Picture this: Mahone Bay couple getting photography, ballooning businesses off the ground

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>LEAH VISSER PHOTO</p><p>Annapolis Valley Ballooning takes enthusiasts soaring</p>
  • <p>TERILYN LEMAIRE PHOTO</p><p>Flights over the valley available for couples and small families</p>
  • <p>TERILYN LEMAIRE PHOTO</p><p>Terilyn Lemaire is transposing her wedding photography business from Africa to the South Shore.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>The Lemaire family: J.P. and Terilyn Lemaire and their three sons, Owen, 7, Evan, 3 and James, 1 and a half.</p>

The shores of Mahone Bay and the undulating fields of the Annapolis Valley are a long way from the savannah of the Masaai Mara, and the chaotic urban sprawl of Nairobi.

But for Jean Pascal (J.P.) Lemaire and his wife Terilyn, they form the perfect backdrop for the latest stage of their lives - and their new businesses - in Canada.

Born in Montreal and Ottawa respectively, the couple had spent approximately 11 years working and raising a young family in East Africa before they moved to Nova Scotia in October, 2016.

J.P. was a pilot for a balloon safari business that took clients soaring over the Mara, one of Kenya's most famous game reserves. Terilyn was a successful wedding photographer who also had an event photo booth business.

But with the tourism industry struggling in the aftermath of Africa's Ebola crisis and ongoing security concerns, and crime in the urban centres became an increasing worry, the couple looked to return to Canada.

Not only have they repatriated themselves and their three boys on Canadian soil, they have brought with them the skills and experience they honed in Africa and hope to establish similar streams of income here in Nova Scotia.

But one thing they're finding is they're having to react to prevailing market winds to reach a satisfactory level of success. Pricing around their services has been a key issue.

Terilyn, though, is quick to put things in perspective.

"That's part of why we moved here. Because we could afford a house here. Cost of living is lower here. It's great for when you have to pay for things, but when you're trying to sell something it's completely different," she says.

Upon deciding to return to Canada last year, the question had become to where.

"We don't know the Prairies. We don't know anything about it or anybody there," J.P. told LighthouseNOW, adding that both were reluctant to return to Ottawa, where they once lived.

"It felt like I was taking a step back in time. It was like going back to where I went to high school, and where I went to university," adds Terilyn.

Terilyn had friends in Lunenburg whom she had visited before. And when they started looking at Nova Scotia as a possible spot to settle, as J.P. put it, "We thought it does have a lot to offer."

Initially, J.P. wasn't expecting to go into the ballooning business, figuring he was leaving the place where one could make the best money in that industry. So their initial plan was to set up a photo booth business here.

"That was going to be the ticket. Because it was so easy to be successful at it in Kenya," says Terilyn, adding that they figured Nova Scotia was "an unsaturated market.

But while they thought it would be an easy go, "it just wasn't," according to Terilyn.

Unlike the tiny, curtain-backed photo booths many of us see in shopping malls, the photo booth service they were offering was something more luxurious, involving a mobile booth with various props and backdrops that can be taken to events such weddings.

Terilyn had a connection in Ottawa who launched a similar business there, which subsequently expanded into Toronto, and she worked out a deal whereby she would establish a Nova Scotia branch.

But while the Toronto market was supporting fees of more than $900 for two hours, they soon discovered "that just does not fly here," says Terilyn.

"I didn't want it to be cheap, but I also was capped by the market."

While she says once people get to see what is on offer, they agree "it's a very cool product." But even setting their prices at nearly half the Ontario rates, they began to appreciate the market was limited.

So Terilyn began to capitalize on her other East African endeavor - wedding photography.

"And that was an easy thing because I have a portfolio anyway."

After undertaking a concerted personal social media marketing campaign and connecting with various bridal resources, she had 15 wedding photos shoots booked this year. She has seven lined up for next year.

"And I'm not finished promoting. So I expect that will fill up for next year."

Meanwhile, J.P. has a trades job for a local contractor in Lunenburg and is working toward developing his company, Annapolis Valley Ballooning.

J.P. will do the piloting, while Terilyn will help with the bookings and ground crew work.

He would prefer to be offering flights along the South Shore, but "the reality is the predominant winds are out toward the water."

And, water aside, "There are so many trees here."

The sprawling farmlands of the Valley are more conducive to safe flying, says the pilot of 18 years.

Though it's possible to fly year-round, given the vagaries of the East Coast climate, J.P. acknowledges, "There's not going to be as many flying days out here."

In the meantime, J.P. is starting off small, with a balloon able to carry four guests.

"I think it's absolutely beautiful... I love the colours. I love the way it flies. It's going to be in our family for a lot of years," he enthuses.

Eventually he would like to get a larger craft that might carry six or more passengers. Meanwhile, he's targeting "sweetheart flights - private flights for two" and small families.

The couple has spent some time determining the best pricing strategy, in relation to the possible number of clients, booking patterns, this particular market and the tourist market.

Balloon companies in Ontario might charge $250 per person, for example, and allow for rain checks if the guests can't go on the day they've booked. However, that may be when there are eight guests in the basket. Or they might charge $1,300 and up for a sweetheart flight.

For now, the Lemaires have settled on $800 for a private flight for two, $1,000 for a family of three and $1,200 for four.

"We'll take a deposit on booking and settlement upon the end of the flight. "

It's still early days and they've got more marketing to do, they admit, but bookings have begun to take flight, they say.

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