BALLOONING BUSINESS: Dena Atchley can twist balloons into cartoon characters and self-caricatures.
SBJ photo by WES HAMILTON
Business Spotlight: Out of Thin Air
Dena Atchley, aka Dena the Balloon Lady, has made performance art into a career, and she’s now poised to inflate her business with new event decor products.
The 44-year-old wife and mother has plenty of experience with children, having taught fifth grade for four years and working at a preschool for several years after that. But her switch to balloon artist and business owner stems from her father’s own creative career.
Atchley says her dad, Rick Enloe, purchased Mr. E’s Magic & Novelties at 2307 S. Campbell Ave. in 1999 and later landed a weekly gig performing tricks at McAlister’s Deli near Sunshine Street and Campbell Avenue.
In 2006, when McAlister’s sought a performer for the East Primrose Street cafe, Atchley gave it a try – making simple, single-balloon animals for the children each Tuesday evening during the restaurant’s kids-eat-free promotion.
This turned into consistent work, she says, and when word-of-mouth referrals started adding up, she made the jump to full-time balloon twister seven years ago.
Atchley makes two- to five-hour appearances at various store openings, church festivals and birthday parties, all based on referrals.
“Everybody knows who the Balloon Lady is,” she says.
Atchley first learned the trade after her dad handed her “Balloon Magic” by Marvin Hardy, what she calls the leading how-to book for balloon twisters. She has continued her education by attending training conventions, purchasing tutorials and engaging in online communities of balloon artists.
Her creations have changed over the years as Atchley’s honed her skills, and the average piece now has three to five balloon combinations, as well as hand-drawn details such as faces. She can make nearly any cartoon character in less than two minutes, she says, and has even developed wearable accessories and interactive items, like a working bow-and-arrow set, a rattlesnake with sugar crystals in the tail and a handheld basketball game.
The Balloon Lady generally charges the venue a flat fee of $75 per hour. Atchley accepts tips, but says she never turns away children who don’t have cash.
“The balloon cost is really minimal,” she says. “You’re talking about pennies, and so even if I [use] five balloons and I have 25 cents worth of product in there and it makes a smile, who can buy a smile for 25 cents? Not very many people.”
Atchley says she currently grosses between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, and she orders up to $150 worth of balloons each month from American Balloon Factory in Overland Park, Kansas. Other costs, she says, include insurance, air pumps and transportation.
Zach Graham, nighttime general manager at the Primrose Street McAlister’s, says the restaurant sees more repeat business from the Balloon Lady, beyond the draw of the free kid’s meals.
“We actually get a lot of calls throughout the week,” he says, “specifically asking which dates Dena will be here.”
Corporate events and decor
Heather Hannaford, events coordinator at Meek’s lumber company, hires Atchley several times a year for store openings and family friendly building contractor events.
She says the lines of people who are willing to wait as long as necessary for one of Atchley’s souvenirs is proof of her customers’ interest in this service.
“It’s worth it,” Hannaford says, noting she books The Balloon Lady up to a year in advance and has turned down others who charge less.
Atchley has even made decor to match Meek’s event themes, such as life-sized cowboys and rodeo horses.
Event decor is something Atchley has added in recent years, supplying air-filled arches, columns and bouquets for school dances and corporate conventions, including an event for JPMorgan Chase employees at the Springfield Expo Center.
She has also been hired to deliver unique balloon gifts for special occasions and hospital stays.
“A lady who’d had gastric-bypass surgery, (she) wanted to celebrate a birthday but couldn’t eat her cake. I took her a balloon cake,” she says.