How the unstoppable momentum of the wave pool industry is going to change the face of surfing.
The sport of surfing will change dramatically with the coming wave pool boom. Along with old salts scheduling after work tube time, pools will draw land-locked groms away from ball sports and into the tribe. The surf industry will blossom beyond the beach. There are several companies in Australia fuelling this emerging market, each with a very different wave-making system. Discover the different technologies, how much it costs to open a wave pool and whether it’s a good investment. And while it’s been termed a “Space Race,” the general consensus is that due to the variety of systems popping up, there is enough room at the table for everyone.
The biggest thing in the space race is that while artists renderings are nice, you need a demo facility for investors to test. That’s why Wavegarden Cove is winning and will be featured at all the URBNSURFS (and elsewhere in the world). The other companies are a few years behind Wavegarden but have good, solid tech. Once they get their facilities rolling they will no doubt license their system to developers.
This article examines everything you need to know about the burgeoning ‘space race’ to bring the modern wave pool concept to market.
In The Beginning:
We’ve strived to recreate ocean waves for decades, first by launching Big Surf in Tempe Arizona in 1969, and then building machines that agitated chlorine and concrete setups across the globe. Most developments resembled a small, crappy wind-blown day at your local beachbreak, including the Allentown Pennsylvania wave pool which hosted a 1985 ASP contest.
The wave-making process was described as an “industrial-sized toilet flush” that produced a tiny dribbler of a wave. Competitors hopped through the chlorine and grabbed the coping to make it through heats. Tom Carroll went on to win the event, and it was the last professional surfing contest in a wave pool until the WSL ran the exhibition event at Kelly’s wave this year.
Post-Allentown, a few wave pools built later actually worked. The second chlorine generation includes Typhoon Lagoon in Florida and the now defunct Ocean Dome in Japan as well as spots in the Canaries and Dubai – the latter of which hosted that internet-famous clip for a Globe promo featuring Dion Agius.
While these chlorinated gems can produce the odd barrel and memorable YouTube clip, they require a lot of energy to run, offer only short rides and don’t accommodate many paying guests. But there’s a newer, bigger, better, faster generation of wave pools now. Spearheaded by the Wavegarden (with other makers close behind) the new generation will produce enough waves to build economically viable commercial parks and begin to attract some of Australia’s 2.3 million surfers and scratch into the estimated $1billion surf industry.
This next generation is comprised of two separate parties. The first group invents the wave generating technology, like the Wavegarden company, and the second group follows a vision to build a space where people can pay to surf – this is exactly what the folks at Surf Snowdonia have done.
So hot is the wave pool market right now that a bit of a space race has emerged with pools planned for Barcelona, Bordeaux, Paris, Texas, California, Florida and on every continent except Antarctica in the next two years. In Australia, URBNSURF will break ground on facilities in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney using Wavegarden’s Cove technology, while Webber Wave Pools and Surf Lakes will debut their first large-scale test facilities, which they then aim to open to the public.
There are half a dozen wave builders globally producing surf-able manmade waves who are all within striking distance of selling their designs concepts to upcoming project developments.
Deep thinker, surfboard shaper, and wave pool designer Greg Webber says he’ll be breaking ground on a testing facility soon with plans for full commercial development at the same site shortly thereafter. The other big player in Australia’s wave pool future is Surf Lakes. The company says they have a shortlist of 13 coming projects, covering nine countries, with four of those being in Australia.
The difference in wave-generating technologies from these companies varies quite a bit, with the end goal being to create a high volume of varied waves to meet the widely different needs of the coming customer base. Kelly’s wave is great, but it’s not for everyone.
The New Technology
While ocean waves rely on wind and storms, waves can also be generated by underwater landslides, as in tsunamis, or something large pushing through the ocean, like a cargo tanker. Creating waves with a ship’s hull is what you see at Kelly’s, NLand and Surf Snowdonia.
It’s important to note that wave pool technology is highly secretive. Companies interviewed for this article gladly divulged waves per hour, lagoon sizes, potential markets and quality of surf but none shared details of how exactly their technologies worked. A few years ago there was a rift played out in the media between Kelly Slater and Greg Webber over patented tech each felt the other had appropriated. The wave generator at Kelly’s pool currently rests beneath camouflage netting during off hours to discourage any aerial spying and those who get to surf Kelly’s are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
The basic tech for wave pools may seem obvious: pulling a giant foil through the water is simple enough but it took years of trial and error to get to this point.
