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Tourism fueled by balloon fest
January 22, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

Ken Kurtz/Spectrum Photography The success of the Old West Balloon Fest which drew larger-than-expected crowds serves a focal point for drawing even more visitors.

Last year, balloon festival organizers who worked to bring back the popular event, had no idea how to measure its potential for success, after an absence of several decades. They could not have foreseen the backed up traffic on highways, or the economic impact the event had on businesses, or the people talking about it weeks later, speculating on how the next one might be bigger.

All of that’s up in the air, so to speak.

The 2016 Old West Balloon Fest is tentatively scheduled for Labor Day weekend on Saturday, Sept. 3. More information will be made available as plans develop.

The success of the Old West Balloon Fest provided additional leverage as tourism professionals from western Nebraska headed to the National Western Stock Show in Denver to promote our area.

“We were there on (Saturday) Jan. 9 and it was a great opening weekend,” said Karla Niedan-Streeks, Executive Director of the Gering Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Nebraska Tourism Commission is a major sponsor of the booth and also does advertising in the Denver area. Many of the visitors asked about the balloon festival.”

Visitors commented about how western Nebraska is an affordable weekend getaway for families. Because it’s within a few hours’ drive of the Denver area, many were planning a visit in 2016.

“We had a lot of inquiries about public lands for hiking and biking, so we highlighted the Monument, the Wildcat Hills Nature Center, and the other thousands of acres we have in our backyards,” Niedan-Streeks said.

Stock Show representatives told her they set a record on Jan. 9 with more than 50,000 coming through the gates. The local tourism booth was equally busy, as it distributed more than 1,200 bags of tourism information on Saturday.

Brenda Leisy, Director of the Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau, said the Denver metro and Colorado front range areas are perfect marketing targets for what western Nebraska has to offer. “They’re adventurous people who like hiking, biking and those sorts of activities,” she said. “We have a lot more to offer than what meets the eye.”

Last year’s balloon fest was actually a lot to meet the eye. Between 10,000 and 12,000 people gathered at the old Mitchell airport on the morning of Sept. 5, 2015, a number which far surpassed the fraction expected guests.

During the planning stages, committee members said they would have been happy with 10 or 12 balloons for the inaugural event.

Drawn by the spectacle, and the chance to ride one of the 18 balloons, the large throng of visitors mostly watched them take to the sky.
Pushed by strong winds, pilots from around the country glided over the valley in the Old West Balloon Fest … Re-Inflated.

“This was our first event. So, the committee would have been thrilled with 4,000 people showing up,” said Niedan-Streeks. “The overwhelming numbers were incredible.”

Niedan-Streeks said the large crowd also created some logistical challenges for organizers, including parking and bumper-to-bumper traffic on all the roads leading into the airport. None of the snags put a damper on the event itself.

Balloons were scheduled to launch at about 6:30 to 7 a.m., when weather conditions and air temperature were at their best. However, an overcast sky pushed the launch time back to about 8:30 a.m.

According to Niedan-Streeks, the delay actually worked to their advantage. “Some people didn’t start out early enough and got caught in traffic,” she said. “Without the weather delay, many of them wouldn’t have made it to airport before the launch. It was a perfect storm of everything working out right.”

She added, it was quite impressive as launch time approached and the huge crowd went quiet. When the first balloon went into the air, there were whistles, cheers and applause.

The crowd started taking pictures and sharing them on social media. It didn’t take long before balloon meister and lead pilot Colleen Johnson was getting inquiries from balloon pilots from around the country who wanted to fly in the 2016 event.

Organizers are confident they’ll be able to add about 10 more balloon pilots in 2016, making the event one of the larger ones in the region.

“We met and exceeded every expectation we had for the balloon fest,” said Brenda Leisy, Director of the Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau.
“This year, we’ll be extra busy improving on the event and going after some more grants. Our main targets for this year’s balloon fest is South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and the front range of Colorado.”

Niedan-Streeks credited Leisy and Becky Horne for their overall vision and two years of research, helping to turn the balloon festival into a reality. Hundreds of volunteers, sponsors and business people were instrumental in planning. The event was a shared success.
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