High-end balloon tours in 25th year

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NEW YORK -- Although endurance sportsmen attempting to circle the globe by balloon may have had little luck lately, tour operator Buddy Bombard has coaxed a quarter-century of pleasure and profit from the lighter-than-air wonders by recognizing that quality -- not quantity -- is a key to success.

Bombard, founder, president and "travel host" of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based luxury tour operator The Bombard Society, has personally run high-end balloon tours of Europe since 1977, when -- leveraging 11 years' experience as founder and operator of the Chalet Club travel group -- he organized an air tour of France's Burgundy, Champagne and Loire Valley districts for a few friends.

Along the way, Bombard and friends -- dangling from two gondolas -- languidly skirted the treetops on short hops between historic sites and the estates of local friends.

"I thought I'd done a wonderful one-off thing," Bombard reminisced. "The trouble was, my friends came home and told everyone how wonderful the trip was."

The following year, 78 people had signed up to fly, and The Bombard Society was up and running.

Only 16 to 24 guests at a time experience the Bombard Society's low-level flights over some of Europe's most picturesque countryside. Today, Bombard has hosted more than 10,000 flights and celebrates his 25th anniversary in the business with his 2001-2002 brochure, which features 12 programs in six destinations, including Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

Up, up and away

Each of the 24 trips applies the lessons learned that first journey over the Loire, according to Bombard, running five to 10 days, with low-level flights over cities or countryside aboard three or four balloons.

Bombard himself is on every flight. "I like to be there to make sure it's running the way I like," he said, noting he's never missed a trip.

"That personal touch is one of my secrets."

Bombard also has never had an accident, thanks to restriction of flights to winds moving at less than 8 mph.

That policy has ruled out trips to certain otherwise attractive destinations, he said. "I would have loved to have done Provence, but it's just too windy there," he said.

In addition, participants are based at one hotel for the entire stay, and return for the night after a day's flying, rather than actually transversing a region by sheltering at various points along the way.

"The program just wouldn't work as well any other way," said Bombard.

"The calmest winds are at sunset and sunrise," he explained. "I'd much rather be based out of one city and fly local and not very far.

"That way, we invite interesting local people to fly with us for the day, and they often invite us to lunch or dinner."

For example, highlights of Bombard's six-night Tuscany: the Medieval Splendor of Siena and its Palio tour, based at Siena's Park Hotel, are exclusive visits with local nobles such as the Baron Ricasoli of Tuscany and Princess Irina Strozzi of San Gimignano.

The baron opens his villa to Bombard clients for a private luncheon, while the princess includes her 520-year-old home -- with "all the bric-a-brac out," said Bombard -- on the tour every year.

"This is not your standard tourist fare," he said. "It's a real treat for Americans to meet these people and see how they live." Surprise landings at farms and villages are also common on Bombard flights.

Flights of fancy

Other trips scheduled for the season include winter excursions to the Swiss Alps, some including participation in the International Chateau d'Oex Alpine Balloon Festival.

Highlights of the Alps, priced at $7,828 per person, double, land only, (with a $621 single supplement), is scheduled for Feb. 1 to 6, Feb. 6 to 11 and Feb. 11 to 16.

Accommodations are at the Le Grand Chalet in Gstaad, and the rate covers all meals (including in-flight, two-hour gourmet luncheons) and wine, balloon and ground transportation, guided sightseeing and all attraction entrance fees.

The expanded version, with four extra days spent flying en masse with 65 other balloons from all over Europe, is $11,471 per person, with a $962 single supplement.

That itinerary takes off Jan. 16 to 24 and Jan. 24 to Feb.1.

Bombard acknowledged his trips "are not inexpensive" but attract clientele of all means.

"Everything is value received and then some," he said. "I have a staff member for every guest; that's five staff for each balloon."

English-speaking local college students, known as "Red Shirts," serve as Bombard's chase crew and tour guides.

"People wonder how we can do it for what we charge," he added.

Down to earth

Half of the business at The Bombard Society -- a Virtuoso member -- is repeat, and half comes from travel agents.

"Travel agents are some of our best customers, and they repeat bookings the most," said Bombard, who pays a standard 10% commission.

"I am very aware of the agency network as my sales force, because I don't have my own," he said, adding that no further expansion of product range was planned at press time "because I don't have any more time for marketing."

In the end, Bombard may soon stop flying every last balloon trip he sells, as he's "just been doing it all for so long" that he's looking for help.

"But I'll always balloon; it's just too much fun," he said. "Landing in funny places, 'kidnapping' grandmothers for a ride -- and we call this work!"

For more information, call (800) 862-8537; fax (561) 837-6623, or e-mail [email protected].

The company's Web address is www.bombardsociety.com.

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