In our next trip around the world, we stop in South Africa (and neighboring Eswatini) to learn what unique challenges balloon businesses face and what cultural differences they celebrate.
About South Africa
CURRENCY CONVERSION: $1 USD = 16.05 South African Rand
LANGUAGE: Predominately Zulu, as well as Afrikaans, Xhosa, and English.
FAST FACT: The Republic of South Africa, the southernmost country on the African continent, is renowned for its incredible natural beauty and cultural diversity, all of which have made the country a favorite destination for travelers since the legal ending of Apartheid in 1994.
Questions and Answers
Would you say balloons are trendy and popular in your country/market?
Hettie and Alfred: South Africa is still very new to balloon decor; the market still believes that balloons are a single balloon with helium on a string. One of our business challenges is to change that view of a single balloon with helium, which is a significant opportunity for us. With the above said, the higher end of the South African market is slowly catching up with trends in the USA or Europe. Those trends will usually arrive in South Africa about six months after the trend started in those countries.
Felicity: Yes, they are trendy! They are mostly used in birthday celebrations, baby showers, wedding anniversary. They sometimes appear in TV dramas, soapies.
Tanya: I would say more and more balloons are trending in South Africa in the last ten years. With more in-depth and diverse training, we are slowly growing the industry. South Africa has always been an eclectic culture – people celebrate uniqueness and have a deep appreciation for art and craft. Aesthetic beauty is something that all South Africans seek. I believe the art of balloon sculpting and decoration adds to the rich tapestry of a country already full of colour, texture, and craft.
Sarah: Yes, there is a growing appreciation for balloons as they have become trendy and popular in Eswatini. And yes, balloons are now commonly used at celebrations. Unfortunately, they do not yet appear in advertisements or television movies and shows.
Diren and Shabina: Balloon decor is trending everywhere in SA, from gender reveals to retirement parties, people love them!
Is balloon popularity growing or decreasing in your country?
Hettie and Alfred: There is a growth in the balloon market and the balloon decor industry. We see many balloon decorators popping up, and some event planners/decorators start to provide balloon decor as part of their portfolios. It is very frustrating to see these non-professional balloon decorators popping up. Still, it is good for the balloon industry and indicates that the demand for balloon decor is increasing in South Africa.
Sabeeha and Michelle: Currently, as we stand for 2020, Covid-19 has impacted our business. Otherwise, considering the period in which we have partnered with Pioneer, it has definitely had a successful impact on our business.
Tanya: Slowly, more people are coming to realize the possibility of creating almost anything from balloons. Whilst some other decorative industries strive to recreate their looks and keep up with trends, balloons seem to have a sense of originality and personalization. People appreciate this, and I believe the popularity is growing in both corporate, private, and public events alike.
Diren and Shabina: Apart from balloon decor always making any area gorgeous, we have had an increase in balloon sales. Many customers find balloons more hygienic than renting out a decor item used several times by others during these COVID times.
What balloon trend have you noticed in your country?
Sabeeha and Michelle: Organic balloon designs, air-filled designs, unicorn, space, mermaid, and dinosaur are trending in SA.
Sarah: Pastel colours and Chrome balloons. Top requests include organic balloon garlands for photo booths and backdrops, organic balloon walls, helium balloon bouquets, personalised helium bubbles, balloon gifting, and general helium-filled latex balloons and foil numbers.
Tanya: Organics seem to be the most popular right now. I have also noticed a steep incline on bouquets and deliverables within my own business since COVID- 19. Many of our existing clients, who can't celebrate as they usually do, have ordered birthday bouquets to mark their home celebrations. There is always a call for personalization and branding - be it with names, numbers, or even characters.
Diren and Shabina: Everyone seems to love Chrome Rose Gold and Chrome Gold! Organic balloon garlands on a large hoop and the gender reveal balloon design as well personalized foil numbers are a big hit.
Some of Hettie & Alfred's Work
Hettie Potgieter, CBA, and Alfred Puth, CBA
Decorators with Online Shop
Brakpan, Gauteng, South Africa
What types of celebrations are popular for balloons in your business?
Sabeeha and Michelle: Birthdays, baby showers, anniversaries, and weddings.
Sarah: Birthdays, baby showers, end of year parties, seasonal (Mother's Day, Father's Day, Christmas, Women's Day,) and corporate events.
Tanya: At the Pop, we believe there is no function too elaborate and no intimate party that is too big or too small for us. I pride myself on putting my full heart into what I do – from a 10,000 balloon installation to a one-year-old birthday bouquet. We cater for anything from birthdays to religious functions, to store decoration and even corporate large events.
