KITCHENER — Sebastian Msuya and the Sundance Balloons crew were gearing up for a busy summer season when the COVID-19 pandemic threw cold water on their hot air adventures.
“When COVID hit, it was a bit of a shock,” said Msuya, the company’s COO. “We weren’t sure we could operate at all this year.”
In March, they were preparing their hot air balloons and hiring pilots for a launch of passenger flights in May. In April, they were closed and ticket sales suspended.
“We were worried,” admits Msuya.
With little else to do, employees began making face shields where they normally made or repaired balloons; hundreds of shields were donated across Canada.
As restrictions eased, they were allowed to reopen their passenger business and set July 1 as the launch date. But one big question remained: would anyone want to fly?
Founded 35 years ago and based in London, Sundance Balloons serves nine Canadian cities, including Kitchener and Ottawa. Kitchener is a key market, thanks to its proximity to the Greater Toronto Area.
In a typical year, Sundance operates two to three hot air balloons from Kitchener, offering two flights a day, seven days a week (weather permitting) during a season that extends through October. . Not knowing what to expect for its late launch in 2020, the company reduced its overall operating capacity by 50%, Msuya said. “We crossed our fingers”
Sundance resumed taking reservations in mid-June before the start of July, offering a flexible cancellation policy; they were full all summer.
“We attribute that to people wanting something to do this summer,” Msuya said.
With travel restrictions keeping most people close to home, this hot air balloon ride has suddenly become a staycation option.
Balloons usually carry 12 passengers and a pilot. Sundance provided people with face masks if they hadn’t brought their own, set up sanitizing stations and performed pre-flight health screenings. The company has also installed clear vinyl partitions between the five compartments of a balloon pod and in the vans that pick up passengers after landing.
“We just thought it might be an added level of safety and reassurance for the public,” Msuya said. One of the casualties was the traditional champagne toast that usually marked the end of a flight.
“We were very happy with how the season went,” Msuya said.
Although the flights are over for this year, Christmas is one of Sundance’s strongest sales times as people buy gift certificates.
Msuya said he hopes they will be able to launch next year at their usual time in May.
“Realistically, I think COVID will be here next spring,” he said. “But we have a lot more faith in passengers looking for a fun experience and showing up.”