By Amanda N. Wegner | Photography by Anne Morrissy (left), Holly Leitner (right)
Sara Meyer, the creative force behind Lake Geneva’s Wisconsin Balloon Decor, is taking the art of balloon decoration to new heights. With a blend of imagination, passion and innovation, Meyer’s designs transform ordinary gatherings into unforgettable experiences through elaborate and whimsical displays of balloon art. Because of this, her company has become the go-to balloon decor outfitter for major companies and organizations like Kohl’s, Summerfest, S.C. Johnson, the Milwaukee Bucks and others.
In addition to these custom installations for clients and corporations, Meyer has also leveraged her love of balloons into philanthropic ventures. Last year, Meyer brought a balloon decoration event called the Big Balloon Build to Lake Geneva, a massive collaborative undertaking that raised funds for local nonprofits Inspiration Ministries and Inspired Coffee. But Meyer isn’t stopping there — she has plans in the works for another balloon decoration charity event in 2024, while continuing to focus on spreading joy through her balloon business.
BEYOND ARTS AND CRAFTS
Formerly an art teacher, Meyer has always loved trying new ideas and crafts. “As a young teacher, I had summers and weekends free, but that’s not much fun when none of your friends have off,” she says with a chuckle. “So I started face painting at a pumpkin patch.”
To further her face-painting education, Meyer attended a convention in St. Louis where she took an “Intro to Balloons” course, where she learned the foundations of balloon decor. “That piqued my interest, and I began learning on my own and moved to a much higher level quickly,” she explains.
Meyer, who lives in downtown Lake Geneva with her husband and daughter, started by designing balloon decorations for parties, but soon expanded to corporate parties and larger installations. Meyer first entered the world of balloon decor eight years ago, and transitioned to full-time four years ago, initially balancing her own business with her job as a promotions and events manager at a local college. In March of 2023, she transitioned away from her college position to focus exclusively on Wisconsin Balloon Decor.
“Before I knew it, I was working full-time in the balloon industry,” she says. “It’s so cool that it’s something I get to do every day, all day. And it’s fun to surprise people. People don’t expect what we’re bringing — vans full of fluffy balloons. It’s fun to do, and I get to do it over and over and over again.”
Today, much of Meyer’s business comes from corporate events, focusing on Milwaukee, Waukesha and Walworth counties. (Last September, she completed a large installation for the Milwaukee Bucks.) However, she says she also does a lot of baby showers, weddings and wedding showers, especially in the Lake Geneva area. “There are tons of cool events we get to [decorate],” says Meyer. “And for many events, we get to be with people on some of the biggest days of their lives.”
A HAPPY BUSINESS
Meyer’s Lake Geneva shop features a rainbow wall of 50 different colors of balloons, making it a “very happy business,” in her words, though she is quick to add that “it’s happy but hard.”
For installations, Meyer and her team pre-inflate all the balloons in her shop, then deliver the balloons to the site to build the installation. “We do all the busy work and take the hassle off the host,” she says. “We inflate all week long and try to have everything ready so we can just come in and set up.”
In a year,Meyer estimates she inflates around a million balloons. She says that the preparation is the most stressful part of the process, as the balloons can only be inflated a few days in advance. Most balloons are air-filled; to be part of a balloon structure, they don’t need to float. Also, she says helium has become prohibitively expensive.
“You can have the best-laid plans, but then it comes down to those couple days before,” says Meyer. “You’re tying tons and tons of balloons, figuring out challenges, doing a lot of running around and lifting. And because it’s usually an important day, there can be stress and managing expectations to pull it all off.” Meyer says one of her most stressful but rewarding installations involved hanging huge, silver balloons, six feet in diameter, from a ceiling. “It was a high-end job and really scary,” says Meyer. “When it was done, it looked amazing and went off well. That felt satisfying, and it’s great to say, ‘We made that.’”
BRINGING THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER
One of the most rewarding events Meyer has had the privilege to be part of was last year’s balloon decoration event for charity: the Big Balloon Build. At its core, the Big Balloon Build is a fundraising event that brings together dozens of balloon professionals to create a magical, immersive balloon wonderland. The international event partners with a local charitable cause that aims to promote the health and well-being of children who are underprivileged or living with disabilities.
