Master Class: Running a surf park with Urbnsurf CEO Damon Tudor

Urbnsurf Melbourne has been open for a little more than one year. In that time the gates have been shut more often than open. By not pumping out waves to a happy public on the daily, their learning curve for building a thriving, profitable surf park has been incredibly steep. Hot on the heels of 2020, and with just six-months of operating time, Urbnsurf announced an ambitious plan to make three new surf parks. CEO Damon Tudor shares with us an accelerated master class in wave pools, outlining the company’s plans including key targets in Australia and how he expects to get the job done.

How did this job start?
I was approached by one of our board members, who I worked for 20 years ago. He mentioned that the project needed some help, someone to lead the commercial and operational side of it, build the team and launch the business. At that point the project was quite vague, and then I was told it was going to be Australia’s first surf park in Melbourne. It was like being given the keys to the surfing equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, so I jumped at the opportunity. I was appointed initially on a 6-month contract, to get the business open, and my plan was then to take a break with my family, as I’d only just returned from working overseas for a decade. But once I got into it, I realised there was more to do to build the business, so our board asked me to stay on – and here we are! 

You made the move from Consumer Goods and Services to wave pools. How’s that going?
I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard in the past 2 years as I did in the previous 10. The industry’s still so new, and developing daily, so staying ahead of the curve is challenging. And then with everything that’s been thrown at us since I started… there’s been so much crisis management over the last couple of years as well. My routine was flying down from Sydney to Melbourne every week, for 4-5 days at a time, and back to Sydney on weekends. There was just so much work to do. When I joined, it was basically a big, muddy hole in the ground and then everything since then we have built from scratch with the team. I can’t imagine how much hair I’ve lost over it, but it’s been intense.

Urbnsurf has struck a chord with the core surf community in Victoria. Future wave pool locations will be based on the Melbourne model.

You’ve been closed more than you’ve been open, how do you learn what works commercially for Urbnsurf?
We opened on January 6th and then on March 23rd, so we operated for about 11 weeks at first. Then we were closed until June 19th. We were able to open again under heavy restrictions, but then the second wave (no pun intended) hit Victoria…so we had to close again. And we re-opened again on October 21st. Opening three times in a single year (and our first) has taught us a lot about how to be efficient and how to adapt…we gained valuable customer feedback which we were able to work on during the lockdowns.

You didn’t have the luxury of being open for this long extended period and to discover what settings attract which specific customers or where your major revenue streams come from. You were thrown into it without much data to guide your business decisions.
Absolutely. We knew we wanted to focus on core surfers to start. Getting core surfers on side, invested and making sure we created something really cool for the true believers, that was priority number one. At that stage we ran intermediate and advanced sessions to understand what our guests wanted. When we launched, half the park was still under construction so we didn’t quite have the full experience, but we wanted to get people in to surf as soon as possible. That worked well, as our members and guests were just super keen to try the wave and be the first in the door, the early adopters. In that short period, we did pick up pretty quickly on feedback…people wanted more barrels, they wanted more of the Beast Mode. They wanted gentler, cruiser settings as well, so we developed our Cruiser Sessions which offers a good transition for the learning surfer.

While Beast Mode has gained Instagram fame, on the other end of the wave spectrum the mellower Cruiser sessions are proving very popular.

Ok, so maybe your experience has been that you need more on the opposite ends of the wave spectrum to appeal to your clientele. Is that right?
Yeah, I think so. Initially we had to appeal to someone who’s an advanced surfer, but how do you keep your appeal going? In the future we may be able to create longer and bigger waves…it really comes down to the capabilities of the technology available to us. There was a demand for our cruiser waves. I really love our intermediate sessions; the wave settings have a good bit of speed and are fun to surf without being too heavy. Our cruiser sessions are just that little bit slower, and enable people on foamies to pop up more easily. So, yeah, typically at either end of the spectrum. Our goal was to spread what we could offer a little bit more, to entice new people to give it a go. And that’s worked well for us.

So we just ran a piece on Urbnsurf adjusting prices in order to stay in the black. How did you have to tweak things?
At the end of the day, surf parks are expensive to build, and as everyone in the industry knows, it’s still new technology. We’ve had to adjust our business because of that. But we didn’t want to change things too much. When we launched the park, we had a pretty good idea about pricing, on what might work. And when occupancy dropped because of COVID, we had to recalibrate. We didn’t have access to interstate tourists. We certainly didn’t (and still don’t) have access to international tourists. These factors had a real impact on demand. But what we’ve tried to prioritise is looking after our members, our regular guests, our core community. We didn’t tweak the prices of our memberships or session multipacks because our regulars have been loyal to us from even before we opened. That was essential.

Do you talk to the other wavemakers. It seems you should be swapping notes.
I talk to the guys at The Wave quite a bit – we went through the same journey together, around the same time. We have a real brotherhood there, they’re a great bunch of guys. It’s funny, we’ll get on the chat, and it’s like we’re living parallel lives on opposite sides of the world. It’s quite amazing, it’s like group therapy, having faced the same challenges. It is hard to explain sometimes to people outside the surf park industry just how complex and challenging it can be. For something we are so passionate about, and that our core community is so passionate about, it’s important to have others you trust that you can bounce ideas off of, reflect collectively, and share these experiences.