When is your busiest time of year? What about the slowest?
Hettie and Alfred: Normally, our busiest time starts from September until New Year's Eve. Then it downscales from January as mommies and daddies need to buy all the schoolbooks and pay school fees. We start picking up from June again.
Felicity: The last quarter of the year is the busiest. People are in a festive mood. The first and second quarters of the year are the slowest.
Sarah: The first & last quarters of the year (August to December, February to May) are the busiest while January and May to July are the lowest.
Diren and Shabina: February to December are the busy months as everyone has a birthday; they love celebrating here in SA! January is our only slow month.
Are there many independent balloon retailers (storefronts) in your country, or are mass retail chains more common?
Hettie and Alfred: There are not many balloon retailers; most are a home-based business with a visible increase in balloon decorators. We do have more mass retail chain stores that sell mainly helium-filled balloons. With that said, there are a few Qualatex Balloon Boutiques (QBB) that have opened in our region. Hopefully, we can get more of these mass retail chain stores to install a QBB and spread Qualatex balloons' quality.
Felicity: We have a lot of retail stores that sell balloons. Mostly with in-store balloon bars that sell helium-filled balloons.
Sabeeha and Michelle: Balloon event designers and coordinators are at the front end in the market, followed by retail partners.
Sarah: There are a few independent balloon retailers and more common mass retail chains, including Asian shops.
Some of Felicity's Work
Felicity Sikhulile Sibanyoni, CBA
Mbombela, Mpumalanga Province, Republic of South Africa
What is the craziest or most bizarre balloon request you have ever received?
Hettie and Alfred: Well, when we started about nine years ago, and we got a request to do a 3 meter high pair of scissors for a hair salon opening, and at that time, I was so stressed about how we would get this design done, but nevertheless we got it done with a very happy client. Now that Qualatex and Lacey's joined forces and with training and earning our CBA certification, these types of designs are not that bizarre anymore but rather unique, making you stand out from the others. We had a request to do a unique design in 2019 for the launch of the Nike Airmax 720. They wanted the Nike Airmax 720 replicated but with balloons, which we stressed out about because this would not have only been seen by our followers but by Nike. I would not say that these are crazy or bizarre but that we might be crazy (hahaha) but enjoy every second we do these unique designs.
Tanya: Besides many of my clients who order personalized balloons for their dogs, I also had to deliver personalized balloons to a cemetery to place on a grave. We also had to create a giant Octopus for a TV advert, which required a crane to lift.
Diren and Shabina: During Halloween, we had run out of kids' costumes for sale, and a Mom so desperate to make her child happy, kindly asked us to help her create a costume for her son with balloons. In 10 minutes, we had turned him into a spider! He was a very happy little boy with a unique costume that no one else had. It was more crazy and cute than bizarre, but that's when I started seeing what great ideas can come from a balloon. In another example, we made a large personalized clear balloon, inserted lights into it, and what resembled a long ribbon connected to a switch that was controlled externally. The fiancé, in this case, placed the balloon in a romantic, dimly lit room, and when his bride-to-be entered the door, he switched on the balloon lights, and all that shined bright was, "Will you marry me?" Obviously, she said yes!
How/where do you do most of your business? Online or in-person?
Hettie and Alfred: Due to the nature of our business, we found that our customers are comfortable contacting us through social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which is also very popular with our customers and online requests from our web site. We will encourage in-person meetings with the customer, depending on the type of event. Retail clients, corporations, schools, and churches prefer in-person meetings to discuss their events and requirements.
Felicity: I do my business in person.
Sabeeha and Michelle: Online.
Sarah: A combination of both online and in-person, but mostly through Whatsapp.
Tanya: In-person. I have always believed that trying to understand our clients' exact needs is what makes our business unique and personalized. It's not about ordering a standard balloon delivery- it's about discovering the kid's favourite colour, soccer team, character, etc., to ensure a personalized, unique outcome.
Diren and Shabina: Walk-in customers.
What about marketing? How/where do you get most of your customers? Word of mouth? Social media? Foot traffic?
Hettie and Alfred: The best marketing still is word-of-mouth, which is why it is so important for us to provide our customers with great customer service and the best quality product with each delivery or setup. That is why we are using the Qualatex brand with the highest quality balloons. When our balloons look good, and our designs look good, our business name looks good. The other marketing strategy that also works for us is social media. As Zoe Adams says, the more regularly you post, the more people share and see your social media work.