In Vincennes, Indiana in 2021, Meyer participated in the first Big Balloon Build to ever take place in the United States. Following that experience, Meyer knew the event was the perfect match for Lake Geneva. “The goal of the Big Balloon Build is to show the community what we can do and achieve with these large builds … for an amazing experience that goes to a great cause,” says Meyer.
In March of 2023, the Jackson Family Activity Center gym at Lake Geneva’s Covenant Harbor camp was transformed into a magical, immersive experience, decorated with over 100,000 balloons for the Big Balloon Build Lake Geneva. Proceeds from the ticket sales benefited Inspiration Ministries and Inspired Coffee, local nonprofits that support individuals living with disabilities. The Lake Geneva event was only the third time the Big Balloon Build was held in the United States.
The event took about 18 months of planning and preparation to bring the event to life, according to Meyer. “[After the Indiana event,] I wanted to jump in and throw my hat into the ring for Lake Geneva,” she explains. “You have to make the case for your community, and the community did not disappoint. It was great to have local businesses and organizations get on board.”
Meyer’s balloon community did not disappoint either — 75 fellow balloon artists from around the world descended on Lake Geneva to support Meyer at the 2023 event. “I am pretty involved in the balloon community as a whole, teaching and traveling, and I have a lot of friends in that part of my world,” says Meyer. “They left their businesses, left their families, maybe took a working vacation, but they want to come here and be part of the build. It’s a pretty amazing community.”
The success of the 2023 event got Meyer thinking about ways she might maintain the energy of the Big Balloon Build and continue to support the local community. In 2024, Meyer will work with Williams Bay’s Gage Marine to host another local balloon installation event for charity: the Balloon Adventure. “This will be a totally local event, our own event, and all the money will stay here,” says Meyer, explaining that she has partnered with the Santa Cause, Inc., a super-charity that supports several nonprofits throughout Walworth County.
Inspired by the Big Balloon Build, the theme of the Balloon Adventure is “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” It is scheduled for April 10-15 at Pier 290’s Boat Barn in Williams Bay. A ticketed event, all money raised will benefit the Santa Cause and its charities. Meyer explains that instead of having the support of the Big Balloon Build’s international organization, for this year’s event, she is working with Gage Marine, managing logistics and design herself and bringing in professionals to help with the build, which will take about a week. “It will be a lot of work, but Balloon Adventure will be another great event for the area,” she says.
SPIRIT AND PASSION
The balloon decor industry is relatively young. Industry inventor Treb Heining first learned he had a knack and love for balloon decor while working as a balloon boy at Disneyland in the 1970s — and he is still active in the field today. Meyer notes that the industry initially evolved slowly, with people learning through magazines and word of mouth. The arrival of social media and online forums helped propel the industry to new heights.
In addition, Meyer says the pandemic further accelerated balloon decor, as individuals who were temporarily out of work sought out the industry, and the move to an increase in outdoor events expanded demand for balloon installations. “At that time, there were a lot [of new businesses] popping up,” says Meyer. “It’s easy to start but difficult to scale a balloon company. The small stuff one can figure out on their own, but once you start thinking about a warehouse, crew, van … that’s where it gets complicated.”
To support others in the balloon decor business, Meyer also runs The Bright Balloon, a podcast and course store, where she teaches others how to succeed in the field.
“People in this field love what they do, and I’m glad to be part of it,” says Meyer. “We are all pretty creative and excited to try new things. When a new color [balloon] comes out, the internet breaks for us. It’s a sharing group of people — we don’t keep secrets to ourselves.”
That sense of community is part of what inspires Meyer. “I think the Big Balloon Build is proof of that [spirit],” she says. “We had 75 people, who were not compensated, come to Lake Geneva to help me and a local charity because they wanted to be involved. That’s a good example of this community’s giving spirit and passion.”
Backed by her balloon community and supported by her staff, Meyer looks forward to the future of Wisconsin Balloon Décor, especially as she adds a new dynamic to the business — Meyer and her husband are expecting another baby in February. “Right now, I want to maintain and grow,” says Meyer. “We have the right mix of clients who like our style and are excited to work with us.”
And, of course, she looks forward to the Balloon Adventure in April: “I’m excited to see that come together and share the magic of balloons with the community once again.”