Scott Appelman says that his wife and the staff of Rainbow Ryders, the hot air balloon ride company he has owned for nearly four decades, think he’s a control freak, so it’s a bit odd that he’s in a business that literally goes where the wind takes him. And he’s pretty adept at navigating his way through change, too. When the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the inaugural Scottsdale Sky Fest and Balloon Glow were delayed, and tourism was brought to a standstill due to the pandemic, Appelman rose above the uncertainty and kept Rainbow Ryders, which operates out of the Valley, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque, afloat. We spoke with him in October about finding his passion and how Phoenicians realized they don’t have to go far to check “riding in a hot air balloon” off their bucket list.
What made you want to become a hot air balloon pilot?
When I was 12 years old, we moved from California to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city had the first International Balloon Fiesta. I always liked things that flew, so I went out there and volunteered to be part of the crew. I got really bit by it. Years later when I was finishing up my degree, a friend of mine had a hot air balloon and taught me how to fly. Then I quit the family business, a plumbing, heating, air conditioning and electrical service company, to start Rainbow Ryders. We’ve been in business for 38 years now, and we’re the largest hot air balloon company in the United States, if not the world.
Your business is tourism-based, which has been difficult. Did you have to pivot?
We’re an outdoor business, and we’ve been blown away in the last few months by the number of people that want to go flying and be outside, even in the summer in Phoenix, where we meet at 4 a.m. and it’s 95 degrees. Now that the temperature is dropping, there’s a large number of people who want to go flying. We created COVID-safe processes that were approved by the states that we operate in and put them on social media, which are now adopted by operators around the world. We made some clear vinyl drapes to keep families socially distant, and we ask that everyone wears a mask. We’re going to do everything we can to help promote tourism and keep businesses going.
It’s nice when locals discover this in their city.
People are looking for something they feel comfortable going out and doing since they’re not going to San Diego. And the average age of visitors is skewing younger. We get bachelor and bachelorette parties, anniversaries and all types of family functions. In the long run, it’s going to make us a better company because we’re seeing the potential of reaching out to those people and not just tourists.
I heard that you’re introducing advertising on your balloons.
We’ve been doing corporate ballooning for about 25 years, and have several clients, like Dos Equis, Intel and some casinos. Since the sign laws in the Phoenix market are so stringent, this is a great place for people to put some branding on our balloons. We got two new corporate balloons… [right] after COVID because they saw that there’s going to be an opportunity to be in front of people outside. I have a cute saying that I love: “I don’t think you’ve ever seen anybody stop on the side of the freeway to take a picture of a billboard.”