#edGY: A gig in the sky

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BILLIONAIRE Richard Branson’s favourite mode of travel is a hot-air balloon.

“It’s so graceful to be blown by the wind, to go where the wind takes you,” said the CEO of Virgin Group in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year. Twenty years ago, he set a world record by crossing the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon.

AKA Balloon Sdn Bhd has dreams of setting records too.

For the past six years, its annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta has gathered hundreds of thousands of people to watch the spectacle of balloons of various shapes and sizes in the sky.

This year, AKA Balloon has bigger plans for those who, like Branson, dream of drifting above the earth in a wicker basket or having their own Carl Fredricksen’s Disney adventure.    

Sisters Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, who have been running the family-owned business since 2013, want to take AKA Balloon to greater heights.  

AKA Balloon, founded in 1995, is a pioneer in commercialising and organising specialised hot-air balloon events in Malaysia, and 2015 is expected to be an exciting year for the company.

The sisters aim to expand their reach beyond the Putrajaya fiesta and make Malaysia a pit stop for hot-air balloon enthusiasts around the world.

Recently, Penang jumped on the hot-air balloon bandwagon. To help boost the number of tourist arrivals, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that the Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta will be held at Padang Polo on Feb 21 and 22. The state aims to make this an annual event.

Izzati and Atiqah are also thrilled to introduce their latest undertaking — My Balloon Adventure — a 45-minute balloon ride across Putrajaya. This package includes transport to the launch site and food after the balloon ride.

“It’s a commercial flight for tourists or anyone who wants to experience a balloon ride,” says 28-year-old Izzati, CEO of AKA Balloon.

“The Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta is only a show and does not offer rides. My Balloon Adventure will run daily when demand grows. We can operate commercially like what they are doing in Europe and Australia.”

The new service is expected to take off as soon as the company receives the Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) from the Department of Civil Aviation.  The certificate is mandatory for airborne travel of all types be it commercial planes, helicopters and private jets.  Hot air balloons are not exempted.  AKA Balloon has yet to determine the fee.

“We haven’t started operations yet because we are still working on the AOC. It’s like operating an airline, and hot-air ballooning is new in Malaysia, so the approval is taking longer than expected,” says Izzati.

According to Atiqah, who manages the company’s public relations and marketing divisions, the overwhelming response at the Putrajaya carnivals motivated them to start the service.

Last year’s fiesta attracted over 100,000 visitors. The sisters hope this will double in the seventh edition on March 12. More than 20 international teams will converge on Putrajaya for this year’s fiesta and visitors can expect more spectacular balloons.

“Instead of doing it once a year, we want to provide an opportunity for people to take balloon rides or just gaze at the balloons every day, hence the idea of starting My Balloon Adventure,” says Atiqah.

Izzati agrees. “When My Balloon Adventure takes off, it will be a historic occasion for us because it will be the first commercial balloon flight in Malaysia. So, hopefully, everything goes well.”

A ballooning business  

Izzati and Atiqah aspire to make Malaysia a hub for learning hot-air ballooning. They want to see the ballooning scene grow as big as that in Europe.

The My Balloon Adventure package aside, AKA Balloon is actively promoting the use of hot-air balloons as an advertising and promotional tool for businesses.  

Currently, it owns five hot-air balloons of a standard size and shape, which are used for tethering activities. It is expected to have more balloons for short-term contracts with companies, which can place large banners on them.

In the meantime, Izzati is looking out for long-term contracts. Companies can request balloons of a specific size or shape to suit their advertising or marketing campaigns. This allows clients to reuse the balloons repeatedly for several years. However, Izzati says not many opt for such contracts due to the costs.  

“A long-term contract is when a company buys a balloon from us. A balloon can last up to 10 years, depending on how often it is used. The normal lifespan of a balloon is between 300 and 500 [flying] hours,” says Izzati.

Using balloons for advertising is a growing trend in the UK, Europe and the US. AKA Balloon aims to secure long-term contracts with at least five companies.

“That is why we hold the fiesta every year — to see the number of people it can attract,” says Izzati, suggesting that many Malaysians are familiar with the concept of “floating” billboards.

She also reveals plans to start a school to train enthusiasts through a hot-air balloon and airship club.  

“Again, it’s very, very niche. We hope this will pique the people’s interest in ballooning and take it up as a sport. It should not be just a business tool,” she says.

In the UK, there are balloon clubs to train university students for a private pilot licence. Students attend ground school and train with instructors before taking a pilot licence exam.

Buying a balloon is not as cheap and easy as buying a car. Izzati estimates that a hot-air balloon costs between RM50,000 and RM 500,000. If the ballooning trend picks up in the country, she encourages enthusiasts to invest in a balloon as a group to save cost.

Steering the family business

Taking over the family business wasn’t easy for the two sisters.

AKA Balloon was set up by their late father, Khairudin Abdul Rani, and his two friends — Royal Malaysian Air Force fighter pilot Major Abas Salimon and businessman Aziz Ahmad. (AKA is derived from the initials of the three partners.)

Khairudin was a civil engineer who later obtained a pilot licence.

It began as a hobby, but soon became the foundation for Malaysia’s first hot-air balloon business and the company behind the Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.

Izzati took over the helm after her father’s sudden demise in December 2012. She was only 25 then and had just got married. She had never thought she would be running AKA Balloon as she had always wanted to be in the fashion business. The accountancy graduate had had a short stint at Ernst & Young and dabbled in unit trusts. Izzati later discovered that she has got a knack for organising events.

“My father passed away a week after my wedding. Two weeks before that, I remembered we were travelling in his car and he told me, ‘I’m tired and I think you should take over the company. I think you’re ready.’

“I didn’t take it seriously, and I was like, ‘No! Don’t give me that nonsense. I’m still young and not ready to take over the company’,” recalls Izzati.

For Atiqah, she had never imagined that the years of helping her father and older sister organise events would one day become a full-time task.

“I now realise that this is my calling, I have to do it for the rest of my life ... this is my future,” adds the tourism management graduate.

Taking the lead to manage and organise events without her father proved to be very emotional and tough for Izzati. The company came close to cancelling the Putrajaya fiesta in 2013, but with the strong support from the family, she soldiered on.

“We were so close to cancelling the event. If [my father] was sick, we could have prepared ourselves. He suffered a heart attack. It was a shock for all of us. It was an emotional time. So, to have pulled that one off — the first time without him — was our biggest milestone,” she says.

The Putrajaya fiesta has grown bigger over the years and the sisters believe that the ballooning industry in the country will become more vibrant in the future.

“We are not planning to become a full-fledged event management company. We want to focus on being a balloon provider and consulting company. That’s our area of expertise,” says Izzati.

For the long term, Izzati and Atiqah see themselves continuing their father’s legacy in growing the hot-air balloon business in Malaysia and beyond.  


This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 2 - 8 , 2015.