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Despite the economic malaise of the surf industry in recent years it’s refreshing to witness first hand that kids are still surfing and business at surf schools around Australia has never been better.

Several years ago as an antidote to the long hours publishing Australasian Surf Business Magazine we launched a little surf school in southwest Victoria in 2010. In 2009, the Independent Sport Panel Report known as the Crawford Report had made recommendations to reform the Australian sports system in preparation for future challenges. Controversially, the Report made recommendations on reforms to the structure and programs of the elite sport system in Australia and challenged established conventions with an increased focus on participation and physical activity. Obesity, diabetes and an ageing population dependent on welfare meant that sports deemed ‘whole of lifetime’ activities deserved a proportionate amount of federal funding. 

And surfing ticked all the boxes.

From that reform, the sports National Governing Organisation, Surfing Australia launched the Weet-Bix SurfGroms program; a grass roots participation program that targets kids aged 5-12 years of age.  Football, Cricket, Netball, Athletics have all had well developed participation and junior development programs, but for retailers like Andrew Lindsay from Coopers Surf Stores in Coffs Harbour, SurfGroms is much more than a talent ID initiative, with kids and their parents spending in his stores in greater numbers. “SurfGroms is one the best things to happen to the surf industry,” admits Lindsay.

However, despite the fun, easy going nature of surf schools, for some of the larger surf schools around the country in key locations like Manly, Gold Coast and Byron Bay the numbers are impressive. We put some estimates together to give you a better understanding of the business of surf schools. Estimating 300 school kids @ $12 per head per lesson x 3 days per week = $10,800 (per week). 3 classes running simultaneously with 10 per class @ $40 x 3 sessions per day = $25,200 (per week) That’s an estimated total of $2m per annum, then add multiple locations, training squads and private lessons, you begin to get the picture…

We asked former Tracks magazine Editor Wayne Dart to investigate the rise and rise of the Surf School movement in Australia. This story first appeared in Australasian Surf Business Magazine #australiansurfbusiness.

The Business of Surf Schools.

Close your eyes for a few seconds… now throw your mind back to the day you stood up and rode your very first wave. Who pushed you onto that wave? Was it your old man? Did you even get a push? Back then it was literally sink or swim.

A surf school was something that was unheard of. Sure, you might go to a local council school holiday surf camp so your parents could have a break from your snotty nose and constant whingeing. But to be shown how to surf safely, how to paddle, how to get to your feet and how to read the ocean… that was something you weren’t necessarily taught, it was something you learned, often on your own.

These days surf coaching and surf schools are undeniably big business. Some of the larger schools in Australia are turning over eight-figure revenues as kids, adults, backpackers, and schools line up to squeeze into hired rubber and climb onto a softboard to feel that stoke from riding their first wave.

Often backed by or owned by a former pro, (Cheyne Horan, Lee Winkler, Trent Munro surf schools) the surf school movement is booming. Licensed by Surfing Australia, they follow excellent business systems and processes, use accredited instructors and supply equipment, which is both well maintained and safe.

Chief Executive Officer of Surfing Australia, Andrew Stark highlights the scale of growth in recent years. “We now have 110 registered surf schools around Australia,” said Stark, “The bigger schools are pushing through 1000 people or more a week. Through the Weet-Bix Surfgroms programs, we’ve injected about $7m in revenue into surf schools around Australia. We’ve had about 30,000 kids come through in just that program in three years.”

“We now have 110 registered surf schools around Australia. The bigger schools are pushing through 1000 people or more a week.” – Andrew Stark CEO Surfing Australia

The surf retail industry has been through the ringer. But while the large industry players have all suffered well-documented downturns in revenues over recent years, the actual participation rates and therefore revenues of surf schools are heading skyward.

“With Weet-Bix Surfgroms, we were able to study other junior sports programs and then take the best components from them and package them into one,” Stark said. “This allowed us to develop the governance from top to bottom. We could then measure and control the product and this enabled us to attract brands like Weet-Bix, Nikon, Wahoo and Quiksilver to be partners. We were also adamant that our surf schools would deliver the program. We didn’t want volunteers to deliver it, like in other sports. We wanted qualified professional coaches to deliver it, which also massively enhanced the fun aspect.”

Andrew Lindsay at the Lee Winkler Surf School at Coffs Harbour praised Surf Groms for giving surf schools nationally a real boost. “I think the Weet-Bix Surf Grom program has revitalised the surf school movement across Australia,” said Lindsay, “And I’d even say it’s one the best things to happen to the surf industry.”

“I think the Weet-Bix Surf Grom program has revitalised the surf school movement across Australia,” said Lindsay, “And I’d even say it’s one the best things to happen to the surf industry.” – Andrew Lindsay Coopers Surf Stores

For Manly Surf School, phenomenal revenue growth has come from not only providing a memorable surfing experience for surf school participants, it has come from being entrepreneurial across the whole space.

Owner Matt Grainger has taken the school from “shed based” with two instructors and 15 boards, to running at a number of locations on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, incorporating surfing, SUP and bodyboarding coaching. He owns the softboard company which provides his and other school’s equipment and until recently had a TV Show

His latest incarnation has been the development of a High Performance Surf Centre and afternoon coaching and training programs for the high achieving grommets on the Northern Beaches.

“It took us two years to get it on the beach,” said Grainger.

“Manly council just didn’t know how to deal with it. I had to work with them and reassure them that it was a professional operation like a dive school. It was lucky that Surfing Australia were rolling out the license around the same time and we were able to work on number of instructor to students ratios and set it up with them.

“It originally started just running in holidays and took five years for it become a legitimate business,” said Grainger. “I was working three jobs at the time to keep everything going!”

Once it all began to click and schools began to send their kids Manly Surf School’s way, the business grew exponentially. “We then started the TV show,” continued Grainger, “A couple of mates with production backgrounds pitched it to me – I thought they were mad. But due to show we saw a 15 percent increase in participants and I think other schools had increases as well. It showed surf schools are professional outfits. ”

“Due to TV show we saw up to a 15 per cent increase in participants …it helped establish the sport as being more mainstream.” – Matt Grainger, Owner Manly Surf School

Go Ride A Wave surf school began way back in 1987 in Anglesea, Victoria and has grown to provide coaching around Australia, including on the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast plus a number of spots along the Great Ocean Road. At present there are 15 full-time staff and over 100 coaches.

“The key challenges this business faced early were first, developing the client base,” said part owner Nathan Taylor. “But as the surf school movement was growing we soon had to overcome the need to get permits from councils and then insurance price rises.”

“We also have a lot more competition, especially since Surfing Australia changed the license structure to allow more schools at one location. Plus now the Academy of Surf Instructors has come on the scene and are accrediting surf school through their own programs.”

Like anything worthwhile, the hard work of getting their businesses up and running for most school owners has been worth it. Go and visit a surf school on a busy day. Sit there and watch for a while as the participants of all shapes, sizes and ages rise up and walk on water via their soft boards, and rekindle that inner stoke as you view the ear-to-ear grins.

As Lee Winkler said, “My vision was always to inspire the groms here and put us on the surfing map. Being a more community-based school I can work with the groms through the pathways from the beginners classes to the elite level. I’m lucky I make a living from it and I don’t go home and stress over budgets every week.”


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