WALLA WALLA — Laurie Spencer owns what she calls a "niche" operation.
Lighter Than Air America, a commercial hot air ballooning business, has proven to Spencer again and again that it's a unique market to be in.
Founded by the late Scott Spencer, Lighter Than Air America was born from his childhood dream of taking flight while growing up in Boise, Idaho. He took his first hot air balloon ride when he was 14 and at that moment, he was hooked.
Over the course of several years, Spencer successfully expanded Lighter Than Air America into a prosperous enterprise and a prominent player in the corporate ballooning industry. In 1995, he married Laurie, who shared his passion for ballooning. Together, they ran the company for 25 years, using their balloons to promote various brands around the globe.
The Spencers also have been instrumental in keeping the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede afloat since 2019 when the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce cut its ties to the event.
Laurie Spencer took over the business after her husband passed away during the same year, and she continues to operate the business with the same level of enthusiasm and meticulousness that has made Lighter Than Air America a prominent leader in the ballooning industry.
She said she attributes the success of the commercial operation to luck and to her connections to those who know the ins and outs of the advertising and promotion industry.
"I think a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time," Spencer said. "It's talking to the right people who see the potential that a hot air balloon can bring to a community or to market a product that they have."
She said it's also taking the best care of the customer who, in turn, takes care of the reputation of the company.
In addition to offering airborne experiences, Lighter Than Air America specializes in several distinct and highly specialized sectors in the ballooning industry. The business has been operating as a corporate provider of advertising since 1989.
Lighter Than Air America's prominent role in the ballooning industry includes the ownership and management of both round and uniquely shaped corporate balloons for high-profile brands, such as Disney and Coca Cola, as well as past clients such as Kellogg's.
In addition to its corporate ballooning services, Lighter Than Air America has organized and carried out a range of highly customized and unique ballooning promotions. These include the 2000 Millennium Celebration and the world premiere of Oz the Great and Powerful in Hollywood.
"We are the only balloon to ever be on Hollywood Boulevard for a world premiere," Spencer said. "We were the icing on the cake. It's not a party unless you have hot air balloons."
In 2018, the company collaborated with fashion designer Christian Dior and designed two specially crafted balloons for a fashion show held in the Santa Monica Mountains, just outside Los Angeles.
Spencer said it is very expensive to run a hot air ballooning business.
"Like in any business, 98% of the income that you generate, you put back into the business," she said. "I think of all the opportunities that are presented; the places that I've been able to visit and the people that I've been able to meet. It's all worth it."
For more than three decades, Lighter than Air America has attended and orchestrated hot air balloon festivals namely the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic and the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede.
For Spencer, the challenge of flying hot air balloons and the people she has met along the way are what she says keeps her in the air.
"Ballooning is a very happy place to be," she said. "It starts when you are a little kid, and you are given this helium balloon. There's a sense of awe and wonder when you let the balloon go and watch it float away. Then you have hot air balloons that go up and are so beautiful and majestic. How does that not bring a smile to your face?"