ATHENS, Ga. - Steve Jones squats next to dozens of yellow balloons, attaching them to recreate a Kansas field from a scene in The Wizard of Oz.
Above him, white and gray balloons are grouped to form storm clouds. More balloons sit on a mechanism that will allow them to spin like the tornado that carries Dorothy to Oz.
This Oz remake is not on a movie set or theater stage, but at a national balloon design competition and convention that brings more than 1,000 balloon artists, retailers, party planners and others to Athens every year.
With the occasional pop of a balloon bursting, groups worked Thursday on several scenes from Oz for a gala tonight, showing that the balloon business is no longer just for clowns.
Technology and new products, such as more shapes and balloons that tie in to the latest movies and cartoons, have helped expand the foil balloon industry into a $400 million to $500 million a year business, according to manufacturers' data provided by Flowers Inc., a local company that puts on Ballooniversity. Twenty years ago, retail sales were less than $30 million.
"There's more to a balloon than a piece of ribbon and a three-twist dog," said Mr. Jones, whose Cincinnati business has a majority of corporate clients.
The four-day event in Athens offers seminars on making balloon arches, using balloons at wedding receptions and creating life-size balloon sculptures of wine bottles, flower vases, animals and more. Other workshops prepare people for the test to become certified balloon artists and spotlight trends.
One anticipated high-tech innovation is a balloon that will allow people to tap it and hear How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), You're the One That I Want and other songs. The balloons will be available for Valentine's Day.
"That's just going to be dynamite," said Martha Thweatt, a floral merchandiser who oversees 113 Kroger stores in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri.
Her stores sell more than $1 million a year in balloons, partly because her workers have learned from the conference how to pair balloons with flowers and other gifts and how to create interesting balloon displays, she said.
"This is one of the small parts of what we do, but it's one of the fun parts," she said.
A couple of people nearby finished up the Wicked Witch of the East, made of green and black latex balloons and standing several feet tall. Another group held up a mass of black balloons to create a roof for Aunt Em's house.
Balloon sculptures and decorating is a relatively new form of art, said Gary Ledbetter, who owns Dynamite Magic and Balloons in Montgomery, Ala.
"If you tell someone you're coming to a balloon conference, it's like, 'Huh?'" said Barbara Spence, a balloon artist from Bermuda. But when people see balloon sculptures, they can't believe someone can "come up with something of that magnitude with balloons."
Maxine Burton, the owner of Flowers Inc., the largest provider of balloons and matching gift products in the world, said the conference aims to educate people how to create big events with balloons.
While flowers and candles are also used at parties, balloons are uplifting and attention grabbers, some say.
"Balloons are all about emotion," Mr. Jones said. "(People) have a very positive reaction to them."
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