THERE is a natural excitement that comes along with spotting a hot air balloon in the sky.
Sisters, 25-year-old Izzati and 27-year-old Atiqah Khairudin, of AKA Balloon Sdn Bhd understand that excitement.
“Growing up, we used to think that having a hot air balloon was no big deal. Our dad had one! We were exposed to ballooning when we were young. As far back as we can remember we have always been in the basket. We grew up with it,” says Izzati with a laugh.
Their late father, Khairudin Abdul Rani, a civil engineer by training, was Malaysia’s first hot air balloon pilot.
Khairudin picked up an interest in ballooning during his student days in Cardiff, Wales. His first glimpse of a hot air balloon on a train journey in Switzerland stayed with him and eventually led him to venture into the hot air balloon business back home.
After opting for early retirement, Khairudin and his two balloon enthusiast friends, RMAF fighter pilot Major Abas Salimon and businessman Aziz Ahmad, banded together to purchase a hot air balloon, making them the first Malaysians to have owned a hot air balloon.
Khairudin established AKA (the initials of the three partners), in 1995. He brought in instructors from the UK, earned his pilot’s licence and started offering hot air balloon rides to the public.
What started as a hobby, explained Izzati, became the foundation for a hot air balloon business and the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.
Growing a trend
For one of its first projects, AKA carried out a hot air balloon tour for the 150th anniversary of the New Straits Times in 1995. Khairudin organised a fleet of 10 hot air balloons for the occasion. It was also Izzati’s first experience with hot air balloons.
“After that, people became interested in hot air balloons and we found that there were people who wanted to rent them. Dad also sold quite a few in the late 1990s,” Izzati noted.
But when the economy took a hit in 1997, money on balloons was a luxury hardly anyone could afford and the trend faded away.
Izzati estimates that a hot air balloon can cost anything from RM90,000 to RM500,000.
When people started showing renewed interest in hot air balloons arouund 2009, Khairudin decided the time was ripe for Malaysia to host its own hot air balloon festival.
The first Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in 2009 drew 150,000 visitors over a period of four days.
In the second year of the festival, Izzati was thrown into the deep end when she had to unexpectedly take the lead in planning and executing the entire event.
“It was scary. I had to learn everything from scratch!” she exclaims as she remembers the stress. But Izzati had it all planned in her head.
“I used to be very involved with clubs back in school. And I had organised quite a few events and parties. So I planned it all in my head and executed it as best as I could. But what I wasn’t ready for was the amount of phone calls I would get because I was the main contact point for everything that was going on at the festival,” she said.
Taking up the reins
After their father’s sudden passing in December 2012, Izzati, then 25 years old and a newly-wed, took the helm at AKA.
But years of handling the Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta and learning under the tutelage of her father had prepared her for the role.
“Just before I got married, my father told me he thought I was ready to take over. And he passed away not too long after. Looking back, that felt quite weird,” she recalled.
In hindsight, Izzati never thought that she would be taking over AKA. She had dreamt of managing a fashion label. The accountancy graduate also had a stint with Ernst and Young, dabbled in unit trusts and was happy to organise events.
The family banded together and continued Khairudin’s legacy with the fiesta and a growing plan for AKA’s business.
“We are passionate about it and we want to see this business grow,” said Atiqah.
The hot air balloon festival has grown considerably and Izzati acknowledges that the event has opened doors for the company and the industry to be more noticeable in Malaysia.
The Sixth Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta early this year saw the participation of balloonists from Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the US.
However, Izzati hopes to focus AKA’s business more as a provider of and consultants for hot air balloons.
“We are not an event management company. We are a hot air balloon company. We can manage balloon events. We have the experience. But we want to focus on being a balloon provider and consulting company. That is where our expertise really is,” she explained.
New growth area
Moving forward, Izzati is looking at diversifying the company’s revenue by using hot air balloons as a promotional platform.
AKA currently has five balloons and will be bringing in a new one to service short-term contracts with clients.
“We need to be creative in the way we use hot air balloons. We can customise our services for clients to meet their needs. But we are looking at going into advertising. Using balloons for this is already a big trend in the US and Europe,” Izzati said.
The young team at AKA also has plans to start a school to groom more young local balloonists. Izzati said her father’s dream was to host a hot air balloon festival with Malaysian balloonists rather than just invited participants from other countries.
“We enjoy what we are doing so we want to inspire young people to also chase their passion and give them a platform to do that. Piloting is not just for aircraft. If there is more interest in hot air balloons, there will be a need for more balloonists,” said Atiqah.
Izzati also hopes to develop interest in ballooning in other states and to offer daily rides to encourage corporate interest.
“It is a very niche business. But at the same time, it has potential because ballooning is still new in Malaysia. Our father taught us not to be too greedy. It is a big cake. So we also have a good relationship with other players in the balloon industry,” Izzati said.
With a growing trend in Asia, Izzati is looking to build Malaysia as a hub to learn and fly hot air balloons and is hopeful that the ballooning scene here will someday be as vibrant as it is in Europe.
“We helped pioneer the local hot air balloon industry so naturally, we are quite possessive over the image of hot air balloons here,” she added.