By Nina Polien Light | Photo by John Goldy
“That was the biggest balloon drop we’ve ever been involved with,” Jacquie Sopko-Crolius, owner of Balloon Crew in Garfield Heights, says of the roughly 100 hours of preparation and set-up involved. “We had conversations with people from Glasshouse Balloons in California a year before. They have a whole system for doing this. We helped them set up the system just a couple of days before the balloon drop. Then we went and delivered décor for some other orders.”
Those other orders included creating balloon arches, elephant-shaped balloons, and oversize balloon bouquets for events hosted by the Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Florida delegations.
Sopko-Crolius has come a long way from performing singing telegrams and bestowing balloons to unsuspecting celebrities and everyday folks in the 1980s to owning a thriving balloon delivery and event décor business today. Back then, Sopko-Crolius was a Cleveland State University theater major who went on to jobs at Xerox, Superior Alloy Steel, and Eastern Onion Singing Telegrams before answering a newspaper ad for a singing telegram performer at Balloons to You. Nine months into the Balloons to You gig, the business owner decided to get away from the day-to-day operations and move out of town. Sopko-Crolius eagerly bought a 50 percent stake in the business with $5,000 she had inherited following her grandmother’s death.
With the help of her mother, Marilyn Sopko, Sopko-Crolius ran the company from her mother’s house in the early days. After two months, business was too brisk for the two of them to handle on their own, so Sopko-Crolius hired her first employee. Another employee and Sopko-Crolius’s sister, Kathy Sopko, soon followed.
Along the way, customer tastes shifted. People loved the singing telegrams and accompanying balloon bouquets but asked whether Sopko-Crolius could decorate their wedding receptions and other events with balloons. In the mid-1980s, the business morphed into creating centerpieces, balloon arches, and other balloon decorations. By the early 1990s, she bought out her business partner, discontinued singing telegrams, focused on balloon décor and special effects, and changed the company’s name to Balloon Crew.
Today the company oversees 800 to 1,000 events or deliveries annually. Designs range from a simple birthday balloon bouquet to an exploding wall of balloons for Baldwin Wallace University’s student orientation. Balloon drops remain popular, but Sopko-Crolius also offers other unique designs. An event for the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County featured a confetti volcano that shot 10 pounds of confetti in 60 seconds up to 40 feet high. She also rents handheld confetti launchers, which are popular for New Year’s Eve and graduation parties. Balloon-covered ceilings, consisting of helium-filled balloons that do not drop, are another popular choice.
Corporate clients often request balloons emblazoned with their company logo for conferences, retirement parties, company picnics, year-end parties or sometimes to enliven a call center or adorn a retail establishment that is having a sale or anniversary. Some businesses request large balloon displays that spell out their company’s name. Corporate customers often take advantage of Balloon Crew’s face painters and artisan balloon twisters.
“Sometimes, they find it’s helpful for us to coordinate with our affiliates for linens, tents, tables, and chairs,” Sopko-Crolius says. “We’re like a one-stop event planner.”
Among Balloon Crew’s corporate clients are Third Federal Savings, Liberty Ford, PNC Bank, S&P Data, Petco, Moen Corporation, and Cleveland State University. The company has overseen the balloon release for the Cleveland Indians home opener and annually decorates several East Fourth Street and Tremont restaurants on New Year’s Eve.
Running Balloon Crew has not always been easy. Sopko-Crolius did not come from a business background, so co-owning the venture with a partner living in another city made for a challenging first 10 years, she admits.
“After buying her out, I was able to expand and take chances I would not possibly have taken had I had a partner,” she says.
The helium shortage of 2012 forced Sopko-Crolius to get creative. Fortunately, many clients appreciated her unique and more cost-effective air-filled designs.
Sopko-Crolius, who is one of 2,890 certified balloon artists worldwide, is a member of the Qualitex Balloon Network, Women in Sports and Events, the International Live Events Association, and the National Association of Women Business Owners Cleveland Chapter. In 2014 she received a scholarship for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program.
“Had I had something like that when I started, I would have had a lot better foundation,” says Sopko-Crolius, who launched her business during a recession.
Sopko-Crolius advises would-be female entrepreneurs to create a solid framework for their ventures by putting together a business plan with the help of an attorney and CPA, if possible.
“Make sure you know your costs and your market,” she says. “Surround yourself with supportive people and keep the naysayers away.”
For more information: ballooncrewinc.com