Trust your team — I started as a one-man show with one hot air balloon and have grown a company across three states to now a hot air balloon operation of 40 balloons. As a founder, I want things done a certain way and in the beginning, it’s challenging to trust others to do those things exactly how I want them done. I began delegating responsibilities in order to expand and operate efficiently. I needed to learn that I can’t manage everything and I hired a team who would complement my skills and are experts in each area of the business such as marketing, sales, operations, piloting, and more.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Appelman.
Scott Appelman is the founder and president of Rainbow Ryders, Inc., the largest and most premier hot air balloon business serving the Southwest since 1983, with offices in Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Colorado Springs and 40 balloons in their fleet. Rainbow Ryders’ pilots have flown more than 50,000 hours, serving more than half a million passengers. All their pilots are FAA-certified and have nearly 200 years of combined experience. Rainbow Ryders is also the only “Covid Safe Practice” certified hot air balloon ride company. Pilot expertise and commitment to safety are two important reasons why Rainbow Ryders has been the official hot air balloon ride provider for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta® since 1999.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
When I was 12 years old, my family and I moved from California to New Mexico. Albuquerque hosted its first International Balloon Fiesta at that time and I volunteered to be a part of the crew which ignited my fascination with hot air balloons. I had a path already set for me to work in the family business, a plumbing, heating, air conditioning, and electrical service company however, I revisited my interest in hot air balloons when a friend of mine who was a hot air balloon pilot taught me to fly while I was studying in college. I decided to create my own path with Rainbow Ryders and we have been in business for 38 years.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Always be prepared, plan for the worst-case scenario. If you are prepared and have what you need before you need it, you can only go up from there.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I enjoy listening to NPR’s “How I Built This Podcast” and learning about how the most successful companies in the world built their business from the ground up. It’s interesting to hear how other entrepreneurs came up with their business concepts, what inspired them to open up their company and how they are handling turbulent times. There was a recent episode with the Dropbox founder, Drew Houston. He planned to use his three-hour ride from Boston to New York to get some work done, so he opened his laptop, and realized he had left his thumb drive with all of his work files at home. He decided he never wanted to have that problem again and he created Dropbox for cloud-based file storage and sharing which is now a company worth 8 billion dollars.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I am the founder and president of Rainbow Ryders, Inc., the largest hot air balloon business serving the Southwest since 1983. Before Rainbow Ryders, I graduated from the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management and in September of 1984, I received my Commercial Pilot’s License, Lighter-Than-Air rating.
I organized the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s Balloon Glow from 1987 to 1992, an event that is still one of the most popular today. I also organized the event’s Special Shapes Rodeo and Albuquerque Aloft and won Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s Heritage Award as well as the Tourism Hall of Fame award from the Tourism Association of America.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
We found a way to keep moving forward with various new business divisions including corporate hot air balloon advertising. Rainbow Ryders has partnered with large companies such as General Mills, Phillips 66 and Dos Equis to creatively advertise their brands on hot air balloons at the large-scale balloon events we organize. It occurred to me that there’s an opportunity for balloon advertising all-year round. It goes beyond TV, radio, digital and print advertising and we are able to create flying billboards for our clients and started to offer this form of brand marketing and out-of-the-box publicity stunt during the start of the pandemic.
Furthermore, Rainbow Ryders has always been a top choice to create a romantic hot air balloon experience for couples and engagements. When the pandemic hit, we created a wedding solution for couples who had COVID-19 interfere their wedding plans — hot air balloon rides for micro-weddings/mini-monies complete with panoramic sights of the majestic Sonoran Desert in Scottsdale, Rio Grande in Albuquerque and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. We have organized small ceremonies with safety and gathering guidelines in mind that can take place inside the envelope on the ground or up in the air with 360 sky views as the unique setting.
To keep operating our hot air balloon ride business, we analyzed how we can further elevate the high level of safety we offer to our customers. We once operated over 300 flights per day with tourism fueling our balloon business. During pre-pandemic days, about 80 percent of Rainbow Ryders’ customers were tourists from corporate groups and leisure travel; however, during the pandemic, we re-targeted our marketing efforts on locals. With travel restrictions and an audience looking for safe, outdoor activities, we focused on a localized campaign. During the mandated shutdowns, we created protective vinyl hand-made to fit each balloon basket to separate passengers and pilots. Additionally, we started offering temperature scans, masks and sanitizer for each flight as well as reduced pricing for private flights. We also invested in disinfectant equipment to thoroughly sanitize our balloons, vehicles and facility.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
It wasn’t really an “Aha moment” to be honest. All I could think was, let’s get things done and adjust to these changing circumstances. We focused on our Covid-safe procedures and how to best implement them into our daily operations.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Things have ended up better than we expected. We pulled together and did our best to make lemonade out of lemons.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The whole Rainbow Ryders team is why we are where we are. We as a team have adapted to the circumstances across three states, supporting changes and new directions for the company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
During one of our pivot phases, we started the “Hope for New Horizons” campaign earlier this year to support our front line workers and community during this challenging year. We hosted a contest where members of the community can nominate their hometown hero — a nurse, grocery store clerk, firefighter, and more who are working the front lines during the pandemic. We have been able to donate hot air balloon rides to deserving heroes and bring smiles to faces with hot air balloons in the skies.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The early years
In the first few years, a business demands more attention and care, however, the company’s foundations become stronger over time. In order to become an entrepreneur, you must love what you do and be passionate about your work. You must be confident that your product or service is something that the market needs. Nothing worthwhile comes easy and you will have to sacrifice a lot of your free time so that you can give your startup the attention it needs to thrive.
Trust your team
I started as a one-man show with one hot air balloon and have grown a company across three states to now a hot air balloon operation of 40 balloons. As a founder, I want things done a certain way and in the beginning, it’s challenging to trust others to do those things exactly how I want them done. I began delegating responsibilities in order to expand and operate efficiently. I needed to learn that I can’t manage everything and I hired a team who would complement my skills and are experts in each area of the business such as marketing, sales, operations, piloting, and more.
Who you choose as a business and event partner is a vital decision. How you structure your partnerships are important. How you build your company is important. Who you hire is important. Take your time with decisions. Be cautious of anyone who advises you to rush important decisions.
Focus on people
Your business is all about the people — customers and employees. You can’t manage a business all by yourself. Focus on people, understand your customer and their customer experience needs. Understand your employee’s needs and invest in their training.
Don’t skip marketing
Many entrepreneurs have good products or services, but are not marketing them enough or the right way. If you know your customer and market, this should be less of a challenge. You’ll know what they read, what they watch, where they spend time in real life and what social media platforms they use. You can market to them based on their habits and lifestyle.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
For me, being outside has been really important. Working out, walks, golfing and trying to do “normal” things have kept me sane.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Simple: treat people how you would like to be treated. I think if we all did that, there would be a lot more respect and kindness in the world.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Hands down, Tom Hanks. He just seems like an amazing and very “real” person.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!