By Rachel Wisinski
Instead of traveling to Las Vegas to get married as they had planned, Bret Wiley and Robin Dodson took their wedding to new heights — literally.
The couple from Harvard, Illinois, were married Nov. 21 in a hot air balloon.
It all started last July, when Dodson purchased a special gift for Wiley’s birthday. Looking for something adventurous, she signed them up for a hot air balloon ride with the Lake Geneva Balloon Company.
The couple’s first flight took place during the Waterford Hot Air Balloon Festival, where they took off with dozens of other balloons. This meant they didn’t get the typical experience of flying over the Geneva Lakes area, but they discovered a new hobby they’ve become passionate about.
Unlike flying in an airplane, a hot air balloon provides a completely different experience. “It’s peaceful and quiet — kind of like you’re in your own world up there,” Wiley says. “You could be 1,000 feet in the air and hear people having a conversation on their back deck.”
The couple was so taken with their first flight and newfound love of hot air balloons, they now volunteer with the Lake Geneva Balloon Company, helping owner and pilot John Trione to prepare balloons and serve as crew members on various flights. In fact, it was Trione who married the couple above the skies over the lakes area.
Much like Wiley and Dodson, Trione went on a flight for his 10th wedding anniversary and fell in love with hot air balloons. “It was the most awesome experience I’ve ever had,” Trione says. “It was like I was transported to being 10 years old again.”
After that flight he decided to become a pilot, and five years later he opened the Lake Geneva Balloon Company, which has been providing sightseeing tours across Walworth County and beyond since 2002.
Hot air balloons grace the skies above the Geneva Lakes area on weekends beginning in May, running through Memorial Day, and then every day until October. Hot air ballooning is completely dependent on weather and flights are limited to sunrise and 2 1/2 hours before sunset, so the company averages 85 to 90 flights a year.
Trione explains people should expect a canceled flight about five or six times before they actually take a ride. These precautions support the company’s nearly perfect safety record after 15 years. In addition, it also helps that the pilots — including Trione, another pilot and two subcontracting pilots — have about 70 years of experience combined.
Over the years, the Lake Geneva Balloon Company has increased its number of balloons from one to three, which requires more crew. That’s where Dodson and Wiley come in as well as those that are a part of a Facebook group that Trione relies on for extra crew.
Dodson and Wiley generally help set up balloons and put them away. During special events or festivals, such as the Harvard Balloon Fest during Labor Day weekend (which Trione helped conceptualize in 2016), volunteers serve in the same capacity, including holding down hot air balloons during a glow, when the balloons are lit at night.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In 2016, Fodor’s Travel ranked Lake Geneva in the top 10 destinations for hot air balloon rides in the U.S., and Trione says it’s obvious why. Location definitely plays a part in our success. “It’s just gorgeous here,” he says.
Ballooning is “present-focused,” he adds, meaning decisions regarding weather, a flight path and landing location are made the day of a flight. For that reason, Trione says he stays motivated and interested.
“I have flown this area 1,100 times, and it’s still an adventure,” he adds.
He also knows that the company’s success has a lot to do with people, whether they’re young millennials or baby boomers, who want an experience instead of acquiring more possessions. “People have enough stuff, so they’re buying experiences they can share with family and friends,” he explains.
Living in Lake Geneva, a tourist destination, inspired Trione to leave his old life in the corporate world. “I was looking for a way out, a business I could have fun with,” he says. “That was a big thing, finding a business I would enjoy and could feel like I was contributing something. I started it with that idea. It never was just a hobby for me.”
Fifteen years later, Trione still loves what he’s doing for two simple reasons. For one, it appeals to his tingling sense for adventure. It also brings his life back to a waning innocence.
“There’s this childlike wonder that surrounds a hot air balloon,” Trione says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the basket, on the ground watching, on a boat, flying by in an airplane — people get this dopey-looking smile on their face, and whatever’s going on prior to that hour before going on a flight, they forget about it.”
BEYOND THE BALLOON
Much like Trione, who shares his love of hot air balloons with others, people who fly with him often share their experiences via social media. Trione says he’s amazed how many people stay in touch through the company’s Facebook page, reliving their flights with others.
Trione and his crew also recently began broadcasting live video feeds from the basket while in the air, which gives potential customers a taste of the experience that awaits.
Much of the company’s website, including regular blog posts and its Above Geneva newsletter, is written by Trione’s assistant manager, Alex Rupp.
Rupp also has experienced the awe of flying in a hot air balloon, but what he draws excitement from is passing on those feelings to others. “We know what it’s like to do it, we’re around it all the time and it’s special for us, but now we’re creating that special environment, that feeling we first felt, and we’re trying to replicate it for the first time for these people,” Rupp says.
“The bottom line is that what we do is a lot of work, and we wouldn’t continue it if it wasn’t fun,” Trione says. “No balloon pilot gets rich doing this, and getting up at 3:30 in the morning some days is hard. We’re in this because it’s fun.”