The Balloon's Big Moment

Presidential conventions are the one place the balloon industry takes center stage
Paul Ryan stands with his wife, Janna Ryan, in the balloon drop during the final day of the Republican National Convention Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

When it comes to massive volumes of balloons falling from the sky, nothing compares with presidential nominating conventions. “They’re a beast unto themselves,” says Mark Zettler, publisher of Balloons & Parties magazine and owner of party supplier Life O’ The Party. “They’re dropping anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 balloons.”

That makes presidential convention balloon drops more than 10 times bigger than your run-of-the-mill event. “People will never, at, you know, Murray’s birthday party, drop anything like that,” Zettler points out. “They’ll drop 50, 100, 1,000, maybe 5,000.” A few events, such as New Year’s Eve at Webster Hall in New York, do hit the 100,000-balloon mark, but those are few and far between.

Manufacturers of balloons can make 100,000 in less than one hour
Webster Hall
Treb Heining, who has orchestrated the Republican National Convention’s balloon drops since 1988 and consulted on several Democratic convention drops as well, says he has helped expand the size of convention balloon drops over time. In the 1980s, he says, “they used to do things with probably 10,000, or not a lot of balloons—and because I’ve always based what I do on quantity and spectacle, we kind of pushed the quantity of balloons into the hundreds of thousands.”

The biggest drop in history, according to Heining, was likely the 1992 RNC in the Houston Astrodome, when 200,000 orbs rained from above, some as big as 5 feet in diameter. “I’ve never heard of one bigger, and I’m pretty well-connected worldwide in the balloon industry,” he says. “It was pretty spectacular.”

Heining, whose obsession dates back to high school, when he sold balloons at Disneyland, says most people don’t realize how tough the balloon business actually is. “I’ve been in the balloon industry all my life, and you just don’t get much respect being a balloon person,” he says. “We make it look real easy, but it’s not.” (Note: Perhaps general disregard for the balloon industry is why I had an incredibly tough time reaching balloon experts, manufacturers, and distributors for this article. I made at least 20 phone calls before getting any replies.)

After the Democrats suffered a balloon drop malfunction at their 2004 convention, Heining told the New York Daily News, “People say, ‘Well it’s not brain surgery.’ But in a lot of ways, brain surgery is a lot simpler. It’s like a symphony—you’ve got to have a system that works. It’s a celebratory thing, it’s the final thing people see, and it’s something everyone anticipates. I gotta believe there is a connection between the balloon drop and the convention bounce.”

At its 2012 convention in Tampa, the GOP dropped more than 100,000 balloons
Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
Heining tackles convention drops by tapping local high school music programs for help. “I was a band student myself, and I know they’re always getting funding cut,” he says. “So I came up with the idea of going to a local high school band and saying, ‘Hey, you guys come down and supply the labor, and we’ll provide buses, we’ll provide food, you’ll all get a commemorative T-shirt, you’ll see the inner workings of the convention,’ and at the end, once they spend four or five hours inflating balloons … we give them a nice donation to the music program at the school.”

In terms of quality, the balloons dropped at conventions are the “Cadillacs of the industry,” superior in terms of trueness of color and shape, according to Zettler, who says standard-grade balloons are the “Pintos or Oldsmobiles” of the balloon world. They are generally one of two brands— Betallatex, made by Betallic in St. Louis, or Qualatex, made by Pioneer Balloon in Wichita.

Given the glamour of the presidential convention drops, one might assume that the balloon business would see a spike every four years. Not quite. “I’m sure [manufacturers] are seeing a bump in red, white, and blue balloons,” says Zettler, but he points out that, in the scheme of things, 150,000 balloons isn’t a lot. “One manufacturer could probably make 150,000 balloons in less than an hour,” he says, adding that auxiliary election-year events don’t tend to do much toward inflating any kind of election-year balloon business bubble.

The real benefit of presidential balloon extravaganzas, according to Zettler, is that they remind people that balloons “create a tremendously festive atmosphere at a low cost,” presumably inspiring more balloon use around the country. “People see it, they love it, and they say, ‘Hey, I’d like to have balloons dropped on my husband, or at my New Year’s party, or whatever,’” he says.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.