With Balloon Fiesta grounded, local businesses struggle

By Spencer Butler / NM News Port

One of New Mexico’s highest-profile COVID cancelations year was that of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an annual nine-day hot air balloon festival and the largest annual tourist draw for the city.

In the wake of the cancellation, the Balloon Fall Fest, was created by the city of Albuquerque in association with local balloonists to try and keep the spirit of the Fiesta alive for 2020.

Balloons aloft above I-25 in Albuquerque during last week’s Fall Fest. Photo by Spencer Butler / NM News Port.

According to the city, around 100-150 pilots expressed interest in flying during the time period previously scheduled for Fiesta, the first two weeks of October.

To abide by pandemic restrictions, however, spectators were not allowed at any of the launch locations, which included Balloon Fiesta Park, Ventana Ranch Park, Mariposa Basin Park, and North Domingo Baca Park.

While individuals could watch the balloons launch via online video streams, questions remain as to what will happen to businesses and the greater state economy without the in-person tourist spending that typically accompanies the Fiesta.

According to Forward Analytics, the 2019 Balloon Fiesta generated $186.82 million for businesses in the metropolitan area, including $109.89 million in direct spending. 

Last year’s Fiesta also saw 866,414 guests attend the festivities, 71% of which from outside of New Mexico.

Patti Torchio, part owner of A”Pache” and ZUNIsh Jewels, was set to be a first-time vendor for this year’s fiesta. 

Torchio did not know exactly how the lack of a Fiesta would affect her business, only saying that the rush of likely shoppers would have increased the revenue that her business could have made. 

“No, no,”, Torchio said, when asked if the lack of Balloon Fiesta tourists would have long lasting effects for A”Pache” and ZUNIsh Jewels.

While Torchio and her business have not suffered due to the lack of the balloon festival, though, other individuals and local stores have not been so fortunate.

Pablo Moralez, the owner of Inka Gold Arts, said that the expected Fiesta rush was a big part of his business. 

“This is when normally 75 percent of my sales is,” Moralez lamented. 

While all 94 members of the merchandise and food concessions are listed on the Balloon Fiesta’s concessions webpage so that locals can support them Moralez said that tourists, not locals, mostly made up the lost revenue. 

Sparse traffic on I-25, which is normally very congested during early October when the annual Fiesta takes place. Photo by Spencer Butler / NM News Port.

When asked if state or federal governments should help his business, Moralez stated that he would rather see a vaccine for COVID-19, so that people can travel again.

The organizers of the Fiesta have also created a vendor-driven event that coincides with the Fall Fest called the Taste of Balloon Fiesta.

Amanda Molina, the Vice President of the Garrity Group, the media relations firm that works with the Balloon Fiesta, said that the Fiesta organizers were looking for a way to work with some of the local restaurants and food sellers despite the cancellation.

“Basically, we reached out to some vendors with Balloon Fiesta and said ‘You know, we’d still like to support you during this time’,” said Molina. 

In the end, according to Molina, the vendors that wanted to be involved came up with a promotion that allows an individual that spends money at a participating store to get Balloon Fiesta merchandise.

While every vendor slated to participate in  the Fiesta was contacted by the organization, only a handful ended up accepting the aid that was offered.

According to Molina, this was due to some vendors potentially not having the space to hold the merchandise that had been created. 

One question that has arisen is whether local hot air balloon ride companies are doing rides during Fall Fest, and if they are struggling without the typical patrons they get during this time of year. 

Lessle, who would not give her last name, a reservations person for the Wonder Balloon company, said that the company has been offering flights during this time and staying busy.

“We’re flying every day,” said Lessle. “This past weekend was very good because of the Fall Fest.” 

“But it’s not like the Balloon Fiesta,” she added.   

Finally, while many local residents are sad about not having a fiesta, some are happy that a vast swarm of people won’t descend upon Albuquerque during a pandemic.

But those same people also expressed concerns about the economic impact that could happen due to the lack of the largest event for the state of New Mexico. 

“When you take the largest tourism event that brings in the most money you not only have it hurting the sport of ballooning, because not as many people can fly, but also the vendors and merchandise concessionaires from in state and well as out of state and internationally, so it affects a lot of different people.” Molina said.       

Spencer Butler is a journalism student and reporter for New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter @SpencerButler48.