Sunday Biz: Growing The Surf Industry Through Wave Technology & Sustainable Tourism

The discussion around surf parks, and more explicably man-made waves, has been an ongoing one within the industry for years. Both on an organized and individual level, companies and stakeholders have pushed for the sport of surfing to be recognized in the same sphere as mainstream and Olympic sports, while at the same time, opponents argue that surfing would lose the edgy, unconventional appeal that attracts its core participants and fans.

It’s clear that the issue may be a double-edged sword, but it’s undeniable that—if created correctly— surf parks and man-made waves would level the playing field by removing an element of unpredictability, standardizing the  judging and scoring process, and making the competitive side of the sport less subjective.

On a global level, Dr. Jess Ponting, director of the Center For Surf Research at SDSU, believes that surf parks are an answer to the much more profound question of how the surf industry can grow as a whole, and how in turn, has the power to support sustainable tourism and transform entire economies.

“Surf Parks are the key to making surfing a mainstream, commercially sustainable sport and to promoting surfing as an iconic lifestyle that transcends all nationalities and cultures,” says John Luff, founder of Surf Park Central, a company dedicated to bringing together industry members and non-endemic investors to help grow awareness around building surf parks. “Surf parks are the answer to several of the big barriers between where the surf industry is now and where the industry has the potential to go. With such a small core surf market when compared to the aspirational customer base of most surf related companies, there’s a massive void that needs to be filled.”

Over the past year, Ponting— whose research on sustainable surf tourism spans more than a decade— has joined forces with Luff and developed an inaugural conference, the Surf Park Summit, set for September 13th at Laguna’s Seven Degrees and featuring a prestigious line up of speakers including  ISA President Fernando Aguerre, and Surfrider Foundation’s Chad Nelson, and an exclusive interview with Vans Vice President GM Of Americas Doug Palladini.

We recently caught up with Ponting, Luff, and Director of Marketing and Operations Matt Reilly to hear more about the summit, what we can expect from the team of wave technology and surf tourism experts, and their goals for growing the surf industry.   Here’s what they had to say.

Jess Ponting, co-founder of Surf Park Summit and expert in Sustainable Surf Tourism.

What is the goal of the Summit?

MR: The goal of the Summit is essentially to make the industry more intelligent by bringing together the top players in the space to discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with surf parks. Success for this event means two things happen: First, we want at least one surf park to be developed as a result of the connections that are made at the event. Second, we want current developers, suppliers, investors to be more successful because of the information that is presented.

How and when did you come up with the idea behind Surf Park Summit?

JL: The idea for Surf Park Summit came to fruition when Surf Park Central founder, John Luff, came to Center for Surf Research founder, Dr Jess Ponting, with an idea to collaborate on a conference that would bring together academic research with surf park industry innovators, early adopters and key individuals in order to accelerate growth in the industry and help overcome hurdles in the space.

The partnership grew from a mutual belief in the potential for the surf park industry to act as an economic engine for communities with installations, and a need to bring sustainability into the conversation early.

Since that first conversation the Summits speakers have grown to include investors, developers, wave companies, operations experts, complimentary business and surf industry executives.

Who else are you working with in the surf industry to get this initial event off the ground?

JL: We’re currently working with the majority of the wave technology companies, Surfrider, Shaper Studios, Select Contracts (Operators of Wadi Adventure), SDSU’s Center for Surf Research and SIMA, although this list is far from complete. Our advisors for the event include individuals from GrindMedia, American Wave Machines, Webber Wave Pools, Wave Loch and USC.

What is your background before getting this Summit up and running, in regards to the surf industry and business?

JL, JP, MR: Surf Park Central began as John’s personal venture to document everything that was happening in the surf park industry in 2012.  He’d been fascinated by the idea of surf parks and world class waves beyond the ocean since learning to surf at the age of 14 while shaking off ice cream headaches during cold east coast winters in Ocean City, MD. From starting a surf lessons company in high school to writing surf park business plans while attending the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Bond University on the Gold Coast of Australia, John’s had surf parks on his mind for over a decade.

While he was getting started, John was working with Media Rhythm – a boutique action sports media agency in Encinitas, CA selling advertising for GrindMedia and working as a social media consultant for several surf related businesses and organizations.

Dr. Jess Ponting is the Director of the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University and has been researching sustainable surf tourism for almost 15 years – he holds the world’s first Masters and PhD degrees to look specifically at sustainable surf tourism. He has lived and worked in surf tourism research in Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and has provided consulting services to the surf tourism industry in Mexcio, Costa Rica, and the Maldives. At the Center, he has developed programs to certify sustainable surf resorts, study abroad programs where students receive college credit for studying sustainable tourism in world class surfing destinations, and the SurfCredits program which leverages WCT events to incentivize viewing audiences to donate to organizations doing humanitarian or conservation work in contest locations. Jess is convinced of the potential of the surf park industry to transform economies and provide incredible recreation opportunities for those not lucky enough to live near quality surf.

Matt Reilly recently joined Surf Park Central as the Director of Marketing and Operations.  Prior to joining the founding team, Matt received his MBA at San Diego State and worked as a digital marketing and lean business consultant. He’s now responsible for developing strategic growth strategy, managing day to day operations and planning the Summit.

It seems like the conference is geared toward investors – who do you expect to attend and what are some of the key resources and takeaways you hope to provide?

