Event pioneer, Bobbi Roberts has been putting magic in the air for over 35 years. She founded The Balloon Connection, a very successful balloon design company in Orlando in the early 80's. Bobbi specialized in corporate, social and weddings, and has had the pleasure of creating balloon artistry for some of the largest hospitality companies in Central Florida such as Disney, Universal Studios, The Peabody, Renaissance Stouffer Hotel and the Orlando Magic. Party People purchased her company in 2013 and Bobbi remains active as their New Business Development Manager & Social Butterfly (yes, that's an official title.)
She is tenacious, vivacious, and has an uncompromising zest for events. A winner of The George Zell Spirit of NACE Award for commitment and compassion towards humanitarianism in 2002, Bobbi has seen this industry grow from its infancy into a recognized and respected field. She courageously battled and survived breast cancer, built a thriving company and maintains a loving, supporting family while doing it all!
Bobbi visited with Event Lives to discuss what its like to make a life in this wild world of events.
Event Lives: What has been your most exciting opportunity in your event career?
Bobbi Roberts: Coming from Miami and breaking into the undeveloped area of Orlando in 1984, when the new hotels had just broke ground. I'm talking about dragging my mom with me to construction sites. We went into the trailers in the mud, had on hard hats and we gave out our cards. We told them what we do. They listened and when they had their openings, we were called for balloon installations. We got in on the ground floor, so to speak!
If somebody said, "No," we went in one door and out the other. Never stopped pursuing, ever. There were a lot of hotels coming up: the World Center Marriott, the Stouffer, The Peabody, everybody. They were all popping up at the same time.
That's a lot of people to see. I had the energy. That's an important thing. Energy is like a magnet. If you have energy, meaning contained energy and not hyper energy, you immediately get the attention of your client because they're inspired by it.
EL: That comes through if people are passionate.
BR: Exactly. You have to love what you do, so working is not really working. You love what you're doing. It's not work, okay? That's very important. For years, I loved what I did. Loved it. I still do, but I don't own it anymore, but I'm still involved. I love the industry.
EL: You had a hard time walking away from the industry.
That was the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life ...... Was selling that baby. The Balloon Connection was my baby. It was so difficult. Very, very difficult for me to do that. I still feel it to this day and it's what? Four years? I still feel it. But, it's okay.
I'm involved. I have unconditional friendship. Like, if we never spoke for five years and met the other day, it would be like nothing went by. That's what unconditional friendship is. That's what I feel about about many wonderful people in this industry.
Oh. Most important. How could I forget? When I came back from the cancer. It was at the Marriott Airport and they had me sing, God Bless America at NACE. It was the first time that I was semi-bald and performing for all my peers. The love that came out of their eyes and their faces was just ... I'll never forget that day as long as I live. That was Awesome!
I think what happened was people didn't expect me ever to get sick. My house was like a funeral! Between ILEA and NACE, the food, gifts, cards that came in was just incredible! I was probably the first one of the older people that got sick. Now many, unfortunately, are getting sick. It's hard, but I think that's what happened. They never expected me.
But anyway, that day coming back (from cancer treatments and medical care), the reception even surpasses the George Zell Spirit of NACE Award. I mean, it didn't actually surpasses it, but the way I felt inside, my God, I was so happy to be alive! I was lucky. Really! Six months later, I would have been dead if that doctor didn't call me the next day to make sure I went to see a surgeon, I would have been gone. It was not my time. My number, wherever. We all have numbers we don't know, so while we're here, every day is important. Just live it to its fullest and enjoy it.
EL: What truths would you share to today's newcomers wanting a career in special events?
BR: 1. Everybody has expectations. Don’t!!!!! Don't have expectations. Do not. Be the very best you can.
2. "Don't back-stab," because there's a tendency for that to happen.
3. Cheap is expensive. Don't go with the cheapest bid just ... Don't go with the cheapest bid because your expectations will not be met. I was not the cheapest out there, but they knew what they were going to get with my service.
4. Service is the most important gift you can do. Your service has to be 150%.
5. Your word has to be true. If we’re talking about honesty, you must have integrity and deliver what you say you are going to do for your clients!
EL: What is the greatest lifestyle experience the special event industry has afforded you?
BR: This is interesting. In the beginning, all I did was lived and breathed and slept the business. I didn't have a balance on family. As the years progressed, I realized that family came first and the business being established the way it was, would take care of itself. I groomed the business, so my people could run it. Then I got more personal time.
Initially, I didn't let anybody in my life. I took time away from my daughter. I took it away from my partner. I just didn't have the time to focus on what was really important. Of course it was important to make a living and establish the business to make it a big success, but I was leaving behind the people that were the most important in my life. If there is anything I could say is that you must learn to balance both because in the end, the business will be gone, but your family is still there.
EL: Can you give an example of the special events industry being very demanding. What kind of hours would you put in when you first started The Balloon Connection?
BR: This is not a nine-to-five job, that's for sure. If you expect to be in at nine and out by five, then go into a different business because it ain't going to happen. This is a round-the-clock business!
Here's a very typical example. I did not believe in an answering machine or leaving a message or any of that. I had my 90 year old mother, Leah, answering that phone no matter what time. There would be many times, three o'clock in the morning, she would get a call, and a client never expected to hear a real voice on the end of that call.
They were so impressed they said, "Did I wake you?" Of course my mother would say, "Of course not," which we know that was not true, but she didn't sleep anyhow. She said, "What can I do for you?" They said, “God, we need balloons by seven o'clock in the morning tomorrow (or really, today.) Can you do it?" "Of course, not a problem." They were done. I was awoken at three o'clock in the morning. Then I'd call the installer and it would get done. They loved her because they had a voice to tell they needed balloons that day, within four or five hours, and we got it done.
To me, that was one of the biggest accomplishments and I always believed when somebody would say to me, "Well, that's what you've got an answering machine for." I said, "It's not the same. It's not personal. It's just not personal." People like to hear another person on the other side. I don't like texting. This is all everybody does now, okay? I'm from the old-school. I just think voice-to-voice is the best way to communicate because you're on the same page.
EL: Sounds like that really set your business apart.
BR: It did. I would call back asap. I would never wait. I would call customers back immediately. I always did. Always did. If not, you snooze you lose. I'm not waiting an hour. They'll call somebody else.
I did it right then and there. No matter what I was doing. Because they don't wait and especially now, people don't wait. Clients need answers. Okay? That's to me, again is going back to service. The reward was making people happy and making them smile and knowing that there was such care a respect!
EL: What advice can you offer event professional just starting their careers?
- To listen carefully to every detail. Record it or write it down, so that you don't miss anything. Read it back to them. Read it back to them like you're reading a credit card. Then repeat it, so that you're both on the same page.
- Respect, care, and show that you're interested, that they're the only one that exists at that point when you're interacting with your client or another business associate.
- Service, service, service. And that's it, just like Location, location, location. In events its service, service, service!
- Know the contract rules of facilities and venues. Never assume, like even with balloons. Don’t assume that the hotels will allow balloons. Some of them don't, with the helium. Always find out what the rules are for each hotel or venue because they're all different.
- Don't fight with your clients about picking up the check. When you take your clients out make sure you get the bill.
- Always give more than the clients asks for.
- Follow up with your client after each event.
- Join an association or get involved in other ways in the industry. Give back. You will network for your career and make great friends along the way!