Heightened awareness

September 1, 2008 By    

“I’ve been bitten by the bug of ballooning,” says John Garcia, sales manager for Nelson-Putman, a Texas propane dealer. “When the pilot fires up the burner and you hear the roar of the propane, it shouts energy.”

Garcia only recently became fascinated with a sport powered by the industry in which he’s worked for 17 years: propane.

And while Garcia knows propane, until June he didn’t know hot air balloons use it for fuel. He might never have known if his company hadn’t sponsored the Summer Balloon Classic in June in Waxahachie, Texas. His experience proves the concept of a successful marketing program in Texas – the Propane Exceptional Energy Hot Air Balloon.

Its mission is simple: to create awareness that propane is a multipurpose energy source. It even fuels balloons.

In Texas, propane is more than the lifeblood of a hot air balloon, and the propane station provides more than a transfusion that will launch flight again. For many of the state’s rural communities, propane is a dominant energy source in homes and businesses because it is domestically produced, affordable and versatile fuel. To educate the public on these and other features of this exceptional energy, the Texas Propane Educational & Marketing Foundation (TPEMF) started a commercial balloon program in 2004.

The program is working because this non-profit group headquartered in Austin has harnessed the energy of commercial ballooning.

Audiences at balloon shows give supporting dealers a unique chance to educate potential customers.
Audiences at balloon shows give supporting dealers a unique chance to educate potential customers.

“We’ve learned that the public’s retention and recall of hot air ballooning supersedes all other forms of marketing,” says Jackie Richards, director of education and marketing for TPEMF.

“People are more likely to remember a hot air balloon over an advertisement they saw on TV, a billboard or a newspaper or heard on the radio.”

According to Richards, hot air balloons help fortify the message that propane is a convenient, portable and economical fuel for transportation, appliances or even recreation. That’s why nearly 11 billion gallons of propane are consumed annually nationwide.

About 2,100 of them were pumped at the Summer Balloon Classic by Garcia and Nelson-Putman. Garcia was amazed with how much the festival generated public awareness of propane.

“There were license plates in the parking lots from all the surrounding counties,” he says. It was the first time Nelson-Putman had sponsored a balloon event, but it won’t be the last.

“We will definitely be there next year,” Garcia says. “It was awesome to be part of it all and the positive image ballooning generates for propane.”

Donald Walters of Wheat Energy is another Texas propane dealer-turned-balloon booster. He sponsors the Big Country Balloon Festival in Abilene.

“We know we’ve gotten customers from being out there as a sponsor,” Walters says. “People will come up to the balloon, see the truck and carriage and ask questions. It gives us time to have a dialogue with people about propane. I’ve gotten residential customers directly from the sponsorships.”

Cadenhead Servis Gas of Royse, Texas, has had similar experiences in the 30 years it has supplied fuel for the Plano Balloon Festival. According to Operations Manager Larry Baty, Cadenhead has more than recouped its investment from this long relationship. His employer also sponsors the Highland Village Balloon Festival and has avidly supported TPEMF’s ballooning program since its inception.

“I don’t know any other way to get as much exposure for the dollar as this program,” Baty says. “I hope the TPEMF continues it for a long time.”

It’s the extensive media exposure and crowd appeal that makes the propane dealers loyal supporters. But widespread media coverage rarely happens by chance; it requires zealous pursuit. That’s Richards’ special talent.

“The TPEMF doesn’t know how far ahead of other commercial balloon programs they are,” says Phil Bryant, pilot for the Propane Exceptional Energy balloon. He attributes the program’s success to Richards’ ability to work the media, and he’s a good judge.

Owner of Ballooning Adventures of Texas, Bryant has been flying commercial balloons for two decades. He originated the contract with TPEMF, and has piloted the balloon since its inaugural flight at the Heritage Balloon Festival in Palestine, Texas. Bryant says Richards maximizes the marketing potential of the balloon program.

“She actively works the media well ahead of time, schedules media to come to every event and meet the balloonist and crew, see the equipment,” he says. “She gives the media press kits with DVDs, news releases, literature and fact sheets, and then after they publish or televise an event, she makes sure she has copies of everything, so she can demonstrate to sponsors the wonderful results we get with this program.

“I’ll bet you we have more coverage just flying in Texas and getting promoted in Texas media than many other commercial programs get from flying nationally,” he adds.

Former president of the Balloon Federation of America, Bryant was a good match for TPEMF because he knows the fuel business. He retired from the petroleum industry and started flying a commercial balloon for BP. The TPEMF program is a natural progression for him, since he relies on propane to make his current business fly.

“It was always obvious to me that in many circumstances you can’t do better than propane,” Bryant says.

Proving his point, he’s building a propane-powered inflator fan to cold inflate the propane balloon.

The envelope sports a 13-foot high graphic of a home, forklift and the Propane Exceptional Energy message. Transported in its matching trailer, the balloon appears annually at 15 Texas balloon festivals and charity events, usually held in rural or developing areas to reach one of the Texas propane industry’s target audiences.

“Propane is not only the fuel of choice for hot air balloonists,” Richards says, “but is also an efficient energy source used in new home developments, because of the cost-savings to run appliances on propane vs. electricity. It is a green energy.”

So from dawn to dusk, the Propane Exceptional Energy balloon generates powerful images even as a day of ballooning draws to a close.

Richards says they always try to finish with an evening tether’s captive audience, where the brilliance of propane energy makes the envelope’s message glow and sends the spectators home with a new appreciation for propane.

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