Three tales of wave pool woe and perseverance in COVID times

International travel is down but staycations are up – how wave pools are navigating the business end during the ebbs and flows of an international pandemic. We spoke to surf park operators on three separate continents to find out how COVID is affecting their surf park business

Regardless of your location on this blue planet, or your political/scientific beliefs, the fact that most businesses have been decimated during the past 18 months or more holds. Tourism was the first to fall, followed by food and beverage, entertainment and then almost every other type of industry dominoed, brought low by lockdowns, lack of customers and travel restrictions.

Even now, border closures, vaccine shortages, hesitancies and reimposed lockdowns are all playing their part in hobbling recoveries. Operating a wave pool is no different as managers strike a delicate balance between having enough workers on-site and complying with changing health directives.

Though can a business plan be applied to a situation as intangible as an ever-mutating virus? In practice, probably not. But we have to start somewhere. With phrases like the ‘new normal’ being banded around, it’s plain to see the need to adapt is paramount.

So how are the world’s wave pools adapting? WavePoolMag spoke with wave pools on three separate continents to find out what they’re doing and how their businesses are faring.

“Yeah, I think I’m just going to the local TAB (Aussie betting shop) and see the odds on rains of blood and plagues of locusts for next week. We’ve managed to survive everything else so far.”

– Damon tudor of urbnsurf after the recent earthquake in melbourne

Nick Hounsfield, The Wave

Since England came out of lockdown with their ‘Freedom Day’ on July 20th Covid cases have risen. This has, in turn, affected vast numbers of the population who don’t have Covid but have had to isolate after being deemed close contacts. This means fewer workers available, making for a tricky situation in the middle of tourism boom times in peak summer.

wave pools and covid
Nick Hounsfield of The Wave

How many weeks/months have you had to close due to Covid?
We have gone through three different lockdowns/closures since Covid hit in March 2020. The longest of these was the first one, which was almost 5 months. We reopened in August 2020 before a second lockdown for a month in November and then a third in January, ending March 2021.

How have you handled the slew of refunds, re-bookings and cancellations? Have most customers been understanding?
It has been a massive undertaking and our Customer Service team has worked tirelessly to handle it. As well as issuing vouchers for people to rebook sessions canceled due to the various lockdowns, we have also had a huge number of Covid related cancellations when we have been open – mainly due to people having to self isolate having been in contact with someone who has tested positive. This is still an ongoing challenge. On the whole, customers have been really understanding, as they realize this is new territory for everyone and we are all trying to do our best in a difficult situation.

Has there been any silver lining to the Covid situation, ie: more domestic tourists when borders were open?
We have seen a huge number of domestic visitors and the uplift in staycations in the UK has definitely benefited us, especially as we opened The Camp at The Wave back in May. The pandemic has made people reassess what is important to them and we have seen a pent-up demand for people to be able to get outside in nature and in the water following the lockdowns – there has been a real increase in appreciation and understanding of the importance of blue and green spaces for our mental and physical wellbeing.

Any lessons learned from the past year?
It has been a big lesson in resilience and being agile. You can have the best-laid plans but then something outside of your control changes – for instance, new Government guidelines – and suddenly you have to change the way you operate. The Track and Trace system and self-isolation rules have presented real challenges for us in terms of staffing, particularly over our very busy summer holiday period. 

The pandemic has made it hard for us to gather as a whole team over the last year – lots of employees have been working remotely at different times and we haven’t been able to get together socially as we would have done. This has been difficult for us all and a lesson we have learned is how essential it is to be able to spend time together as one big team. We feel like if we can survive a global pandemic in our first full year of being open, then we can take on pretty much anything!

Mike Schwaab, BSR Resort, Texas, USA

For Mike Schwaab, owner of the BSR wave pool in Texas it’s been a bit of a different scenario. He and his team have largely dodged a Covid downturn in business through local regulations and sheer luck.

Mike Schwab of BSR Surf Resort
Mike Schwab of BSR Surf Resort

How have you and your team largely dodged a Covid downturn in business?
Being in Texas there was only the initial lockdown and that was last year and we didn’t own the park then. We took it over in April 2021 and we haven’t had any further lockdowns. Re-bookings were big though. And that’s the cool thing about working in a space like this, when something goes wrong, everyone’s pretty understanding. ‘We still want to come,’ (said people who’d had to cancel in the initial lockdown) and ‘Yep, we’ll get you rebooked, no problem.’ We got most of those people in from last year but we still book a couple of sessions from people holding on to credits.

