The Final Frontier

In the deadly race to circle the globe in a balloon, team Re/Max plans to rise above the crowd. But can a bold ego go where no man has gone before?

"We struggled at first," he says. "But once you have profits and you can hire talent, you can do anything."

Ballooning has played a key role in Re/Max's promotional strategy for nearly twenty years, but it wasn't a case of love at first sight. In 1977, when one of his franchisers first came to him with the idea of adopting a hot-air balloon as the corporate logo, Liniger turned him down.

"I told him, 'Nah, this has nothing to do with selling real estate,'" he says.

He did, however, give his blessing to the idea of putting the Re/Max name on a balloon that could be used for grand openings and other promotional events. A year later, while attending a corporate meeting in Chicago, Liniger walked into a hotel bar and saw the Re/Max balloon on television. The Dinah Shore Show was broadcasting live from the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, and the program was using a shot of the balloon every time it cut to and from commercial breaks.

Liniger was understandably pleased, but he still didn't think the balloon was much of a symbol for a down-to-earth real-estate company. Then he saw the results of a survey that suggested his company had an image problem. Re/Max was by now the largest real-estate company in Colorado in terms of sales volume, but the survey indicated that it ranked only eighth in consumer recognition, well below old-guard companies like Van Schaack and Moore.

By hitting up his franchisees, Liniger was able to raise $180,000 for an advertising campaign. But the television stations wanted $250,000 to make a commercial spot, and that didn't include the air time required to get the message out. So Re/Max made its own commercial, sending the company balloon floating across the Denver skyline and filming it from a small plane. After an eight-week advertising blitz, consumer awareness of the company and its "Above the Crowd" slogan had--so to speak--soared, and the balloon quickly became the pervasive corporate logo.

The high-flying symbol was also suggestive of the chairman's adrenaline-pumping lifestyle. As the company grew, Liniger found he had the means to indulge his hankering for adventure. He and Gail piloted their own plane, went on safari in Africa, taught friends how to scuba dive in the Caribbean. The quest has had its terrifying moments--Dave has broken a few ribs hitting the wall while racing on the NASCAR circuit, and in 1983 Gail nearly died in a seaplane crash, which left her partially paralyzed--but none of the mishaps have changed their idea of fun.

"My personal philosophy is that life is an adventure, a collection of memories," Dave Liniger says. "Some people collect things. They need to have more toys than anybody else. Well, I have two or three nice cars, but I don't even know what years they are. I could care less. Life really comes down to two things: your personal relationships and your personal accomplishments."

Although he was more enamored of motorized flight than hot air, Liniger came into contact with a number of balloonists interested in having Re/Max sponsor one flight or another. The one that caught his attention, though, was a proposal first raised over dinner one night in 1988 by ballooning legend Chauncey Dunn.

Dunn had served as Malcolm Forbes's pilot. He had flown over the Alps and the Andes and had considerable experience in gas and hot-air balloons. In 1979 he had set a world record for highest altitude in a hot-air balloon, reaching 53,256 feet in an open gondola, sucking on pressurized oxygen while he bled from his eyes and nose. At the time Liniger met him, he was keenly interested in flying a balloon around the world.

Dunn had spent time talking to scientists from NASA, which had been sending large helium balloons into the stratosphere to conduct atmospheric research since the early 1960s. Launched primarily from a site outside Palestine, Texas, the balloons carried payloads of 5,000 pounds or more, consisting of scientific instruments designed to study cosmic rays and meteorological conditions. Some of the flights had even gone around the world.

True, no one had ever landed such a balloon--when the mission ended, the payload was cut loose and brought down by parachute, while, ideally, the balloon envelope deflated harmlessly. And NASA's flights were unmanned: A few gutsy test pilots had ballooned into the stratosphere in the 1950s and early 1960s as a prelude to the space program, but none of those missions involved the kind of altitude or duration Dunn was talking about. Dunn believed the technology had advanced sufficiently to allow for a manned flight, one that wouldn't have to fight the storms and vagaries of the jetstream to succeed.

Liniger was fascinated by the idea. He wanted to be on that flight with Dunn. But before they could work out the details, Dunn's wife was diagnosed with cancer and he shelved the project. Liniger, though, kept thinking about it. Last year, as the race to be the first around the world heated up--three different teams trying the jetstream approach launched in January 1997 alone--he put together a research team to look into the feasibility of a stratospheric flight.

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