“We look back to when we started and we realised we had little idea how to make good waves for surfing and a viable business model,” said Wavegarden CEO and founder Josema Odriozola “In the very early days we wanted to test a wavefoil, so we borrowed a tractor from our neighbour’s farm.”
Once they pulled the wavefoil through a lake deep in the Basque Country of Spain and saw the waves fanning out, they knew they were onto something.
Kelly’s wave uses a similar hydrofoil but does it on a much grander scale. So powerful and perfect is Kelly’s (rumoured $10 million) wave that it now sits alongside Pipeline, Snapper Rocks and Bells Beach as a World Tour event. While the main hydrofoil produces an epic surfing wave, its commercial applications are limited on a cost-per-wave basis. The system produces only a handful of waves every hour, compared to Surf Snowdonia’s one wave roughly every 90 seconds.
The Webber Wave Pools system has two models. One is a hydrofoil design that pushes out a wave from a track-mounted wave foil, but instead of one straight shot down a track from beginning to end, the system has four foils that follow an oval track pattern – looping around the track and never stopping. The result is the creation of waves that are continuously pumped out across different sections of the pool. Webber is also designing a large circular pool with an island in the centre where the waves endlessly loop around a centre ring – a surfer could theoretically surf in a circle for hours on the same wave in this system.
According to Webber the two fundamentals to producing a good wave are having a trough in the wave and controlling the angle as it either wraps toward or away from its breaking point.
“The trough and the angle determine the amount of energy you have in a wave and the turns you can do” said Webber. “If you can alter the depth of the trough, you can shape the tube. We don’t search the earth for flat waves. They’re fine. They’re fun to ride but they’re not our deal.”
Webber plans to break ground on a test facility in Queensland come June 2018, followed by a public opening a few months after that.
The other big player in designing waves for the coming Australian surf pool boom is Surf Lakes. With the recent announcement of Barton Lynch and Mark Occhilupo jumping on board the team and a prototype facility ready to break ground on the Capricorn Coast, the company is set for big things.
The Surf Lakes system breaks from the hydrofoil model and creates waves from a central hub (visualise dropping a stone into the water). The waves then fan out in all directions then meet a series of bottom contours to create ideal waves for both advanced and beginning surfers.
“We are employing a concentric wave generator, creating large swells from a central source,” said Surf Lakes CEO and founder Aaron Trevis. “The mechanism is large but quite efficient and it allows us to create eight breaks at the same time (four rights and four lefts). The key benefit is the orbital motion in the wave, giving the same motion as the ocean, with a trough in front of the waves.”
While quality is key, the other main factor in producing a profitable wave pool is ensuring there are enough waves to go round for the paying customers.
“We have eight breaks, so when we run six waves per set, this gives us 48 rides per set,” continued Trevis. “Running 50 sets per hour gives us 2400 rides, plus learner breaks and shore breaks.”
The current marketplace requires a high volume of waves produced. It’s why the promotional clips and pitches from wave pool makers now boast “waves per hour.”
Because Wavegarden has a working model of their Cove technology, which produces up to 1000 waves per hour, investors are able to see and surf for themselves and know exactly what they will get for their money. It was recently announced that their Cove technology will be under exclusive license for the upcoming three URBNSURF locations.
“There are several Australian-based wave generating technology companies that are in different phases of prototyping their respective technologies,” said Andrew Ross of URBNSURF. “Currently Wavegarden offer the only commercially available product that has been proven at full scale.”
So here’s all this great technology ready to roll and all signs point to wave pools actually being “the next big thing.” Despite the coming boom, it can still be a tough sell.
“It’s frustrating knowing clear-as-day what the wave pool itself and the industry will end up looking like,” said Greg Webber on the issue of investment. “But then it’s tough having to convince people of it while sounding like all the other self-absorbed inventor types.”
