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The folks at Great Lakes Balloon Co. want to give businesses a lift, and have turned the tough business of hot air ballooning into a profitable outlet for advertising.

The 21-year-old, family owned business began when Richard Woolgar, an airplane pilot, and his wife, Grace, sought a career change.

The couple fell in love with hot air balloon rides, but soon learned that in Buffalo, their favorite pastime would make for a challenging business venture.

"When we began in the late 1970s, there were 15 balloons in the area," said Ms. Woolgar.

Today, there are only two commercial balloon companies left. The biggest reason for that seems to be that Buffalo's weather just isn't right for ballooning.

Great Lakes Balloon Co. only takes off when winds are below seven mph and there are no thunderstorms within 100 miles in any direction -- tough conditions to meet in the Queen City of the Great Lakes.

"Our season runs from May 1 to Oct. 31," said Ms. Woolgar, who explained that winds off Lake Erie make it necessary to reschedule most rides. "It's hard to find days when it's just right to take people up."

Although rides are scheduled seven-days-a-week during the six-month period, Great Lakes Balloon Co. averages only about 50 rides a season. And while each ride can take up to 10 people, who pay $199 each, the Woolgars realized they had to diversify their business, especially after investing $61,000 in their second balloon.

About 10 years after they started Great Lakes, the Woolgars began making some extra money by tying banners for products like "Mrs. T's Pierogis" on their balloon and inflating it in supermarket parking lots.

This eventually led to companies hiring Great Lakes to tether at promotional events and company affairs -- a task that could bring in up to $1,000 a week. To spread the new advertising arm of their business throughout the entire year, Great Lakes invested in "cold air inflatables."

"When you see a giant gorilla balloon on top of a gas station, or a 'grand opening' balloon at a store, that's probably us," said Ms. Woolgar.

The cold air inflatables are made of heavy duty materials that can withstand a Western New York winter. The 30-foot "Buffnet Buffalo" that sits outside Buffalo Bills games, for example, is an $8,000 Great Lakes Balloon Co. creation.

"It's a great form of advertising, a real wow impact item," said Gary Bacchetti, Buffnet's president. "When new customers sign up for service, we ask where they found out about us and they'll often say 'you're the big buffalo at Bills games.' "

Bacchetti added that when the Dole-Kemp campaign came to Buffalo, they wanted something eye-catching for their backdrop.

"They called Great Lakes and ended up using our buffalo," he said. "An oversized balloon like that commands attention right away."

Blasdell-based Great Lakes is one of about 125 companies that sells and rents cold air inflatables. Of that, they're one of only about 40 that does nationwide service.

"Really, less than 50 percent of our inflatables business is done in Buffalo," said Brandon Rockey, the firm's general manager. "And some nationwide special events, with travel and service, can bring in about $10,000."

But the Woolgars still get the most satisfaction out of giving people a chance to experience a hot air balloon ride.

"It's a surreal experience," Ms. Woolgar said. "It's very calm and gentle. Most people have a tough time explaining it afterward."

The balloon ride starts off Route 240 in Glenwood and ends wherever the wind takes it. Often, the balloon lands in someone's backyard.

"When ballooning started in 1783, the balloonist always gave farmers a bottle of champagne when they landed in their field," said Ms. Woolgar. "Today every balloonist carries on that tradition, and people are really thrilled to find us in their backyard."

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