Patsy Buchwald won’t make a fortune running the Labor Day weekend Colorado Balloon Classic, but she has reached her goal of touching the lives of millions of spectators.
The 53-year-old airplane and balloon pilot and event organizer has expanded one of the nation’s largest hot-air balloon festivals into a weekend event that attracts 250,000 annually to Memorial Park in Colorado Springs. The three-day balloon extravaganza includes daily entertainment and contests, and it promotes dozens of local nonprofit groups. “My vision is to make it a bigger event every year, not necessarily in the number of balloons, but in offering spectators more things to do,” said Buchwald, who is president and owner of the company that puts on the event, which begins Saturday. Carol Odell, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado, said Buch- wald has “brought a higher profile to what has become a huge event. That says a lot about her ability to run a business and work with” a staff of mostly volunteers. “She has always done it on her own. She has had the strength and savvy to make the event successful,” Odell said. “It just seems like she is everywhere in the community, giving a lot back so that the community wants to help her event.” Others would agree. Buchwald was recognized last year as the city’s top female business owner by the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. Buchwald has been eager to expand the event beyond just spectators watching balloons lift off because the Balloon Classic depends on good weather to attract crowds. Rainy weather forced cancellation of the entire event in 2003, and that brought major changes. “In case of bad weather, we need to give people more things to do,” Buchwald said. “Without the crowds, the advertisers and sponsors don’t get exposure and concession sales are down. After 2003, we offered advertisers discounts to pay in advance for 2004” to survive. Buchwald, who bought the company in 1997, has raised the profile of the event by adding a new attraction every year. This year, San Diego balloon enthusiast John Ninomiya on Saturday will fly his “cluster balloons,” a grouping of up to 150 large helium balloons. That approach has helped the Balloon Classic to be ranked among the top 100 events in the nation for the past three years by the Events Media Network, a New Jersey firm that tracks 150,000 events nationwide. Nancy Kelly, managing director of Syntrak International, a Springsbased management consulting and training firm, said Buchwald’s charismatic personality and high energy allow her to accomplish more and help to attract volunteers to the event. “She has vision and the strength to execute her vision and make it happen,” said Kelly, who has worked with Buchwald and her staff. “She is very dedicated to writing goals, setting a timeline and executing them. As a result, she has achieved most of her goals.” The Balloon Classic is run on a shoestring budget of $250,000 and has a paid staff of two — Buchwald and a staffer who helps organize the event, edits its newsletter and acts as the event’s announcer — mostly because Buchwald doesn’t want to charge admission. “We struggle every year to meet our budget. We are always looking for ways to cut costs without harming our mission,” Buchwald said. “Since we are a for-profit business, we get no grants or donations to support, so we depend entirely on advertising and sponsorships.” Most years, the event breaks even. Any profits are either plowed back into the company or used to build up reserves for years when the Balloon Classic ends up in the red, usually because of bad weather. Buchwald pays herself a salary of $12,000 a year for full-time work. She supplements that salary with income from rental properties, her 10 percent ownership of the gift shops at the Colorado Springs Airport and consulting work with other balloon events. She spends much of her time attracting sponsors for the nearly 100 balloons that participate in the Balloon Classic annually, recruiting hundreds of volunteers needed to operate the event and, as a former accountant, handling the company’s finances. Buchwald developed her love of aviation in a job she took largely out of necessity. She got married shortly after graduating from high school in Georgia and moved with her military husband to Germany. After they returned to Georgia, the couple divorced and Buchwald took a temporary job at an Atlantaarea airport catering to private aircraft. That’s where she met her future husband, Tim Buchwald, who owned a cookie-packaging business and was a partner in the bakery. The couple married and had their only child three years later. “He was my soul mate. I went from being a country bumpkin to country club wife,” she said. “We found out he had kidney cancer when I was pregnant, and he died when our son was two. I got my pilot’s license after Tim died to continue his passion and expose our son to that.” After her husband’s death, Buchwald sold the couple’s home and hit the road with her son in a motor home, writing travel articles to support them. She traveled to 36 states, Canada and Mexico during the next two years before deciding to raise her son in Colorado Springs. “I ran away,” Buchwald said. “My instinct was to keep running — until I found Colorado Springs.” Once she settled here, Buchwald and a partner opened Aviator’s Mart, which sold maps, aviation books, aviation art and other items for pilots. She also started working for the Balloon Classic as a volunteer. “I learned about the Balloon Classic from (founder) Dewey Reinhard, who had come into the store, and I ended up going to the event with friends in 1984,” Buchwald said. “By the next year, I sponsored a balloon, served on the organizing committee and was a volunteer.” She eventually sold the aviation shop and was later an investor in a clothing shop before becoming more involved in the Balloon Classic. She bought the company from Reinhard in 1997. Her life has become all about balloons. She has been dating Denver balloon pilot Ken Tattolini for the past year. The couple spend much of their free time at various balloon events across the nation: They traveled to a balloon festival last spring in New Zealand. Buchwald eventually wants to sell the business. “I don’t know who will succeed me yet, but if that person doesn’t materialize, the business plan has a date where we would close the doors,” Buchwald said. “Some want to buy it and don’t have the money; others want the title, but not the work schedule that comes with it.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0234 or email@example.com WHO SHE IS Position: Owner and chief executive, Colorado Balloon Classic Age: 53 Hometown: Demorest, Ga. Previous business experience: Partner in local Paradies gift shops; owned Aviator’s Mart; partner in the Sample Trunk clothing store Education: Associate’s degree in accounting at DeKalb College in Atlanta; studied business administration at Georgia State University Community involvement: Member Colorado Springs Airport Advisory Commission; director of Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce; historian of Ballooning Society of Pikes Peak Awards: Athena Award in 2004; Top 100 Event Award for Colorado Balloon Classic in 2003-2004 Personal: Son, Brian Buchwald, 25 BALLOON CLASSIC - Colorado Balloon Classic runs 5:30 a.m. Saturday through Sept. 5 in Memorial Park with the ascension of more than 100 hot-air balloons. The free event includes concessions and concerts. Information, www.balloonclassic.com or 471-4833.