Balloon vendors have long been viewed as purveyors of fun and frivolity. But a darkness has befallen their world.
“I’m actually panicked,” says Elisabeth Accardi, who runs Upon A Star Events, a Boston-based event planning business.
“I haven’t slept at night,” frets Maureen Curreri Collier, owner of Boston Balloon Events and The Confetti Company. “I can show you the bags under my eyes.”
The source of all this angst is a global shortage of what might be their most vital resource: helium, the lighter-than air gas that makes you talk like Mickey Mouse and transforms ordinary balloons into floating orbs of party magic.
Thanks to a dwindling national supply, local balloon vendors and event planners are scrambling as their busiest season hits: an onslaught of proms, weddings, and graduation parties. Some businesses have placed limits on how many balloons they will inflate for each customer. Others have even turned away clients, or suggested helium-free alternatives, while trying to hoard their diminishing supplies.
And it’s not just small vendors feeling the squeeze.
Earlier in May, the national chain Party City announced it would close 45 of 870 stores across the country. And though the company has said the closures are unrelated to the helium shortage, its business has no doubt been affected.
Chief executive James M. Harrison referred to the “helium challenges” multiple times in the company’s release of first-quarter financial results last week; an employee who answered the phone at a Party City store in Brighton said that although they had helium in stock, “there’s no guarantee there will be in the next couple days.”
Helium, number two on the periodic table, is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, so how is it even possible to have a shortage? First, experts say, it’s rare on Earth and, second, it’s so light that much of what’s here just floats out of our atmosphere. And because there’s no practical way to make helium, we hunt underground for pockets of rock where it is trapped.
“It’s just like gold,” says Linda Doerrer, an associate chemistry professor at Boston University. “We’ve been looking for gold for a while, and we want to find it. But there’s just not a lot.”
Scientists have been warning for more than a decade of a possible impending shortage, though most now seem to agree the world is not going to run out anytime soon.
Still, helium is in high demand, a critical ingredient in many industrial uses, used to make silicon chips for computers and smartphones, to cool MRI machines at hospitals, and in welding and scientific research.
By comparison, the amount used in the balloon business is fairly small, leaving party vendors holding the short end of the stick when it comes to acquiring the gas.
“There are times we can’t get it at all because of the pecking order,” says Curreri Collier. “The first, of course, is the medical field, then it’s the scientists at MIT, and then the little old balloon people. Here we are at the bottom of the barrel, trying to make things work.”
But, balloons being something of a national obsession, selling them is a competitive $1 billion business crammed with small purveyors. Hence the panic and desperation.
Some local balloon vendors have taken to stockpiling tanks of gas, hoping to build a reserve to get through tough times. After enduring a particularly difficult holiday season that included going an entire week without helium, Curreri Collier vowed to get her hands on as much of the gas as she could.
“I said, ‘I don’t care how much money this costs, pull out the Amex and let’s stock up,’ ” she says. “And that’s how we got through January, February, March, and April.”
The frenzy has driven up prices, of course. As recently as January, Katie Figueroa, who runs Beverly-based Fig Balloon Co., paid around $200 to fill a roughly six-foot tank. Today, she says, it costs her close to $300. And that cost is inevitably passed to consumers, who might pay as much as $5 for a single helium-filled balloon, depending on the vendor.
Some vendors, said John Forsythe, who runs Balloons Extraordinaire, are mixing helium with air, resulting in balloons that stay afloat for a shorter period of time. Or, they skip using helium altogether, pushing customers toward large, elaborate arrangements of air-filled balloons that can be braided into balloon sculptures or suspended from ceilings to mimic the look of helium.
At the moment, it remains unclear whether a solution to the shortage will materialize, though some signs aren’t exactly encouraging.
In 2021, the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, which provides roughly 30 percent of the world’s helium, is slated to close, a development that will almost certainly further reduce supplies, particularly for less-critical industries.
“There will be helium,” says William Halperin, a professor in the physics and astronomy department of Northwestern University. “But the balloon people won’t be getting it.”
The good news is that the party industry has proved adept at switching gears before.
When she first opened her business in 1970, for instance, Curreri Collier and her business partner — a former opera singer and flamenco dancer, respectively — offered tap-dances and singing telegrams, performing for, among others, Elizabeth Taylor and the pope.
A decade or so in, however, they began to hear a familiar refrain from clients: What we really need is balloons. Can you do them?
“We didn’t know diddly about balloons,” says Curreri Collier. “But we looked at each other and said, ‘Sure!’”
So even as she laments her predicament, she remains confident that, if the helium supply does eventually dry up, she’ll figure out a way to adapt.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “Think of me as the balloon Madonna.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.