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Exiting URBNSURF CEO Damon Tudor Sits Down to Discuss His Time in the Surf Park Industry

Four days before URBNSURF Sydney opens to the public and just over a week before his five years at the company come to an end, ‘Damo’ sits down to reflect on the journey.

By Jess Ponting

Damon Tudor, aka Damo, has been understandably difficult to pin down the last few weeks. We managed to set a time to talk a week ago. I was supposed to call him so we could chat on his hour-long early morning commute from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Narrabeen to be precise, to the city’s geographic center in Olympic Park. But, surf parks being surf parks, something came up that needed his urgent attention, and he had to leave pre-dawn, and our time slot got pushed.

Now, just four days before URBNSURF’s second location in Sydney opens to the public, Damo has found some time to speak with me. He’s in his office on site, and things must be tracking well because he’s wearing a face-splitting shit-eating grin. We barely say hello before he walks his laptop across the room to the office window to show me with unconcealable pride the shiny new Wavegarden Lagoon several stories below.

Jess Ponting: And there it is! I’ve seen Owen Wright getting barreled out there so I know the thing works.

Damo: Yes, the feedback’s been quite positive. Yeah, the break is a little bit different to Melbourne but it’s not markedly different where you would change sessions or anything. It’s just a different break, and I think that it’s really cool to get a bit of variety and everything in a way. So yeah, so far there’s been really good feedback from much more talented surfers than me, mate.

Jess Ponting: Nice! How do they characterize the difference? Is it just improved because Wavegarden has had a few more iterations now?

Damo: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a sort of a step change. Well not a step change, but just evolutionary, you know. You could probably say the pocket is a little bit better.

Common feedback is that the power in the pocket works really well for turns and things like that and you’re not sort of racing to sections as much. That was probably the main stuff. It is a smaller pool in terms of its shorter by 20 meters, but it’s still operating quite well. It has different bathymetry to Melbourne too, but that’s been developed over a few learnings as well. But yeah, mate, it’s all very positive, which is good.

Jess Ponting: I didn’t open up by saying thank you, and I really do appreciate the time because I know you must be just kind of going quietly bananas here in this rollout phase. So thank you and what have you got, four days until the doors open to the public?

Damo: Yeah, mate, it’s Monday. So, we’ve got WSL guys in here tonight to come for a visit. Tomorrow (Friday) there’s a little bit more just training and tidying up Saturday. We’re doing a family and friends day. Sunday, we have a couple of private activities on but not too major, and then yeah, Monday’s the big day. So gosh. It’s hard to believe we are here again. I mean the park looks great. there’s definitely a lot of hype around it and there’s been a lot of interest in the opening as well with bookings and everything now flying through which is really good to see, after the construction phase.

Jess Ponting: Yeah, I was looking at the booking page last week, and it seemed like the first week was pretty much all done. And the second week was pretty much all done. I’m sure it is by now. Is that kind of how it’s playing out?

Damo: Yeah, pretty much mate. It’s funny because the rain in Sydney for the last two years, it’s just been brutal. Even in the last week and a half, we had to finish off a section of the car park. The potential for a delay with that could have derailed everything with the opening. We had all nighter with a contractor to get it done. I was here until four in the morning, typical surf park stuff mate. Welcome to being the CEO of a surf park, right? But I was like, “I’m not leaving until this is done,” because that was kind of one of those sliding doors moments where if we didn’t get it done, it would have derailed all the certification requirements and that type of thing.

It’s a fairly simple thing, but all these things really matter. Getting that done was just fantastic. We got that complete. We got all of our certifications last week. We got our final documents signed off.  Now we are there mate. It’s been a sprint to the finish as always.

Surf parks in Sydney

Jess Ponting: I didn’t realize it was ongoing but I know there has been really bad weather throughout construction. It does seem like you are more or less on track to where you were advertising you were going to be opening six months ago. Maybe a few weeks behind, but that’s pretty remarkable.

Damo: Yeah, mate, it is. I think we all know surf parks well enough now to know that things go horribly wrong all the time and you’ve just got to adapt and jump on it. But in terms of the construction I’ve been really close to it. It’s needed that attention. Attention to detail is what counts with these things.

We would have loved to have been open earlier closer to the summer period, but there’s been a few hundred rain days delay since we started back in 2021. Quite literally. It’s been a little bit nuts. I mean, we had the 2022 phase, which was nine months of rain in Sydney. Torrential rain, floods, you name it. And then, even now, it was meant to me actually a hot, dry summer. The authorities were already about droughts and bushfires, but this summer has been so wet, and that, of course, has impacted everything. 

