Made in Chicago: Luft Balloons is 'bursting' with success after pandemic pivot

Elaine Frei, Luft Balloons
Elaine Frei, Luft Balloons Photo credit WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- In a space that once was Gamekeepers on the corner of Lincoln and Armitage in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, Elaine Frei and her team inflate thousands of balloons a day.

"In one day, we probably do 30-40 orders between air installation and helium pickups," said Frei, a former landscape architect, who decided to use her art skills toward the event and party business.

"I saw this organic balloon trend start to take off, which are these sculptural, abstract installations and I thought, I really love that, I'm drawn to that probably because of my background in landscape architecture and creating three dimensional space." she said. "You know the trend that happened with cupcakes and donuts where they became very fancy, fun and experiential, that's what I'm trying to do with balloons."

Luft Balloons was born in 2016 and has since created hundreds of installations or so called 'bursts' for galas, weddings and large events.

Luft Balloons
Luft Balloons Photo credit Luft Balloons

"We do weddings, corporate gatherings, charity events, you name it," Frei said.

But when the pandemic hit, they lost all of that business.

"Overnight. We were 85 percent events driven, and overnight we lost all of our events, everything, the whole year," she shook her head.

Luft Balloons
Luft Balloons Photo credit Luft Balloons

Soon enough, backyards and home design became the company's main pallet.

"I started designing balloon installations for my kids and my neighbors. It struck a chord. It became a visual connector to signify hope and joy. I made a call out to our community to keep us in business and support local and everyone did," she said.

Frei said they suddenly were getting more requests for backyard birthdays, weddings and drive by celebrations.

Elaine Frei, Luft Balloons
Elaine Frei, Luft Balloons Photo credit WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

"We started making these smaller bursts. Our big abstract installations, we paired them down to something smaller so people could get a taste of what we do for the larger galas on a smaller scale. We always did this, but we were better known for our big installations. It's kind of ironic the pandemic was the tipping point to get us on the map. Right now, people are looking at Halloween. We're holding on tight to these holidays to create some normalcy of celebration," Frei said.

Luft has exploded consumer to consumer which has kept them afloat and the company has even experienced a surge in business. In the spring, Luft launched its art activism line.

"We started doing hospital installations for free. We did a lot of Black Lives Matter balloon work which then segued into mental health awareness and now 'Vote' balloons. I believe a small business cannot only be profitable, but for people. I'm trying to merge the two. We can be good and do good and we're using the medium of balloons to message to connect people over social issues," she said.

Luft Balloons