Felicity: Social media plays a very crucial role in marketing my business. Not only that, but word of mouth is also a very effective tool for my business.
Sabeeha and Michelle: From our sales force and social media.
Tanya: I have been blessed that I have never needed to advertise. I get calls daily from customers who see our work on Social media or by word of mouth. Each delivery or installation or event is an advert for the next one.
Diren and Shabina: Word of mouth and social media.
Some of Tanya's Work
Tanya Joselowsky, CBA
Johannesburg, South Africa
Who is your target market/common customer?
Hettie and Alfred: Our decor target market is the high middle class and high-end customers who are prepared to pay for the bespoke designs. Seventy-five percent of our customer base is event planners, retail environment for window/shop displays, and new retail shops' openings. We have a couple of corporate clients, a megachurch, and a casino franchise. Our high middle class and high-end customers will mainly start to use us for their children's birthday parties or baby showers, which become returning customers for all these events. The online shop concept for balloon deliveries is still very new in South Africa, and customers would rather contact us directly, referencing the online shop photos.
Felicity: It all started with young families with kids who wanted balloons for their young ones' birthday celebrations. It has now expanded to young couples, young women, and middle-aged women. These are mostly people with good taste who love classy things and have a high social status.
Sarah: Our target market or common customers are the busy working moms and grandmoms for birthdays for all ages, baby showers, retail chain stores, and corporate and institutions of learning.
Tanya: We target anyone who wants to celebrate! We generally try to service our area and refer out to other balloon artists if required. I believe any quotation can be tailored to suit the needs, budget, and scale of any client – that's the beauty of the industry.
Diren and Shabina: Age: 25-55 years, Gender: 90% Female; Customers highly recommend our store because of service and delivery.
How has diversity played a part in your career? What challenges and opportunities have been presented?
Felicity: Getting to know a lot of balloon artists from different continents, learning from them is something I will never exchange for anything, not forgetting our own balloon artists in the country. It has made me improve my craft. I get inspired by the latest designs tutorials shared online, 'QCorner Online Convention' is one to mention. One gets to learn about our different cultures and embrace diversity.
Sabeeha and Michelle: South Africa is currently a diverse nation on its own.
Sarah: I primarily work in a predominantly black community/country, but I have built up a steady client base from other races too. One of the challenges is that in as much there is growing appreciation for balloon decor, the appreciation is not matched with an appreciation of quality in terms of our use of quality Qualatex balloons and the awareness that they are biodegradable. There is always that push and greater need for education when working with black people in my market. Traditionally, this has not been part of their celebratory practices. Other races (non-black) come from a culture where celebrating with balloons is normal for them, and as such, the focus on this segment has been more on ensuring quality and trying to market and increase interest. This diversity has presented an opportunity where once you strike a good deal, reputation spreads primarily through word of mouth, and that's how I have been able to build a client base. In contrast, with the black community, there is a greater need to educate. Among black people, there is a struggle to accept quality in terms of the types of balloons I'm using because it is something that has never been part of their culture, but something new.
Tanya: South Africa is a rich cultural landscape full of diversity and heritage. I have been exposed to so many people from different races, walks of life, and cultures. I have used these opportunities to learn and grow and diversify my offerings. It's common that I do a Jewish Circumcision and a Christening both on the same day – it is these kinds of challenges that keep me striving and improving on my skills.
What unique challenges do you face in your country?
Hettie and Alfred: I would say to change the South African customer's mindset to what balloons can bringing to their event. Most people, when they hear balloons their first question is, "Do you mean like hot air balloons?" or "I'm interested in balloons," and then they send you a picture they downloaded from the internet that is just single helium balloons.
Felicity: Being an individual woman of colour, to get into the corporate world as far as shopping centres, vehicle sales centres, or just securing huge partnerships has been somehow hard.
Sarah: Politically, there are no challenges; the lack of established independent party supply retailers makes it challenging for us to get accessories for balloon sculptures. We are forced to courier or travel to acquire all we need, contributing to increased operating overheads. There are few marketing opportunities with an established regulatory body that would allow me to be trusted as a professional balloon artist.
Tanya: South Africa's current political climate is fraught with tension. We face numerous challenges and have a very broad underprivileged society. However, South Africans have a zest for life and an energy of joy and positivity - this is felt all over the world! Living here means making the most of today and celebrating it – celebrations of all kinds in all economic sectors. We are a resilient, proud, and soulful nation—one of which I am proud to be a part! One unique thing I witness in my sector is where balloons are recycled – you will see someone spend thousands on balloon decor for a function – the next day, they will take the bunches to a children's hospital to uplift their spirits. That's what bridges the divide in our country – incredible kindness and awareness of people less fortunate.
