It’s the sixth of January, 2020. Commercial flights from Melbourne’s Tullamarine runway soar above queues of waxheads with shortboards tucked under their armpit.
URBNSURF CEO Damon Tudor watches on and can’t help but ponder how far removed he is from the desert of Dubai.
Opening day for Australia’s first urban surf park is running to plan. And for a moment, its guests are removed from the major crisis which unfolds around them.
The surfing playground is bringing joy and distraction on a day when so much of the country is in the grip of a bushfire disaster.
“That was a horrible time for so many Australians and I remember hoping that we were able to provide a brief respite from the reality of what was going on around us.” Damon recalls.
Victorians have become accustomed to dealing with adversity – especially through the calamity of 2020.
Damon has steered URBNSURF through the white-water during its most vulnerable phase. Start-ups can come and go in the blink of an eye without many even noticing. Ask any successful business entrepreneur. They’ll vouch for that. The early days are particularly delicate. URBNSURF’s christening baby steps have been amplified and exacerbated by the health pandemic which has clamped the hospitality industry and crippled the economy.
“I can pretty confidently say we must be the only team in the world who has opened a surf park, actually the same surf park, three times in the same year,” he said.
It has been a challenging time in the hotseat for a CEO charged with launching and establishing a start-up project with such a high profile.
To borrow surfing parlance, COVID was almost the wipe-out wave before URBNSURF had the chance to enter the green room.
“We’ve certainly had our challenges this year that’s for sure,” Damon said.
“It hasn’t been without its pains. We had to put the business into hibernation for a period, but we can look back on it now and say the measures we took have been able to ensure we could protect the business moving forward.”
Opening day was just 24 hours shy of Damon’s one-year anniversary in the job.
A highly regarded strategic thinker, he’d spent the previous decade leading commercial and business development teams in the beverage industry throughout the Middle-East.
That all changed when a phone call came from a former boss.
“He knew I was a keen surfer and called me to see if I’d be interested in talking further about a project they were looking to roll out back here. But he said I’d have to be back in Australia pretty much straight away,” he said.
“I kind of brushed it off and said the timing wasn’t right. But he was smart about it. He rang my wife and got talking to her.”
“As she put it, asking me to be the CEO of a surf park was like handing a kid the keys to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, so it wasn’t really a tough decision to make.”
Raised in Sydney’s western suburbs, Damon’s weekends were spent with his Dad on the Northern Beaches. It was there that he first set foot on a surfboard, igniting a passion for chasing the sun up and down Australia’s east coast, and long sessions with mates at favourite breaks Blueys and Burning Palms.
Dubai’s sandy horizons couldn’t have been further from his childhood zen.
So the Tudors, now a team of four with two young children born and raised in the UAE, headed home to Sydney.
Sydney. New South Wales. Almost a thousand kilometres north of the Victorian capital. A 90 minute flight from Melbourne. Another challenge for a family that had survived its fair share.
Damon embarked on a fly-in, fly-out arrangement; his working week bookended by a Sydney to Melbourne commute.
By the time URBNSURF opened its doors he’d racked up more than 100 flights and the married father-of-two was bunking down in a share house.
He was given a mandate to open the first park of its type in the Southern Hemisphere and get it operational. The whole shebang. Commercial arrangements. Bringing money through the door. Partnerships. A customer base. Marketing. Health and safety. Insurance. Recruiting a workforce. Building a team to bring it all to life.
Within a year, five staff had grown to 150. Corporate partners were keen to be involved and surfing’s leading brands were seeing the future of their sport emerge before them. Being right next door to the airport, business travellers were even popping across the road for a surf while in transit.
“That first day was a massive relief with huge excitement. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to what it was like when the Sydney Olympics were on, from a vibe and atmosphere perspective,” he said.
“The thing that really sticks with me is the smiles on people’s faces. And that was when they were walking in and couldn’t wait to give it a go. It was when they were out in the lagoon ready to paddle into that perfect wave. And it was when they were leaving because they’ve just had the greatest day they’ve ever had surfing. I mean, how often do you go out for a surf and leave having just surfed a minimum of 10 perfect waves. It just never happens,” he said.
