Business balloons for Johns Island couple
Jill and Scott Shortreed aren't blowing hot air.
At a glance
Business: Charleston Balloon Co.
Location: Johns Island
Owners: Scott and Jill Shortreed
Product: Artistic balloon creations for corporate, private and nonprofit events
Their balloon business is expanding, and their creations can be seen at all sorts of gatherings.
Corporate functions, parties, weddings and other events are the Johns Island couple's work stations.
Formerly from New Jersey, the Shortreeds stumbled into the trade as they were raising a family.
With five young children, they found themselves throwing parties all the time with confirmations, graduations, birthdays and other events.
They rented popcorn and cotton-candy machines for each function, so they decided to purchase the equipment instead and started renting it out for others to use.
In 1998, Jill quit a customer service job at a bank to open a small party supply store of about 700 square feet called Celebrated Times. Scott continued to work at the post office as a letter carrier and help Jill in the party business after hours.
At one point, one of their vendors brought in a representative to show them what they could create with balloons to make the parties come alive even more.
"We got hooked," Jill said.
Not long afterward, the business ballooned, tripling in store size and expanding to six employees.
"We got hired for big parties," Jill said.
Among them was an album release party for Bruce Springsteen at Asbury Park, N.J.
"We had red, white and blue balloons everywhere," she said.
Other private parties took them to events in New York City. They didn't do many corporate functions at the time.
Around 2004, Scott wanted to return south, where he had attended Johnson & Wales culinary school when it was in Charleston. He also wanted to escape escalating taxes in New Jersey.
They moved from Point Pleasant, N.J., to Mount Pleasant and tried to run the business from afar. It didn't work, and in 2005, they disbanded Celebrated Times and sold off old party supplies. Scott continued to work for the post office after moving south.
But they didn't leave the party venture completely behind.
After about a year, they started doing rentals again - popcorn and snow-cone machines along with jump castles.
In 2006, they opened a 2,000-square-foot store off Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant and called the new business Party & Play Promotions. It carried many of the same goods as the former shop in New Jersey.
Two years later, after attending a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce business course, they realized that 90 percent of their expenses were from the store and 70 percent of their income came from balloons.
Over the next few months, they liquidated the store's assets and decided to focus solely on balloons. Now, the business is called Charleston Balloon Co., and it's operated out of a workshop on Johns Island.
Among their major clients are Google, Benefitfocus, Blackbaud, Charleston Battery, Yorktown Association, Susan G. Komen Foundation, Mattress Firm, Mount Pleasant Chevrolet, Pulte Homes and some schools.
"We are not a dozen-balloons-on-a-string company," said Jill. "We are more artistic."
The price varies, depending on what people want. Costs start at $150. Balloon arches begin at $250. Two 9-foot-tall carrots being made for an Easter event came in at $125 a pop.
Because of the shortage in helium and the cost of about $140 a cylindrical tank, the Shortreeds use about 60 percent helium and 40 percent natural air for their balloon creations. "We try to conserve," Jill said.
When parties are over, some balloons can be recycled. The air is released, and those balloons are placed in a separate box to be donated to schools.
Each balloon is sized digitally with a predetermined amount of air. They can range from 3 inches to 8 feet in diameter. The largest balloons, called cloud busters, are rarely purchased because they are so expensive - about $990 - but occasionally they hover over car dealerships during special events.
Business has been good to the Shortreeds, especially as the deep recession waned. Sales have doubled each year for the past three years. They grossed about $70,000 last year. By comparison, their former retail venture was topping out at between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, but it had more overhead.
Jill was recently tapped by the industry to be an instructor at the 2015 FLOAT Balloon Convention in St. Louis, Mo. Last month, they attended the World Balloon Convention in Denver, where representatives from 53 nations participated. Jill came home with three awards for her craftsmanship.
"Most people say we are just balloons," Scott said. "But we are so much more."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.