For an event like the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, Switch is getting fired up months before the balloons ignite their flames in the park. Eleven months, to be exact. Meetings are held, information is collected, and the initial steps are taken to ensure that the event is even better than the year before.

John Nickel, Co-President of Switch, has helped the St. Louis event fly high for the past three years. Each year, the historic race draws tens of thousands from across the Midwest. The two-day event brings in over 120,000 guests. While 60 colorful balloons taking off from Forest Park is a wondrous sight to behold, it’s not without the hard work of many Switch employees who are committed to creating a safe and spectacular event for everyone.

Pre-Flight Printing

The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is the oldest and largest free balloon event in the country. As is the case with every free event, it would not be possible without the generous support of dozens of sponsors. One of the ways Switch takes care of the sponsors is through the printing of their signage and banners. “The event wouldn’t happen without the sponsors,” states Pat Ayres, Manager of Production at Switch. Hundreds of signs are printed including sponsor banners, huge “wayfinding” boards, maps, information banners, parking information, public safety and concessions. If it is printed, most likely Switch had a hand in it.

After printing, everything needs to be “finished” with U/V coating and grommets, followed by trimming, mounting, laminating, and other custom processes. Understanding exactly how the signs will be used and hung is an important part of the expertise Switch brings to the event. Small details like how the sponsor banners are hung so to not interfere with the sightlines of the balloons in full flight is just as important as the design of the banner. And to think, at this point, the event is still weeks away. The work has only just begun.

Six Days Till Liftoff

After the banners are printed and the equipment is specified, 30 Switch employees over a 5-day period prepare Forest Park for the Friday night Balloon Glow kick-off event. It takes three semis
to haul everything needed for the event, including lights, sound equipment, power cables, tents, and banners.

In years past, the event took place at Central Field in Forest Park. Renovations to that location caused a change of venue in 2017 and 2018.  With that change came a whole new set of challenges. Art Hill is a beautiful new site for the event, but the incline meant a change to how the equipment was set up and what sound equipment was best to use for this unique space. The sound system is designed around the idea of a “distributive sound system” in order to cover the 1,000 ft wide by 2,500 ft deep space. That’s over 100 acres. It’s one thing to think about the surface space, but it’s another when you’re presented with height limitations. “We can’t have anything taller than 8 ft and anything within 50 ft of a balloon basket,” states Ann Slayton, Manager of Equipment Rental at Switch. Events of this magnitude require someone with experience and the ability to think creatively and analytically. Ann puts it more simply: “One of the biggest concerns is the safety of the pilots and the audience.”

Going Above and Beyond

The day of the event, last-minute changes and complications rear their head. This is standard for any event of this magnitude, and so it is up to the Switch team to think on their feet. A big part of the event is responding to all the mini-crises and being prepared on site is key. You don’t have time to run back to the shop for every issue that pops up. Even still, equipment is only part of what the event demands. “I spent 20 minutes reuniting a 2-year-old and a 9-year-old with their mother,” Ann goes on to recount. This is just a part of the blood, sweat, and literal tears (children’s tears in this case) that go into the event.

Finally, seeing the balloons fly across the St. Louis skyline is a magical sight. The entire city looks to the sky and displays one collective smile. Time has stopped for a moment, and even the workers can look up at their hard work with a sense of pride. When the last balloon lifts off the ground, it’s back to work for the Switch team and the additional volunteers and laborers still around. It takes seven hours to take everything down and load the semis up again. It’s an exhausting night that extends past midnight for some.

Long days and longer nights are par for the course when it comes to putting on big and complex events like the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Yet, Switch does this on a regular basis. This isn’t unique for Switch. With over 30 years of experiential marketing and events experience, there is never a doubt that the event will be a soaring success.


For more information about Switch planning your next event, contact Chris Jobst.

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