The world’s supply of helium may be running low. But Amber Clark, certified balloon artist and proprietor of Up Balloon Boutique, has high spirits.
In the face of another global shortage of the inert gas used across industries but mostly commonly associated with balloons, Clark has largely gotten away from using it at all.
So while party suppliers have been hit — New York-based Party City announced plans last week to close 45 of its 870 stores in the midst of the shortage — Clark’s business continues to take off.
Earlier this year she took the paper from the doors and placed signage to reveal a new location at 1511 Isaacs Ave.
The Walla Walla entrepreneur in just the first few months of the year also traveled to Paris in a trip sponsored by latex balloon-maker Qualatex for a stylized wedding photo shoot that included her cherry blossom balloon décor and a waterfall of balloons at the entrance to a French château. Other international trips may be on the horizon as her portfolio of balloon creations grows.
Up Balloon Boutique started about seven years ago as an uplifting balloon bouquet delivery service. Around that time, she also discovered what was then described as a helium shortage.
It caused her to think outside the box from the beginning.
She began studying the work of other balloon artists, learning to make wondrous arches, cascading clustery garlands, elaborate centerpieces, columns, and sculptural designs from cactuses and cherry trees to bulls and Uncle Sam sculptures.
Last year with a residential move, she relocated what had been her home-based operation in a she-shed to the new storefront, where she remained under wraps until this year.
Opened primarily as a workspace and by appointment only, the sliver of space provides a meeting spot for clients, along with room to inflate and create. Most importantly, it has storage for the steel frames she’s able to fill with balloons to create 5-foot tall sayings of celebration: “LOVE,” “PROM,” and “NYE,” for instance. A 10-foot tall flamingo and slightly smaller version of the Eiffel Tower are stored there, too.
Such infrastructure is one route Clark started with several years ago to help diversify her offerings. But it now may also contribute to her longevity in her twist on traditional décor.
Already in short supply, crude helium prices rocketed 135 percent in a 2018 auction led by the Bureau of Land Management last fall for 2019 delivery.
That, according to news reports, is said to have been the last auction of U.S. reserves to be sold to private industry as the American government poises to exit the business. New supplies in the industry are not coming online quickly enough, reports say.
Helium is an inert, nontoxic and nonflammable gas with applications across medical, aeronautical and scientific fields, among others. It is used in magnetic resonance imaging, space flight, satellite instruments and more. In liquid form, it is used to study superconductivity and create superconductive magnets.
The greatest use of the gas though is in party supplies, CNBC reported.
By the time of the latest shortage, Clark estimates 80 percent of her items were air-filled. Now it’s closer to 98 percent. She only uses helium upon customer request.
“It’s making us think outside of the box a little, but it wasn’t a huge issue for us,” she said. “Mostly it’s the way we now have to start a conversation: ‘If you’re wanting those in helium let’s chat for a minute.”
With an on-call team of balloon helpers — anchored by her husband, Shawn — she said the business assembles its installations with the use of a minivan, a box truck, a trailer and soon another delivery vehicle.
“It takes a lot of space to be able to inflate enough balloons to fill all of those,” she said of the Eastgate shop. “There are times when we’re able to inflate on-site, but we prefer to inflate prior to arrival.”
If time is limited for installation it means usually hauling pre-filled balloons and assembling quickly.
Much of the work, she said, is education-based.
“We work with our clients to find the best solutions to their events, conferences, and meetings. We’re great at hiding areas, providing direction to guide guests at events and conferences, and creating focal points,” she said.
They also spend time helping clients understand the environmental aspects of the business. With the use of 100 percent latex, there is no plastic to the balloons. They’re biodegradable, she said. In instances when helium is employed in foil, nothing leaves the shop without a weight to keep it grounded.
Clark’s vision for the future includes a second location, possibly in the Tri-Cities or Spokane markets, and developing course work to teach others in the industry about balloon décor.
As demand grows, she said, the party for Up Balloon Boutique is just getting started.