And as for any silver lining?
We’ve always known we’re a surf travel destination so we try to think globally. But domestically in the U.S people could still travel throughout (this year), so we still get to see people froth on surfing.

Damon Tudor, CEO of Urbnsurf Melbourne, Australia

On the other side of the world, in Australia, it’s been a different story. Tighter restrictions, a later vaccine rollout and longer lockdowns. Many businesses received financial assistance for their workers from the government in the early days of Covid times, but the sheer length of lockdowns has been brutal on both businesses and general sanity. As demonstrated, in Urbnsurf’s home city of Melbourne, Victoria, by the recent violent protest marches of Australia’s biggest trade union (or subversives), as well as those rallying against restrictions of movement.

Damon Tudor of Urbnsurf
Damon Tudor of Urbnsurf

How long has Covid closed your business?
We’ve been closed 6 times for a total of 40 weeks. It’s a crazy number when you tally it all up and realize what we’ve been through. Given we opened in January 2020 we’ve been closed almost half the time since then – 45% of the time!

What do you estimate losses to be?
I would be scared to share this, but it is significant. However, all the way back in March 2020 when we closed for the first time, we took immediate action to protect the business. We didn’t go through the massive challenges of 2019 in getting the park finished and opened to allow the pandemic to beat us. The pandemic has had a massive impact on anything leisure and sport-related, particularly in Australia where restrictions and lockdowns have been prolonged. Our focus has been on getting through it, staying positive and making sure we get our staff back to work – in times of crisis my mantra has been to keep it simple, communicate and offer support wherever we can. We have done our best to consider every individual staff member’s situation and well-being – this continues to be the focus.

How have you handled refunds, re-bookings and cancellations?
We’ve been very fortunate to have understanding members and customers. The impact on everyone has been really tough but our guests understand we are a small business that has been trying to create amazing experiences through surfing – it really is that simple. Getting the doors open, seeing guests smiling before, during and after a surf continues to inspire me every day. We’re hoping to continue the stoke once we get open, and fingers crossed, this last lockdown hopefully means the end of it in a new COVID world. We need to comply with the government requirements in reopening which have developed further as time has gone by, we have had to communicate these changes with our customers regularly and I hope they see that we are doing the best we can to get our staff back to work and have everyone surfing!

Have  social distancing rules affected your operation?
Yes, it has. It has changed depending on which lockdown you look at but the current reopening plan (hopefully end of October) caps guests in the park to 50 at any one time. That means with the hourly session changeover we have to cap sessions at 25 people with no spectators. That’s tough, and we do expect that to ease as the vaccination rollout continues. Events have also had to be canceled. We had some great plans which we will hopefully again be able to kick off in the Summer.

Any silver lining?
A little, I think Victorians (with state borders being closed) have come to the park to enjoy the experience given it is in their backyard. We’ve had a lot of school groups, grom camps and lessons for people that see the park as a great introduction to surfing. We’ve also had our core surf guests come back regularly which has been great, it’s been amazing to see people from all walks of life and ages come down. It just shows how much fun it is at the park and we’re pumped just to get back to the ‘new normal.’

Any lessons learned from the past year?
Phew, where to start? The key lesson has been to stay positive and stick to the plan…these are tough times where people are stressed and going through their own challenges. You need to remember that and show empathy to help everyone get through it. You need to focus on the longer term, the pandemic has been hard, but life must go on. We’ve proven this by completing our capital raise and starting work on our second surf park in Sydney. This was all done through the worst of the pandemic phase which was a massive challenge.

The Future

While it may seem a little absurd to talk about silver linings to such a catastrophe as Covid, the reality is that people want to get outside more than ever.

‘Crawling up the walls’ in utter lockdown frustration has fueled a passion in people to experience the outdoors. National Parks are now receiving record numbers of visitors, beaches are more packed than ever, mountains are swarming with hikers. The time may be ripe for wave pools to be seen as the perfect place to get outside, exercise and socialize. They may just be something we never knew we needed so much.

Endless Surf 2023A