For inventors like Webber, it’s obvious: wave pools are money. They are the future. They will be everywhere. Surfing might even be split into sub-genres of “ocean-surfing” and “wave pool surfing.” But it’s not an entirely unknown business frontier. One need only look at the success of cable parks and how they transformed the once-obscure sport of wakeboarding.
Yes, Someone’s Done This Before
Towing behind a boat was once the be-all and end-all of wakeboarding, but it necessitated owning a boat or having friends with a boat. Once a few lakes were equipped with towers and cables to pull wakeboarders around a course, the cost threshold to enter the nascent sport was totally broken down. Anyone with a few bills in their pocket could try the sport without having to drop thousands on a specialised boat. Today more people wakeboard at cable parks than they do behind boats. Wave pools could very well do the same for surfing for the non-ocean-adjacent masses.
According to Philippe Sirech of wakeboarding publication Unleashed Magazine it was a slow burn, attracting some wakeboarders in the mid-90s with a handful of new parks each year, then growing exponentially until settling in at around 1,100 parks today.
“Between 2007 and now, I don’t know what’s happened but each company that specialises in building parks went from doing 5-to-10 parks per year to building 50,” said Sirech. “It was just insane. The five companies building parks had to scramble to meet demand, but they always delivered on time.”
Sirech says the price for building a decent cable park in an existing lake is close to $1million, and that a full set up with restaurant, lockers, shower room and pro shop in a metropolitan European market would bring in roughly half that each season.
Wave Pool Investment Costs
Wave pools are more expensive than cable parks. The planned URBNSURF projects are estimated to cost roughly $30 million AUS each and Surf Lakes have stated that their upcoming tech will cost between $15 million and $20 million. Greg Webber says his parks’ costs will be “similar to the other wave pool makers.” Surf Snowdonia’s price tag, start to finish, was £18 million ($31 million AUS).
Much of Surf Snowdonia’s investment came from the local Northern Wales municipality seeking to redevelop a toxic, abandoned aluminium mine. “It’s quite a long payback process but we don’t owe the banks any money,” said Andy Ainscough, Surf Snowdonia’s managing director. “The local government invested in the project. But this is just stage one and now we’re looking at the next phase with a hotel. It’s part of a wider development project.”
While not willing to disclose exact revenue splits or profitability, Andrew Ross said the URBNSURF projects are forecast to be profitable from day one of operations and that the return profile for the projects is attractive enough to secure significant equity capital.
Surf Lakes’ Aaron Trevis confessed they expect owners and operators to achieve returns in excess of 30% per annum just from the waves and swimmers alone.
“That’s without including all of the incremental spending and perimeter activities, events, etc.” said Trevis. “The learn-to-surf portion of the revenue and swimmers around the edges is an important element in the business models. We have developed business cases for theme parks, stand alone public surf parks and also exclusive resort models, with each of them providing healthy returns.”
Admission Fees and Running Costs
Public wave pools, like ski resorts, charge according to peak and off times. NLand surf park in Texas charges $50-$90US ($65-$110AUS) per hour to surf. To take on the advanced wave in the lagoon at Surf Snowdonia it’s £40-£50 ($70-$88AUS) for a one-hour session shared with five others (three on the left and three on the right). Surfers can expect roughly a dozen waves to themselves in that time. The lagoon is considered “sold out” when they’ve booked six advanced surfers, 24 intermediates, and eight beginners.
“The entry fee to get in is the main source of income,” added Ainscough of Surf Snowdonia. “You have catering, accommodation, dinner on site and those are all good but the biggest thing is the revenue from the lagoon.”
Ainscough cites electric costs, staffing and insurance as the main expenses for the park. He said their business model is working.
“Obviously you have the same electricity costs whether one person or forty people are surfing the lagoon – the costs are the same,” he said. “Staff for peak times is a big expense as is insurance. We have to ask ourselves ‘how are our staff levels and should we even have the park open at this point.” To help manage staffing and to prevent having too many workers on hand, Snowdonia has their clients book two weeks out.
The pricing model for URBNSURF Melbourne will be published later next year as opening day nears, and Ross says they aim to keep prices affordable to encourage regular use. Capacity for Melbourne will be 84 guests in the water with a 60/40 split between beginner and more advanced surfers.