For us, it was hard because you’ve got a massive hole in the ground. You can’t pull the slabs in the floor itself until you’ve got the right conditions. Then once you do pour the slabs, you’ve got to waterproof the thing. But then, because you poured the concrete, it’s starting to fill up with water every time it rains. So there’s that constant management of that situation. I think I have PTSD any time it rains now, mate. It’s one of those things. But the good thing is, after we did the last piece of the car park last Monday, it’s been raining every day since and it’s the first time I’ve actually gone, “Actually, it doesn’t matter anymore. This is great”.

Jess Ponting: You made the right decision staying up until four in the morning then?

Damo: Absolutely. It was one of those classic sliding door moments. And that’s been a consistent thing with the surf park business in general. You’ve just got to stay on it. If you lose contact with it all or you’re not across the details for even one day, you can really cause some pain. It’s just one of those industries at the moment because it’s all so new.

Jess Ponting: Opening the second park, was it easier than the first and what were the most important learnings? I’m looking at the timeline, we’re used to six-month delays from opening projections but you just missed it by a bee’s dick. Was that a process of having gone through it before and what were the critical learnings if it was?

Damo: Definitely. I think they’re both quite unique. The Melbourne build was actually easier because the ground conditions were simpler. The ground conditions in Sydney were more complicated. You’re on a fill site. It’s recoverable land. From a sustainability story, it’s actually really good news, but unfortunately, the construction aspect of it multiplies ten-fold in terms of complexity and that’s where the biggest problem was.

Everything around that and how it was going to work was completely different from Melbourne. Completely different. That was quite challenging. Probably the key learning for me was just around that really tight management of the program, making sure you’ve got the right partners and builders and contractors, how you set it up with the right support structure.

So, in 2022 I brought in a couple of consulting groups just to help us out and that level of management really improved the ability to tackle the issues head on as they came up. And you have things every week, right?

The other side of it, too, was that in Melbourne, we had brand new software systems, and we had staff that were not experienced in operating a surf Park in the first place. Whereas having guys like Sean and James and Emily Pilling and all these guys that had been through that journey with me in those early days where we were frantically running to get things sorted out.

That process to readiness to launch has been definitely smoother. They’re running like a well-oiled machine which is great. I can’t speak highly enough of the guys. And they’ve been fantastic, and it’s allowed me to focus on where the big challenges have been, which has been development construction. That’s definitely where the challenge has been. The launch side of it around the readiness and recruiting and systems has been much much easier, but it’s still a lot of work. So I don’t want to demean their hard work, it’s just that they’ve got the knowledge this time, so I think that’s helped a lot.

URBNSURF Sydney

Jess Ponting: So having an experienced team, and I’m assuming that you’ve taken the heads of different departments from Melbourne and brought them up to Sydney. Systems are in place. You’ve got experienced people who can train the staff who are going to be there on opening day with real-life experience of what this is going to be like, and that’s freed you up to just focus on the construction and stay on top of that and not miss those sliding door moments like the car park. Is that a fair assessment?

Damo: Yeah, 100% mate. The construction industry in Australia in the last few years has been going through quite challenging times. Something like over 2,000 Builders have gone bust in the last three years in Australia, right? This had to do with the post-COVID steel and concrete escalation. It’s not just Australia, it’s the States as well, different locations around the world and it really required that sort of hands-on focus to keep it under control because it could have just blown out again.

I’ve got friends who are doing other projects in different things and they’ve experienced continuing issues. Building a really strong relationship with the builder, as well as all the associated consultants and contractors, is really important. I’ve invested a lot of time in that myself and I don’t come from a construction background but I’m sitting here talking to you now mate wearing my construction boots, it’s just become the norm for me now that this is sort of the language I speak compared to also what I was doing before, and that’s just what it takes to get it done. 

I’ve still been involved in the commercial side around the readiness to launch, and obviously, we’ve got Jen coming to replace me, which is great, and she’s picked up the kit as to the run forward after Sydney opens and Melbourne. So the last six weeks we’ve been transitioning her on has been fantastic because she’s a machine when it comes to the commercial side and she’s just picked all those things up and just taken away a lot of pressure.

Look this is going for a couple of years, so it’s been a bit of a handful. North and South pole-type stuff. But, in the last couple of months, I’ve been able to focus solely here. The amount of paperwork we had to complete the certification was just massive because we’re a state-significant project here in New South Wales, and we’ve also got Sydney Olympic Park Authority as a landlord. Their requirement from the probity and the certification perspective is big. Lots and lots of documents. Certification. Sign offs. Consultants. That type of thing. So the fact that we got that ticked off is actually the unseen massive milestone and people don’t really understand that because it’s the stuff you don’t see on the ground going up as a building or a surf pool, but that is quite complex as well.

