After a weekend with few liftoffs at this year’s Walla Walla Balloon Stampede, the event’s coordinator is considering navigating a new calendar for the annual hot-air balloon festival.
A fall event would improve the success rate for takeoffs and ultimately deliver a better show than the roughly 40-percent flight rate of the current event, said organizer Scott Spencer.
Although a major change in schedule would first need approval from sponsors, Spencer said discussion is in the works.
“It’s not something I can talk about in detail yet,” he said. “I will certainly acknowledge that it’s on the table.”
A commercial pilot from Boise who has long been a flying fixture at the Stampede, Spencer said pilots have wanted to change the date for years.
Traditionally tethered to the second weekend in May — right on Mother’s Day weekend, on the heels of Spring Release and just before Whitman College’s graduation — it has long been described as the kickoff to the hot-air balloon festival circuit for pilots. But the spring weather is spotty. Pilots, who come from all over the West, are half the time unable to even get off the ground, he said.
Although Walla Walla’s event does signal the start of the festival season, most other dedicated ballooning events have adjusted for a better shot at good weather to ensure a higher success rate, Spencer said.
For instance, after Walla Walla’s festival in May, the next festival Spencer is scheduled to attend takes place on Independence Day in Provo, Utah.
He said Boise’s annual balloon festival had long taken place the last full weekend in June. Since moving it to Labor Day weekend five years ago, only two launches have fallen through.
This year’s Stampede had no flying days, from the Thursday Media Day on May 8 that kicked off the weekend, through Sunday. A few pilots did get off the ground on their own. But the official Stampede flights were canceled, due either to high winds or rain.
The weather component can’t be denied, Spencer said. Changing weather patterns — even across the world — have an impact on the event.
He said 2 or 3 degrees of temperature difference in the southern Pacific Ocean can mean the difference between a good season and a bad season here.
“The lesson is you’re going to do better if you pay attention to the weather,” he said.
The paucity of flights this year doesn’t mean the weekend was a loss. One success on the Thursday morning when just three balloons flew was that the pilots who remained were able to make it a kids/media morning by tethering their balloons and interacting with the 750 children in attendance.
“That’s something we absolutely want to bring back to the Stampede,” Spencer said.
The change would be part of the continuing evolution of the Stampede after the event was handed off earlier this year.
For more than two decades, the event was coordinated by the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce. But the business membership organization wanted to pass it to new operators, largely because of the time and energy it takes away from the organization’s core mission.
The change to Scott and Laurie Spencer’s management brought a huge transition. The focus was away from commercial activity and a movement to focus more on balloons for the 40th anniversary.
That’s a change Spencer said he’d like to continue into the future.
“The Chamber does a darned good job. They do what they’re supposed to do,” Spencer said.
“That said, I’m not the Chamber of Commerce. My job is not finished when the heads are in hotel rooms and the people are in the restaurants. That’s a great byproduct of the Balloon Stampede, but my job is getting balloons in the air.”
This year’s changes included moving Nite Glow from the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds to Walla Walla Community College. The daylong vendors were eliminated as part of the balloon event. Furthermore, the Media Day launches were relocated to Howard Tietan Park — where the Stampede has history rooted in its past — and all other launches took place from Garrison Middle School.
Spencer isn’t sure how many of those changes would continue for the next Stampede. He said having one location for the entire event is probably ideal.
Meanwhile, the other logistical challenge for any kind of move is time. Shifting the Stampede to the fall could leave Walla Walla without a balloon festival for 18 months — a move with which Spencer isn’t entirely comfortable.
But one way to curb unrest would be to offer up a smaller-scale event for this fall. And that would mean jumping right back on the planning wagon for another round this year, if sponsors give the green light.
“I wouldn’t rule out a 40.5 in October,” he said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.