REIDSVILLE — Back in 1985 when Kris Robbins knotted some balloons into animal shapes and incorporated them into his variety show, he did not realize balloons would lead to a profitable business venture for his family.
At the time, Robbins was a traveling entertainer, doing variety comedy and music shows at colleges, shopping centers and high schools in West Virginia and neighboring states. However, a traffic accident resulted in a back injury and “I needed to come off the road for a little bit,” he said.
During his convalescence, Robbins found a bag of balloons in some things he had bought and started playing with them, twisting them into animals and other shapes. A year later when he went back on the road, he incorporated the balloons into his shows.
Meanwhile, he moved to Yadkinville. One day, someone asked if he could decorate with the balloons. His first venture was a party at Bryan Park in Greensboro. The idea caught on and before long, he was doing parties for children and adults.
“When I first started, balloon decorating was so new, people would say ‘it’s not a kid’s party or carnival’ so I had to really show them what was possible with balloons,” Robbins said.
Then, he contracted with Sara Lee Corp. to do the Crosby Golf Tournament in Winston-Salem.
Balloon manufacturers found out about him and soon, Robbins was traveling the country decorating trade shows for toy manufacturers and balloon distributors.
Balloon bouquets became popular and grocery store chains hired Robbins to attend their trade shows and teach personnel to create balloon bouquets and other decorative items. Hallmark hired him to decorate and teach at their events.
Carolina Balloon is actually a part of Great American Family Co. Inc. (GAFCO). Robbins and his family have done shows in 20 states and Las Vegas. They have been in the entertainment and event industry for 40 years.
In the late 1980s, the Atlantic Coast Conference came knocking and Robbins was asked to do one of their basketball tournaments at the old Greensboro Coliseum.
Robbins laughs as he recalls “making one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, and I probably scared them.”
He was meeting with the coliseum manager about using the balloons and, after talking for a while, Robbins asked, “By the way, what is the ACC?”
“They looked real funny at me and then explained what the ACC was.”
He quickly learned the ACC’s impact on sports fans.
“The first day I pulled up to the coliseum and saw people laying on the sidewalks and holding up signs ‘Need Two’ and holding up one finger (for one ticket) walking around the place, it was one of the wildest things I ever experienced,” Robbins said. “The energy and the excitement … the love that is the ACC!”
After that first tournament, Robbins did a few more in the 1990s but, since 1999, Carolina Balloon has worked all the ACC tournaments at the Coliseum. Robbins said he averages using 20,000 to 36,000 balloons depending on the various events associated with the tournament.
“Kris has done an outstanding job for us over the years decorating the Coliseum Complex for a wide variety of prestigious events including ACC and NCAA basketball tournaments and U.S. Figure Skating Championships,” said Matt Brown, managing director of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. “He’s a key member of our ‘Tournament Town’ team, always helping to make sure Greensboro and the coliseum complex look its best when we are hosting thousands of visitors from across the nation.”
Robbins said during New Year’s Eve week alone, the company will use 50,000-60,000 balloons in a five-day period and hundreds of pounds confetti.
About 20 years ago, Robbins said they became serious about confetti and started building and purchasing equipment.
“Confetti works real well with balloon drops,” Robbins said. “It’s like the cream icing on the cake.”
Over the years, Robbins has created balloon decorations for many Las Vegas conventions, including the Chrysler New Model Show and Lee Iacocca’s retirement in the early 1990s at the Las Vegas Hilton. He and a team of decorators used 50,000 balloons for that one.
“We were doing a couple thousand balloons every week but on March 12, everything came to a screeching halt,” Robbins said. “We have events canceling all the way through October.”
The highly contagious coronavirus had prompted the state in March to issue stay-at-home orders, and limited how many people could gather for events.
Now the company is focusing on smaller events, such as drive-through baby showers and graduations.
Party poles or yard marquees were created to decorate yards and driveways. In recent weeks, they have traveled to Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem helping people confined to their homes celebrate special events. The company added carnival games and giant games two years ago.
Robbins moved to Reidsville in 1990 but had a warehouse Greensboro. He and his wife, Marty, had three children. After Marty’s death in 2010, Kris later married Greensboro native Missy Hartley, who had four children. Since their marriage, they have had three more children: Kate, 2, Elijah, 4, and Gideon, 6.
Today, they live side by side in two houses in Reidsville; all the children help with the business.
“The little ones start carrying balloons as soon as they can walk,” Robbins said. Missy works trade shows and festivals, and decorates events. The oldest daughter, Halley Foye, 30, handles bookings and customer service and her husband, Mike, joins the family effort when not working his regular job.
Alley, 25, whose May 30 wedding to Ambrose Evans was postponed until August, “does everything. She’s the organizer, packer, designer,” Robbins said. “The company could not operate without Alley. She packs all the jobs and makes sure we have everything we need.”
Isie, 13, and Izak McPherson, 16, and grandson Jackson Foye, 17, “are professional enough that I can send them out to do an event by themselves.”
Grayson, 23, is enrolled at East Carolina University but helps on weekends and big holidays. Nora McPherson, 18, attends college in the Fayetteville area. Although she helps some with the balloon business, she most often can be found working at her family’s Fayetteville restaurant.
Dreu McPherson, 20, is the father of a new baby, Heidi, born in April. He and his wife Kayle live in Pulaski, Va. where he works in the family business, McPherson Tile and Stone. Izak also works with them.
Halley’s youngest child, Bella, 2, loves helping her little uncles carry balloons.
After COVID-19, the Robbins family plans to open a balloon flower shop at 217 South Scales St. where their office and warehouse also will be located.
“This COVID-19 has devastated the event business,” Robbins said. “Everything came to a stop and we are in the process of recreating ourselves and trusting the Lord to get us through it.”