The Story of FLOAT

(AKA “What WERE We Thinking?!??)
It’s possibly one of the most common questions we get asked…what is FLOAT? Every once in a while we get calls from people looking how to make parade floats (and no, not from balloons) while we also occasionally hear from people thinking we’re hot air enthusiasts. But to really understand what FLOAT is, you have to know where it came from.

The seed for FLOAT was actually planted several years ago when I used to attend the old IBAC Conventions in the late 90s and early into the new millenium. There they would offer three types of classes: beginner, intermediate and advanced. But no matter what type of class it was that was listed, they ALL seemed to backslide to beginner level, sometimes by design and other times because the class had enough “newbies” in it that the instructor felt it important enough to step way back for the sake of those lost.

Along the way, many of us career-oriented professionals unfortunately felt left out of the process. There were already fewer and fewer options for experienced decorators to learn from, and I know I was not alone in that many of us felt as if conventions were just now nothing more than a nice little break from our realities providing very little practical educational opportunities.

Now set the “Way Back Machine” for November 2007. At that time we were completing the finishing touches on our latest BalloonTown USA project with over 60 artists from around the world working together on an installation piece and exhibit. Throughout the build, we would get phone calls from other professionals asking us what classes we were offering at BTU. We would explain to them that it wasn’t about classes but by learning through experience. And sadly, that wasn’t enough for most of them and they would hang up.

But that was also the year that something else happened. When 2007 began, there were three decorator-oriented balloon conventions on the schedule in the US, but by the end of the year only one remained. And many of us in the balloon world felt that the surviving event was a poor representation of our industry and we wanted nothing to do with it. I know from an outsider’s perspective such a statement could sound arrogant or off-putting, so let me state it another way. If you had to walk into a car dealership, do you want to deal with a guy who embodies the slick, double-speaking salesman mentality, willing to say anything to get you to sign the bottom line? Yeah, neither did we…

At one point during the project, several of us were sitting around complaining about the demise of the other events and the apparent survival of the one trying to sell us that damn undercoating. None of us wanted to support it, but what choice did we have anymore? It’s not like someone else was going to step up and put a convention together, right?

But then it hit me….wait a minute…why couldn’t BalloonTown USA become a convention? After all, we already had decent support from attendees as well as corporate sponsorship. All we would have to do was create a structured educational program, a few fun activities and there you go! Let’s face it…we could sit around and complain about it, or we could do something. Put up or shut up. Well, we decided to put up!

And with that, FLOAT was born. The name was pretty simple; we knew we wanted this to be a convention for decorators, so we wanted a balloon term that absolutely would be associated with us. And since twisters tend not to use helium in their work, the idea of a floating balloon was perfect for us. We struggled at first to come up with an acronym for it, but in the end what point would it serve? FLOAT stuck, and we couldn’t have been prouder.

Yet there was one more thing about FLOAT. We didn’t forget about all the headaches and aggravation we went through at other conventions, so we created a strict policy. FLOAT would remain a career-oriented professional convention where only intermediate to advanced level classes would be taught. We would hold teachers accountable to that fact, but at the same time, give them the power to address students in class that if their questions are too basic compared to the structure of the course, that they be helped out afterwards so as not to slow everyone else down.

Interesting little fact…FLOAT was actually first conceived of as a magazine, not a convention. The magazine idea was actually thought up about six months before the final BTU project and that FLOAT would start as a publication and then spawn a convention after a few years. That’s why the original website for FLOAT was, because there was also a It eventually changed to when we completely abandoned the idea of creating the magazine.

Our first convention took place in 2008, and behind the scenes it was absolute bedlam! We had very little idea of what we were doing (not that we’ve gotten much better now!) and it seemed like every time something went right, six other things would go wrong.

But something else happened too, something that we could not have expected. While we staff members were pulling our hair out,the attendees were smiling from ear to ear! They were having a blast! They were raving about their classes, making all kinds of new connections and friends and getting the personal attention from teachers and sponsors like never before. And many were already talking about what the convention would do next year! I was confused….were we talking about the same FLOAT?

It didn’t matter that FLOAT was an organizational disaster, lead by the guy who can never clear off his desk! It didn’t matter that we were scruffy and unpolished. No one cared that our Opening Night Decor consisted of ONE balloon wall and a drop. They were loving the classes, they were loving the attention and they were loving the LOVE in general!

That’s what most of us really want anyway, right? We already know we’re in a very small niche market to begin with. We wanted a refuge where we could go and be understood, appreciated and respected by our peers. But more importantly, we wanted our voices to be heard. We wanted someone to give us what WE wanted, and since I live in the trenches like everyone else, it made sense that I work as hard as I could to give them that very thing.

Yes, something had happened. It was as if a “secret society” had been born. After all, we only had about 80 people there the first time, not including teachers, sponsors and staff. But this connection, this comraderie, this friendship grew into something that would become known as the “FLOAT Family”, centered around a sense of ownership because FLOAT was about US. It was OUR convention, and the Family wants to keep it that way!

And the FLOAT Family continues to grow year after year. When the economy took a horrible nose dive, FLOAT continued to see growth. Mind you, we had no where to go BUT up, but still. At a time when the status quo was considered successful in business, FLOAT continued to rise.

In 2015, we passed the 300 attendee mark. In 2017 we climbed even higher, and in 2019 we had almost 450 attendees at FLOAT. Not only that, but we had 23 countries represented at FLOAT as well as 30 different sponsors, including for the first time ever, five balloon manufacturers!

I know this sounds like puffery, but to paraphrase an old saying…It’s a FLOAT thing…if you’ve never been, you’ll just never understand…

We hope you’ll come to FLOAT. We hope you’ll start to create your own FLOAT memories, and we hope you’ll join our family!

Steven Jones – Executive Producer