“It’s a very different experience, because when you’re out in the ocean, part of the challenge is to find yourself a wave and then get on it while other people are trying to do the same thing.”
“At URBNSURF that competition for a wave is gone. You get perfect waves every single time. You know they’re coming and there’s a queue of people waiting to take their turn.”
“And that’s something I noticed. Everyone was out the back having a laugh with their mates. They were having a chat. Out there meeting people with their mates in a no pressure environment. It was just brilliant and very rewarding to see.”
Things started at lightning speed. New members were signing on the spot. They were booked out a month in advance. Word of mouth was getting out. It was marketing itself.
Chris Hemsworth turned up for a surf. With cameras rolling, AFL and Big Bash cricket stars were test driving crisp barrels for a mass television audience.
When the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix was cancelled, Lewis Hamilton discreetly dropped in for a night session. He came back the next night too.
Everything was running to plan. Then COVID hit Victoria worse than anywhere else in Australia. The pumps were stopped. The gates slammed shut. Business came to a standstill.
“That was shattering. It really was,” Damon said.
“We had a really great start with a loyal member and guest base. We put a lot of effort into communication.”
“But we’re in the sport and leisure industry which, like many others, has been decimated by COVID. Our business is a massive piece of infrastructure that relies on customers to allow us to operate.”
“For any business, when you have to close the doors 11 weeks after opening it presents challenges.”
At first, it was a temporary shutdown. It had initially launched with a number of cosmetic features still to be completed. The team used that time to finalise some overdue projects.
They re-opened on the 19th of June.
Three weeks later, they were shut down again.
“We were gutted. We’d gone through this period before but the second time was tough to take. It was soul-destroying to everyone who had been working so hard to build the business and give our members and guests an experience they’ll never forget,” he said.
Financially, it has taken its toll. No customers meant no revenue. Staff generously agreed to reduced hours and temporary pay reductions. Government grants and assistance packages were important in keeping the business running and URBNSURF also had the support of its investors.
“I can’t thank our staff, members and investors enough. We know we’ll get through this and we can’t wait to repay everyone for their loyalty, patience and commitment to what we’re trying to achieve.”
“Staying engaged with our staff, even our casual workforce which we unfortunately had to stand down, throughout the period of closure was critical for us and, coming out the other side, we have been able to retain most of our staff, something which we placed a priority on ensuring.”
“We’ve got some great new initiatives in the pipeline for when we’re able to function fully again. Our objective is to provide a fantastic customer experience and I think after the year we’ve had and the dedication our members and guests have shown us, I think that’s our job to make sure that’s what they get when they next come to visit us.”
Bit by bit, normality is returning for Victorians. Small increments continue to pose challenges for a business like URBNSURF though. The business re-opened a few weeks ago – but – with restrictions. The 25km radius rule has now been lifted and, finally, all Victorians can put URBNSURF on their to-do-list.
“Things are getting better. It will be worth the wait. We’ve got a huge base of surfers who live in and around one of Australia’s most prominent beach communities in Torquay just itching to come and give the park a go. They haven’t really had the chance, until now,” Damon said.
URBNSURF has also developed links with prominent mental health foundation Waves of Wellness and will be assisting in the delivery of wave therapy programs.
In 2020, it is, more important than ever before.
“Every surfer will get something different out of just being out on the water. For some it’s the pursuit of the wave itself. For others it’s the thrill of being on it and rush of executing the perfect ride. But for so many it’s the gathering of a group of people out in the water. The banter and the conversation that goes with that and that’s something that’s really cool about surfing,” Damon said.
“For me, it’s an escape. I love the quiet time that comes with hunting down the wave. It’s just me, my board and the water and in that moment, nothing else matters. That’s my personal enjoyment.”
“A lot of surfers will tell you it’s a good escape and a counter to depression. The team at Waves of Wellness do a great job. It’s a really important cause and one that we’re passionate about supporting.”
URBNSURF will host the first ever live-streamed Rubber Duck Party Wave to help raise funds for Movember on 29 November. You can find more details by CLICKING HERE
By then, fingers crossed, things should be just about back to normal. URBNSURF will restore its title as an urban legend more than an urban myth!
See you in the green room!