MR: You’re right –Many of the topics are geared toward investors primarily because the surf park industry is still in its infancy and investment is what’s needed most to accelerate the space.  We are confident that the technology is there and we’ve seen past projects like Ron Jon Surf Park in Orlando prove the demand is there. Now, it’s time to show investors that the business model, technology and returns are all there too.

That said, we are bringing in other organizations like Select Contracts (operates Wadi Adventure in UAE) to share their experience on the operations and efficiency component of surf parks. We will also discuss topics like sustainability, tourism, and building a culture of surfing, which lie at the heart of individual parks’ success.

The majority of attendees will be investors, developers, suppliers and surf industry representatives. We are working hard to connect with commercial real estate developers, casino and hotel owners and operators and the amusement and entertainment groups to ensure the right people attend the Summit. Further, we are reviewing every request for invitation to ensure each attendee has the opportunity to contribute to the industry.

By the end of the Summit, we are confident each attendee will leave with a solid understanding of the wave technology landscape and a spectrum of business models that are available based on each park’s unique setup. We’ll also dive into topics about business planning, investing, financing strategies, and overall operations.

Most importantly, each attendee will walk out of the Summit with a network of resources and support at their disposal. They’ll be part of a tight knit community of early adopters who are passionate about impacting the success of the surf parks and are open to collaborating in that success.

There are some heavy hitters from within the surf industry on the speakers line up. How did you get Doug Palladini and Chad Nelson on board and what will they be speaking about at the Summit?

JL: We’re excited about the development of our list of speakers for the first Surf Park Summit and have several open conversations regarding the addition of many more well known and respected individuals within the surf industry.

Doug Palladini was recently interviewed by Dr. Jess Ponting regarding surf parks and the future potential of this industry. Doug’s a big believer in the comprehensive role that surf parks will play in the future of the surf industry. Bringing access to waves and giving kids the chance to grow up as surfers is a huge opportunity for the surf industry. Doug has sent Vans athletes to surf parks around the globe and they’ve come back raving about the potential.

Chad Nelson will bring his Surfonomics expertise to the table as well as being able to help start the conversation of linking surf parks to the conservation of the marine and coastal environment.

Why do you think there’s a need for surf parks within the industry?

JL: Surf parks are the key to making surfing a mainstream commercially sustainable sport and to promoting surfing as an iconic lifestyle that transcends all nationalities and cultures.

Surf parks can offer so many more people the opportunity to get involved with surfing and the surf culture. Surfing is currently geographically limited to the coasts and even where there’s access to surf there’s never any guarantee of great waves for surfing.

Surf parks are the answer to several of the big barriers between where the surf industry is now and where the industry has the potential to go. With such a small core surf market when compared to the aspirational customer base of most surf related companies, there’s a massive void that needs to be filled.

The predictable nature and guaranteed wave conditions of surf parks also makes surfing better suited for live events and syndicated television as it can be scheduled and easily broadcasted to the masses. With over 1.5 million live webcast viewers and 750,000 attendees during the 2012 US Open of Surfing, there’s certainly major market potential for surfing events in surf parks. Whether it’s the XGames or the Dew Tour surf parks will play a critical role in making surfing a featured sport.

Is the Summit’s aim to standardize the way surf contests can be judged in order to further the push for surfing as an olympic sport? What are your thoughts on this movement?

JL: While the standardization of surf contests is not the primary aim of the summit, it’s certainly a topic worth discussing.

Surfing is currently challenged as becoming an olympic sport for several reasons. Mother nature, the inconsistency of surf, the uneven platform for judging and the unpredictable nature of the ocean during a contest heat are all current obstacles.

“Surfing and SUP Surfing’s chance for inclusion will most likely involve the development of wave parks with suitable man-made waves…Several man-made wave surf parks have been in operation for years, but recent technological improvements have raised the bar, and we now have an unprecedented ability for producing high-quality performance waves.” – Fernando Aguerre (President of the International Surfing Association and Co-Founder of Reef)

Surf parks even the playing field and provide a blank canvas for all surfers to be judged upon equally. World class waves in pools will be a compelling reason for the International Olympic Committee to reconsider surfing’s inclusion as an Olympic sport. What if during snowboarding contests one competitor was judged upon riding a bigger better terrain park than his competitor?

With that said we feel that Olympic inclusion is not critical for the growth of surf parks and surfing as a global sport, rather it would be the icing on the cake.

How do you hope this summit will help the surf industry grow?

JL: Currently, the majority of the revenue in the surf industry comes from aspirational surfers with limited access to the ocean. Imagine, instead of buying a single pair of boardshorts for a summer trip to the ocean, those same customers now purchase 5 pairs of boardshorts, two boards, wax and apparel. The customer lifetime value alone could grow industry revenues exponentially, while not even accounting for the growth in the overall customer base.

While we understand that this may be a few years out, the Summit is the first step in accelerating that reality.

What partnerships do you already have in place or are you working on with brands and retailers within the surf industry?

JP: We’re currently engaged in several conversations with major endemic and non-endemic brands within the surf industry. At this point we have yet to solidify any direct partnerships and want to be mindful of remaining diplomatically neutral. With that being said, we’re certainly open to discussing partnerships that we believe can accelerate and advance the surf park industry as a whole.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JP: We are all true believers in this industry. We believe there is plenty of space for multiple technologies and developers in a bright surf park future and we want to help to kick down the barriers delaying its inevitable launch.