owner Karlsson says that despite her apologetic pin that reads, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” she has made friendships with many other vendors.

“It’s like a family reunion each year,” Karlsson said.

Lange brought his 3-year-old son to the Balloon Fiesta for the first time last year.

“He still talks about it,” Lange said. “I’ve done literally thousands of events in my career … but if you’re going to go to one event, go to the Balloon Fiesta.”

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