Diren and Shabina: The fluctuation of the Rand plays a big role in price increases in products, and we try to maintain consistency with our prices.
Some of Sarah's Work
Sarah Milimo Hakasenke Sikwibele, CBA
Yaluna Events & Balloon Boutique
Decorator and Retailer
What unique cultural customs in your country create challenges or opportunities for you?
Hettie and Alfred: A great opportunity for us is Christmas; due to the climate and season in South Africa, we don't have what others call a "White Christmas," thus it creates an opportunity for us to create a different but unique type of Christmas design, which will fit our festive season better.
Felicity: I would not say there is anything unique, but as Africans, in South Africa, we like celebrating. We celebrate almost everything; it can be a birthday, an anniversary, a wedding, paying for dowry (bride price), to name a few. Celebration is what we are.
Sabeeha and Michelle: Being that South Africa is a diverse, multi-cultural country--we have various cultures and religions--balloons have created endless opportunities.
What is your biggest challenge as a business owner in your country?
Hettie and Alfred: We are often asked why our balloons or design pieces are so expensive as they can buy the balloons at a store for much lower prices, and we charge them double or more. That is why we are targeting higher-income customers or retail and corporate clients. With the high jobless rate in South Africa, many people have started balloons businesses; whether they are an individual or an events planner, most don't have the proper training and don't do the costing correctly, so they charge much less than the professional balloon decorators. We found that most people compare the cost of the piece they want and not the product's quality or designs. Educating the people is quite challenging as they see a balloon as just a balloon.
Felicity: It is very hard for a business like this to stand because people look at the balloon industry differently as compared to other businesses and other countries around the world. It's not easy for the majority of people in the country or around the area where I operate to pay for such a craft.
Sarah: People see the quality and great designs on Pinterest. Still, they do not want to pay for that value, and we are also working with a context where accessing some of the things that are needed to pull off some Pinterest or Instagram designs are literally not available. As balloons have become more popular, the market has become flooded with low-quality balloons. People are not familiar with balloons as art and luxury. They are considered a cheap item for kids, baby showers, and sometimes birthdays but not really for adults or corporate environments.
Tanya: High import costs and the unpredictable Rand/dollar exchange provide for fluctuating, unpredictable product increases. Finding loyal, honest staff has also been a challenge.
Diren and Shabina: Stock availability and the rapid increase in helium price.
We have found that balloons are a universal language of joy that crosses all socioeconomic, cultural, and religious beliefs. Do you have any stories or anecdotes you'd like to share that support that sentiment?
Felicity: A wonderful story that depicts the universal dialect of balloons is one of a client who is from a distinctive country, Mozambique, asking me to assist her with a balloon surprise box for a friend here in South Africa. The box was filled with helium balloons and all her favorite goodies inside. When the friend got her surprise box revealed…she was beyond happy with tears of joy and bliss since she hadn't seen her friend for the longest time.
Sabeeha and Michelle: Balloon therapy.
Diren and Shabina: We believe that you need to celebrate everything in life. That's why we have named our store YOLO Party Shop, because You Only Live Once, so celebrate life like there is no tomorrow!
Some of Diren and Shabina's Work
Diren Chetty and Shabina Chetty
Yolo Party Shop
Decorators and Retailer
Salt Rock, Ballito, South Africa
Anything else you think people should know about your country?
Felicity: South Africa is an exceptionally lovely country with exceptionally wonderful people. From the seas to the mountains, it is exceptionally delectable and green and very diverse. As South Africans, we are known to love singing, celebrating at all times, and having a good sense of humour. We cherish to chuckle.
Sarah: The Kingdom of Swaziland, now officially called Eswatini, is Africa's last absolute monarchy. Our king and the royal family at large has a great appreciation for balloons and love to use them during their celebrations. Eswatini is a scenically beautiful country of emerald peaks, rivers, ravines, rolling valleys, and waterfalls. Nature reserves are the top attraction here. The Kingdom also proudly preserves its fascinating culture, customs, and festivals, including the festivities of Incwala, and the impressive three-week kingship ritual in December and January, and Umhlanga, the lively reed dance ceremony, which takes place during the last week of August or first week of September. The Kingdom has the largest single granite outcrop in Africa, sibebe rock!
Diren and Shabina: Ballito is a very environmentally driven area, and we are glad that we have the choice to sell biodegradable balloons and respect our environment by following the balloon laws, which everyone appreciates.