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Originally published in Business People-Vermont in 2004.

Jeff SnyderUp, Up & Away

... in his beautiful balloon

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

It's hard to say which, if either, of Jeff Snyder's jobs is moonlighting.

Jeff Snyder of Above Reality

Certainly his first love is his Underhill hot-air balloon company, Above Reality. For 30 hours a week, until the balloon business can fully support him, he's also a para-educator with sixth-grade special education students at Essex Middle School.

The nature of ballooning means that he's busiest around twilight time, at the beginning and end of the day, when winds are lower and more predictable. "A balloon company is not just one hour of flight per day," says the Vermont native, who's in his second year of business. "That's a misconception people have, that it's just a toy; just fun. My job is company owner, pilot and chief entertainer. They're not supposed to think it's anything but fun."

The chase crew works to inflate the balloon and follows it in the chase truck to be at the landing site before touchdown in order to guide the landing and pack up the balloon. Several work for him, but Jeff says his number one team "One knows what the other's thinking; they flow" is that of Ben Johnson (right), a biology major at the University of Vermont, and Jason Dillon, who will be leaving to study business at LaSalle University in the fall. Both work part time at The Inn at Essex. They've shown up in waders to tease Jeff about a landing in a wet field the week before.

Ben Johnson and Jason DillonAbove Reality grew from a business plan for a balloon company he and two friends created for a class at Penn State, where Jeff majored in recreation management. Later, as a graduate student facing a semester-long internship, he chose to pursue one in ballooning.

Obtaining it was not easy. Jeff phoned balloon companies all over the country. He heard a lot of "no" answers, from operators who thought he was just trying to hitch free rides.

"Finally," he says, "with a little luck and sweet talk, I landed one in Colorado. The guy said, 'You realize we're in Colorado and you're in Pennsylvania.' I said, 'Yeah. I'll move to Colorado."

At the end of Jeff's first three weeks, the office manager quit, and he stepped in, setting up flights, prepping and scheduling the pilots in addition to crewing for flights and taking lessons. When the company bought another one in Arizona, Jeff, no longer an intern, went to work there as office manager.

Professionals took him under their wings. He earned his private license through study with the pilot of the ReMax balloon who had also worked for Lufthansa; another had flown President Jimmy Carter and had the contract to fly the American Express balloon; and one flew Wells Fargo corporate balloons.

Balloon from the basketWhen he had learned what he needed to know, Jeff bought a truck, a trailer and all the balloon equipment he would need. "I had no money left to spend on hotels, so my brother came out and we drove 59 hours from Phoenix to Boston, where he was living."

Back in Vermont, Jeff worked five jobs at Vermont Tent, The Inn at Essex, Cloud Nine Catering, the Spirit of Ethan Allen, and as a substitute teacher to support his dream of launching a balloon company. He brought a certified flight instructor from Arizona to Vermont for two weeks of commercial flight lessons.

Down to only one extra job, he's slowly realizing his dream. "June was solid and steady," he says. "We did 13 rides and 45 passengers." Fall is his peak season.

Farmhouse from the basketJeff has brochures in the state information areas, uses the Blue Map and is rebuilding his website, His Balloon and Bubbles package with The Inn at Essex is working well, and he's shopping his service around to other inns and resorts. "I feel like you're sitting at a roulette wheel with a real small pack of chips. Where do you put them?"

His next market is corporate balloons. "As long as a company has a large enough advertising budget, balloon advertising is the most memorable you can find." Plans are also in the works to buy a larger-capacity balloon.

Contrary to popular belief, winter flights are common. "The balloon travels with the wind, not through it, so there's no wind chill," Jeff says. "It's not like sitting on a chair lift."

Jeff has flown people as old as 90 and once flew a woman with quadriplegia; he's hosted five marriage proposals. Each flight ends with the traditional champagne toast accompanied by Vermont cheese and maple candies. Jeff's mantra: Under-promise and over-deliver.

Originally published in August 2004 Business People-Vermont

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