Aaron Trevis of Surf Lakes says the business models they have developed offer lower rates due to the increased variety of waves offered by their tech and the up to 2,400 waves coming through each hour.
“The [pool] location and the market will determine the best mix,” said Trevis. “A very smart consultant we used highlighted that we do not want to replace one “accessibility problem” with another, in that we do not want to solve the problem of accessing waves, then make the price so high that people cannot afford to access the waves.”
Surf Industry Growth
Another unique profit component to the wave pool boom lies in the big picture – the growth of the surf industry itself.
Unlike at the beach, everyone who comes in after surfing a pool or is in the lobby amping up before a session will be staring at new hard and soft goods in the pro shop. This kind of product visibility has done well for cable park profits and the growth of their market.
“As you know, it is not really easy now for a retail shop to maintain sales,” said Philippe Sirech at Unbound Magazine. “But if you’re a pro shop at a cable park, then it’s no problem. People come to ride and every time make a round through your pro shop to see the new guns. Also, the brands give rental stuff to the cable parks to help open up their market.”
The current surfboard demo practice for board makers is to set a date well in advance, rock up to the beach and hope for some decent surf so the public can try their wares. Often times the waves are not good, or too crowded or the consumer doesn’t want to give up an hour of prime surf time to try something that might or might not work.
Firewire CEO Mark Price sees wave pools as a viable avenue to better connect with consumers and increase the return on investment for demo equipment.
“If you can guarantee waves, and perhaps even more importantly, a specific repeatable wave that its suited to a particular design, the ROI of a demo investment can only go up,” said Price, adding that surfers’ hardware consumer habits will change as well.
“Increasing the ‘wave riding’ time of existing surfers who can only surf during relatively narrow windows of time may prompt those surfers to expand their quivers, versus what they would ordinarily want/need for the few waves they get to catch before work.”
At an industry function a decade ago Bob McKnight famously spoke of “growing the pond” to create more surfers and in turn create more core customers. So while his nascent plan drew heavily on the utilisation of marketing and surf schools, thanks to wave pools we are now at a period where we can literally build the pond, put waves in it and fill it with future brand consumers. This bodes well during a down cycle among the brands.
“While it’s too early to accurately quantify the impact of wave pools on the surf industry, there is no question that as and when the various biz models prove out, the potential increase in people riding waves around the world will be exponential,” added Price. “What that means for individual surf brands will depend of how relevant they can remain within the existing endemic surf market, because they will need that authenticity to leverage interest from new participants.”
And how big will this emerging market be both to park operators and the surf industry? Greg Webber believes surfing’s true potential has been restricted up until now and that the coming boom will unleash a huge growth period for the sport.
“The maximum value will take a few years to prove,” said Webber. “Since it will be linked to things like retail and hotel value increases and the advertising potential of a growing sport that’s only been restrained due to the fact that you can only surf where nature makes waves.”
On the edge of this new frontier, the different wave pool makers Wavegarden, Webber, Surf Lakes and others bear a striking resemblance to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in a garage with the first Apple computer while Bill Gates is down the road developing his own Microsoft – they know they’re onto something, but just how big it will become, and who will emerge top dog, is still unknown.
“The competition is creating the market,” added Webber. “So I love all my rivals.”
Aaron Trevis said that once the Surf Lakes and all of the demo facilities are out there and pumping out waves that the market will determine the winners.
“Please recognise that there is room for many types (of pools) and it is more like a wave pool puzzle, as operators work out the right “fit” for their site or project,” said Trevis.
With the amount of work, sacrifice and missed surf sessions spent developing and fine-tuning their projects, we asked Trevis if he’d ever considered giving up.
“Many, many times,” he said. He then described an invention process fraught with lost delivery trucks and machinery, testing designs in the Victorian winter with frozen hands as well as on-site nights spent in the car listening to wild animals attack and eat each other in a nearby forest.
“It will make the victory sweeter when we have a win. And we do like the fact that we will be exporting ‘Aussie waves’ to the world. Seems appropriate.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bryan Dickerson is a veteran journalist who has spent the better part of the last decade filing news reports 24/7 for Surfersvillage.com. While his focus is all things surfing and the fantastic culture we all share, he has contributed extensively to mainstream publications. Bryan currently lives in the Basque Country of France.