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Where the Ski Business Meets the Surf Park Business

Dave Likins on how running ski parks set him up for success with the Kelly Slater Wave Company.

Carissa Moore with fresh tracks in Lemoore. Photo: Kelly Slater Wave Company

The Kelly Slater Wave Company set out to build a perfect wave, but they did not set out to build company. Their process was to first see if it building a perfect wave was even possible. If it turned out that was possible, then they would figure out a business model around it. My job was to think about the business model for a manmade wave system that clearly had massive amounts of interest from the surf community. 

The surf park business looks and smells a lot like the ski business. You’ve got the equipment. You’ve got this massive investment and mechanical requirements. You’ve got points of failure from the mechanical side of that business, which are really important to understand, just like a chairlift would be. You’ve got risk. You’ve got food and beverage. You’ve got rentals. You’ve got instruction. You’ve got the underlying video component. From a marketing perspective, you’ve got all the same elements of pricing and cost of customer acquisition as you do in the ski industry.

KSWaveCo recognized that they needed to build maintenance teams around the things that go into successful operations, and really think through the guest experience because they were actually defining a brand new segment of experience. Surf destinations anchored by manmade wave systems of the scale and wave quality that KSWaveCo offers were untested. At Slater our thought process was “how do you design experiences that people will value and therefore pay for?”  These are expensive systems to operate and maintain so you really have to think about the value proposition. 

I always equate it back to the early days of the ski industry – how do you generate enough capital that you can not only maintain the experience but grow the experience. In parallel with ski, the surf park space has an opportunity to bring the level of institutional capital and professionalism that consolidated the ski industry to human made surf destinations. This is how surf parks become the next ski resort or the next Ttop Ggolf. Those were both industries that went from absolutely zero level of profitability and growth to fantastic growth options. They became anchor portions of massive resort destination locations. It struck me that if you could bring the right experience to the right geography, you had the opportunity to create really unique and special places where, not only could the core enthusiast take advantage of the predictability and the perfection of the wave systems, but it also gave you this unbelievable blank canvas to help introduce new people to the sport.

With surf parks you have the opportunity to create environments that address all the barriers to adoption. Surfing is intimidating. It’s difficult. People are worried about duck diving and paddling. Some people worry about sharks. There are issues of crowds, swell, tides, winds, currents, rips, and ocean creatures that, for people that haven’t surfed or that don’t consider themselves to be real outdoor enthusiasts, can be incredibly intimidating. If you can break down those barriers, you could create an environment where people of any generation or physical ability can participate.

For those who already surf, you can exponentially improve your capabilities by putting yourself in a situation where many of the distractions from actually riding a wave are eliminated and you can focus on the actual technical aspects of improving your surfing. We saw that at Kelly Slater Wave Co and I was a personal beneficiary. Having access to waves that reliably act in certain way allows you to focus on specific aspects of your technique. 

That ability to provide great experiences for diverse range of skill levels is to me is the business. The opportunity to put people – families, friends – in the water at the same time, accessing different waves at the exact same time, just like you can all ski different runs at the exact time is not a possibility for many sports. I think that’s the magic of this whole emerging segment of manmade wave systems and surf destinations. You are also not weather-dependent to the same extent as the ski industry so you are much more in control of your own destiny. You can bring a surfing experience that has only previously been available to people in certain coastal geographies, anywhere.

I think the surf park industry has a huge amount of upside. If the lessons from ski are to be learned there is going to be a need to focus on the guest experience to create really neat places where people want to go. Not just for an hour, but they want to go spend the day, maybe even a few days. With attention to these details it is possible to bring the excitement and experience of a day at the beach to people everywhere. To be clear though, we are not providing authentic ocean experience for everybody, but if you think surfing is fun, these are waves that are fun to surf.

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