Half a world away and opened about the same time, The Wave in Bristol has gone through nearly identical struggles as Urbnsurf. Wavemakers from both surf parks frequently commiserate and share wins with each other during group conferences. It’s a form of support therapy Damon says he values.

So you’re moving ahead with Sydney. Western Australia looks to be rekindled with a couple potential locations. How’s Brisbane, and is there anywhere else? 
In Queensland we’re reviewing several key sites which are exciting. In Brisbane, we have an agreement with a major landholder there to progress a site which is also looking good. There’s still due diligence and work on the ground conditions to check first, which is normal, but everything’s moving in the right direction.

We’ve engaged in discussions with the Western Australian government about a site in Cockburn in Perth, and there are other locations in the metropolitan area that are equally promising. But Cockburn is the one we’ve probably done the most work on, so we are working through the approval processes there currently. We don’t have a lease on the site yet, but we’re pursuing that with the relevant WA authorities.

Our immediate priority is Sydney. COVID slowed down our development process, having created so much uncertainty in the market. We’d just opened Melbourne but had to spring into survival mode. But once we saw numbers getting a bit more under control in Australia, and we gained a better understanding on what it meant for the markets, we wanted to get moving – fast. We have a lease in place at Sydney Olympic Park, and we did a lot of work before Christmas in meeting potential investors. We’re in February now, so we’re out of the post-Christmas holiday bubble, and it’s game on. There will be more news coming from us about Sydney soon – our plan is to break ground in the middle of the year, and open for Summer 2022/2023.

The future sight of Urbnsurf Sydney is located near Sydney’s Olympic Park just 13 kilometers from downtown.

And this will be a Wavegarden Cove as well?
Urbnsurf Sydney will be our second Wavegarden Cove project, and we’re excited to build on the success we’ve achieved in Melbourne. Given the rapid advances we’re seeing in the industry, we’re open to other technologies for our future locations because those sites are different sizes, and have different consumer demographics.

That’s interesting to hear because the technology is developing, but you are the licensee for Wavegarden in Australia
We’ve had a conversation with Wavegarden about it, and for future Urbnsurf parks, we need to consider the speed at which the industry and technologies are advancing, and to ensure we’re delivering memorable and unique surfing experiences to our guests.

There are a lot of smaller producers out there. In five years, once all this technology is proven, it’ll be like going to an auto mall where you’ve got both Audis and Hyundais to choose from. 
It’s pretty crazy isn’t it? Think about where we were 10 years ago, and now, here we are with surf parks popping up all over the world. The tech moves so fast. There’s numerous active players now. I think people have seen a couple of surf parks, and solve problems for surfers while delivering a commercial outcome. Wavepool technology pioneers found the solution, and we’ve seen the opportunity as well. We went through a lot of hard work to get there, but we are seeing the evolution now which is great.

urbnsurf Sydney
Urbnsurf Sydney designs show a Wavegarden Cove design. But future parks in Sydney, Perth and Brisbane could use a different technology based on area surfers’ needs.

Upcoming pools: I want to tie you down to dates. So in a perfect scenario, when would these projects come online. I know it’s speculative. But I’d like to give our readers some dates.
Sydney is very much Summer 2022/2023 in terms of getting the park open. That’s our goal. Urbnsurf parks #3 and #4, if the opportunity arises, we’d like to bring them online more closely together, and build them concurrently. Once Sydney’s up and running, we’ll have gained a lot more momentum and be better positioned to develop two venues simultaneously. If I could get Brisbane or Perth open in 2023, that’d be phenomenal. And I’d love to have our fourth park up close behind that, probably 2024 at the earliest.

This is a massive undertaking. What drives you? 
Maybe I’m a bit of a sucker. I enjoy taking on jobs where people would say something can’t be done. That’s me. This has been a tough project, no doubt about it. You’ve just got to continue to believe and push through. And look at it now. I remember that first day we opened, and just seeing the smiles on people’s faces – I’m a big believer in the customer experience, and that to me is an amazing feeling. But there’s also the small things, I remember things like getting in the water on one particular weekend during our commissioning phase with Josema (Odriozola) from Wavegarden and one of our crew. It was just the three of us in the lagoon on a freezing cold Melbourne winter day. We surfed for three hours straight, running through the wave menu top to bottom, tuning them all as we went. I hadn’t surfed in a long time, with kids being a small distraction, and I’d had a knee operation a few years prior, so my surfing wasn’t where I wanted it to be. But in the space of those three hours, I felt I was getting back my 20-something-year-old surf legs. I progressed to the point where at the end of the three hours I had to go in because I was just so tired, and the next day I couldn’t walk. Those little moments like that drive me – three hours on Saturday afternoon, with just a couple of us in the water, with no one else around in the freezing cold. That is something that sticks in my mind today. The smiles are what draw me to these projects. The challenge in any job is getting that outcome, that instant gratification, that just makes other go, “Wow! That’s just unbelievable. I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” And that’s exactly what I love to overcome. You can’t believe it because it’s real. Creating that experience is awesome.

See below for the WavePoolMag review of Urbnsurf...