LAS VEGAS — Giant Advertising Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif., uses helium-filled balloons of tight-woven-nylon to market its messages efficiently. Most balloons are tethered, but some fly under radio controls within a stadium, arena or ballroom or — in a calm atmosphere — across an outdoor field.
"I believe we are the largest maker of helium-holding products for advertising," said President Scott Zimmer.
Zimmer, who founded the business in 1988, has made more than 15,000 units and reports demand is growing.
"We may knock out 150-200 units a month," Zimmer said.
"We started off in rental business with big cold-air type inflatables," he said. Now, Giant specializes in air- and helium-filled products.
"If I tether a balloon at 200 feet [elevation] at a retail location, I will outperform any newspaper, radio spot or TV because it is all brand awareness," Zimmer said. "I get somebody two miles down the road to recognize there is a McDonald's" restaurant.
A tethered balloon may cost about $3,500 for a year's worth of marketing, Zimmer said. That's "less than $300 a month."
Giant Advertising makes, sells and rents custom helium tethered blimps, rooftop-anchored balloons and custom-designed shapes. Some measure 45 feet in length, and some are made with polyester film instead of nylon. A graphics department creates customized designs. Other capabilities include sonic welding and a hot-air hot-wedge system.
Giant uses its bonding capability on other projects. In a job for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., "we are building the wheels for the Rover going to Mars," Zimmer said.
Balloons are used as temporary cellular-phone transmitters, sea gull deterrents, airborne camera-mounting systems and a giant beer can in a parade. Hotel chains, furniture retailers and car dealers are frequent users.
The cloth, weighing 3 ounces per yard, is a lightweight version of material covering ultralight aircraft wings. An inner coating of polyurethane helps contain the helium.
"We are building a one-man balloon called Parabounce that can lift a 250-pound person," Zimmer said. It started out as a charity event with television personality Leeza Gibbons.
A rider in a parachute harness pushes off, goes to the tether's 100-foot length and then floats down. The device was demonstrated at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions' conference last year.
"We are taking it to the retail level," he said.
The company employs about 40, occupies 30,000 square feet and ships to 50 countries, Zimmer said. A recent visit to South America netted "a nice-sized deal with the largest supermarket" in Lima, Peru.
In another venue, pilots used battery-powered radio controls to fly three 15-foot-long balloons within an MGM Grand ballroom during several sessions of the IBM Global Supply Chain Management Executive Conference 2000, held March 19-20 in Las Vegas.
Each of the balloons, priced at $4,995 apiece, contained 230 cubic feet of helium and lifted 14 pounds. The weight included about 7 pounds for the inflated balloon, 4 pounds for model-aircraft radio equipment, 2 pounds for batteries "and a pound of lead to balance it," said Dan Hatfield, president of Lighter Than Air Enterprises in Mankato, Minn.
Hatfield, a radio control engineer, began dabbling in servo-operating balloon controls during his tenure as a disc jockey with a Minneapolis radio station. He went full time in June 1999 with Lighter Than Air Enterprises, and he manufactured the radio control equipment and arranged for the pilots at the IBM event.
Beneath the balloon, DuPont's Kevlar aramid fiber reinforces balsa-frame fins. A carbon-fiber rod runs vertically on the bottom fin and provides a pivot point for the motor.
"About 80 of these blimps exist in the U.S., and I own about 10," Hatfield said in an interview at the Las Vegas event. "The first ones started showing up seven to eight years ago."
In February, Hatfield and others flew five 15-foot-long, helium-filled balloons outdoors in light wind across a river and over an IBM event at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
"We flew right across a river to kind of invade this party," Zimmer said.
Hatfield made those balloons and sold them to Ben Marketing Group, a Stamford, Conn., advertising agency. For outdoor use, the Federal Aviation Administration required an automatic fail-safe mode of deflation to keep an out-of-control balloon from encountering an aircraft. Outdoor use also requires a redundant radio system.
With the right controls, a balloon flying over a crowd can drop a premium such as a cap, Beanie Baby or toy cellular telephone.
"When I fly aggressively in a stadium dropping prizes, I change batteries every 10 minutes," Hatfield said.
Lloyd Greeves makes Hatfield's molds on his own time and equipment. Greeves uses the vacuum presses at his employer, the Mankato thermoforming plant of Bemis Co. Inc.'s Perfecseal unit, to form the fan shrouds and polystyrene gondolas.
Others providing advertising with balloons include Aerostar International Inc. of Sioux Falls, S.D.; California Blimps of Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Big Events Inc. of El Cajon, Calif.