Behold, the balloon man cometh

The delivery person takes up most of the space in an elevator as he carries a brightly colored bouquet of helium balloons. Stepping out into a large office with rows of desks, he is met with applause as he seeks out the recipient of the myriad-hued missive. A blushing man gingerly accepts the bouquet, but the grin on his face shows that he is pleased. A message reads, "Mark, see you tonight! Karen."

Balloon delivery services have sprung up all around the country during the past year, bringing new competition to the more traditional gift messages of flowers and candy. And though some of the businesses have deflated as quickly as a leaky balloon, others are prospering.

On Valentine's Day, "Balloons Over Boston" will have a fleet of some 20 vans and trucks to do more than 1,000 deliveries ranging from $25 balloon bouquets to a $200 gilded cage complete with two lovebirds. Another East Coast firm serves four cities with a toll-free delivery number. And here in Portland, "Hi Balloons" has prospered enough to go from an at-home-in-the-garage operation to a rented location with a reception room, workshop, storage area, and business office.

Paul and Brooke Schmidt, who operate "Hi Balloons" in Portland, began their balloon business almost incidentally less than a year ago. Mrs. Schmidt's half-time teaching job was going to be eliminated, and she wanted to find a way to bring in income and still be with her two children, Blake, 3, and Ashley, who is not yet 2.

The Schmidts had seen a blurb about balloon businesses in a national magazine , and they liked the idea. Mr. Schmidt was also in the process of changing jobs , and while his wife finished the school year, he decided to start the business. Orders came in quickly.

"Pretty soon it required both of us," Mr. Schmidt says. Today they are convinced that balloons are here to stay . . . and they plan to stay with them. The Schmidts even foresee a day when a network similar to floral delivery services will enable a customer to call in an order to a shop in one city and have it delivered in another city.

Like other flourishing balloon businesses throughout the country, the Schmidts have added diversity to their service, beyond the delivery of helium balloons of nearly any color, tied together with ribbons just as colorful. They offer flowerpots filled with balloons on sticks for a "plant" that doesn't require watering. There are centerpieces with balloons in wicker baskets. Stuffed animals and balloons are a natural for children, and customers can also get a clown or circus mugs to go with the lighter-than-air message.

The ideas obviously work.

"We have tons of repeats," says Mrs. Schmidt. Still, the Schmidts believe their best advertisement are the helium balloons.

"People call and say, 'I just saw some of your balloons go by,'" Mrs. Schmidt says.

"We know where our delivery people are by where the calls come from," says Mr. Schmidt with a chuckle.

Most of the deliveries are personal messages.

"That's why we named our business 'Hi Balloons,'" he says. "It's a good way of communicating." Although balloons are usually associated with children, about 90 percent of the Schmidts' deliveries are to adults. Messages range from a simple "Thanks" to "Hope this lifts your spirits!" The couple has even delivered a marriage proposal.

"She said yes," Mr. Schmidt reports.

Balloon deliveries in most cities are sent to a variety of people. One run might include a delivery to the president of a bank and then another to a welder in an auto body shop.

"Probably more women order the balloons, partly because they find it easier to send balloons than flowers to a man," says Mrs. Schmidt, who adds that they receive from 20 to 40 orders each day.

Both agree that the joy the balloons bring is the biggest reward in the business.

"When we take a dozen balloons into a hospital room, a person's face just lights up," Mr. Schmidt says. "He will be very glum, but then a big smile arrives. It gives him a lift, and it's very positive. It is really up."

They tell humorous stories about what happens to the balloons after delivery. The helium balloons are held together by a bracelet-size ring at the end of the ribbons so that the bouncy charges will be easy to hang on to. One woman reported that her house bird flew over to the suspended ring and perched on it, drifting around the house with the wind currents. The woman's startled cat stalked after it all day.

"It drove the cat crazy," Mr. Schmidt says.

Starting a balloon business was quite a switch for the Schmidts, who have always thought it would be nice to run their own business together. Mrs. Schmidt had some experience in a floral shop, which she says has helped her with some of her ideas.But Mr. Schmidt's background was in a very different area.A law scholl graduate, he had been a clerk for a circuit court judge, worked in the Oregon corrections division, and as a contract negotiator for a business and research firm in Portland. He is very content with running the family business.

"I miss working downtown, but it's neat that I get to do more things with the kids, too," he says. "Just before Christmas I got to go see Blake's Christmas program, which would have been hard to do before. I get to share in portions of their life that I would not otherwise."

Mrs. Schmidt also finds her time with the children is important.

"I can take care of the kids more," she says, "although it means juggling."

Although the children are too young to be involved in the business, Blake sometimes accompanies his father to pick up supplies. He is very aware of his parents' endeavor. During a car pool ride with other children one morning, he began to give his mother's telephone sales pitch by asking his friends, "Did you know we have three kinds of bouquets . . . ?"

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