Jess Ponting: From the perspective of demographics and market between Sydney and Melbourne, how do you see Sydney as a different market from Melbourne, and how, if at all, does it impact the business model as you see it?

Damo: Yeah, it’s a really good question. They are markedly different. So with Melbourne you’ve got a location that’s near the airport at Tullamarine. Fifteen to 20 minutes away is the CBD and the suburbs of Melbourne as a city, So you’ve got a really good grab to that catchment. The coast is like an hour and a half drive, and the coast is beautiful, the waves are amazing, but it’s further away and it’s a bit limited in terms of where you would go to surf. You’ve got less options compared with Sydney.

Having said that, some of our most loyal customers come from the Torquay region, and they’ll drive up and they’ll come in and surf it. They’re just frothers, which is fantastic. So yeah, Melbourne’s probably gonna push for those frustrated City folks, and we’re talking four million people that don’t always get the chance to travel down the coast. They’ll come to the park for a surf, which is great. So Melbourne works really well in that sense. 

Sydney’s a little bit different. Right? I’ll give you some insights.  I grew up out west past where we are now at Sydney Olympic Park, and where I was growing up was quite a different type of catchment, and that western part of Sydney now has grown immensely. So Sydney Olympic Park is really smack bang in the center of Sydney. We’re only 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the beach here, and the Sydney Coastline has plenty of surfing beaches that are broken into sort of chunks. So you’ve got the Northern beaches, which is where I live in Narrabeen, and there are 20 surfing beaches within a 10-minute drive where I live. So that’s fantastic. You’ve got a pretty core surf community there too. You’ve got the eastern suburbs, you got Bondi, Bronte that sort of thing, but it’s really built up. Very busy place. Then south is Cronulla and the Southerland Shire area. Then you’ve got Western Sydney. Travel to the beach from Western Sydney can be an hour plus, an hour and a half. And that’s more traffic than distance, whereas Melbourne would be more distance to, say, Torquay.

So you’ve got a lot of probably frustrated people in the west who would love to get to the beach. But here we are. We have an environment where we can tackle those people and provide them with something without having to travel all the way across the city to get to the coast. Then you’ve got a very active surf community coastally here as well. So they are very different in that regard.

What works for us, I think, is Sydney has over 60% of its population identify as culturally and linguistically diverse. That’s an important aspect for us to talk to and be able to communicate with and create access to surfing. We want to make sure there is something for everyone, the whole democratizing surfing piece. And then you also want to make sure those ‘surfers coastal’ are able to come out too.

So, from my place, it’s basically an hour’s drive, which is pretty good from the northern beaches. If you talk to anyone at the local board riders club in Narrabeen, and a few of them have come out this past couple of weeks, they are just hanging to come out and surf because conditions are not always good. They want to try something different for their training, for their trips or whatever it might be. 

So you’ve got a really different mix. It’s not so much that city catchment—it’s a very broad catchment—but in regions in Sydney because it’s quite spread out, and then how you tailor the business to that Western Sydney community as well, which is really nice.

Jess Ponting: The pre-sales in terms of bookings are looking really good. I’m wondering how things like memberships and packages have been going. Have they been meeting expectations?

Damo: Yeah, it’s been good mate. We released them probably earlier than what we did with Melbourne. That was part of the hype dialup sort of going back to September last year. We’ve been able to go through the stages of talking about where the surf park is at. When you’ve got a big construction site, there’s a bit of hype. That’s probably more your core for frothers who will jump on board straight away. Getting the lagoon done doing those walk throughs showing the buildings coming up is another piece. But filling the water up is a huge piece. Actually, being able to say, hey guys, we have a lagoon here, and the taps are on was a great day for us. That was March first. We had the fire hoses out and we were playing silly buggers. But for us, it really is a defining moment. and that definitely saw a bit of a spike because people were like, okay this is real.

Surf parks are a tough game. There’s still a lot of development, learning and growth to go in the industry. A few haven’t been able to quite get to where they’d like to be. That is, unfortunately, that challenge that we all face, and I certainly respect anyone who’s going through that journey because it’s bloody hard. But turning the taps on is one thing, but then when you show that first wave? Bang! There’s your moment. Like wow, that’s actually looking pretty good. You see Owen Wright right in the barrel, making it look so easy. It’s just amazing. 

So it’s been this sort of steady, consistent progress of messaging, and the challenge with the launch for Sydney has been so much bloody rain. I keep moaning about the rain, but the rain is the rain, and that’s the thing that’s hurt us is that we commit to things, and we want to talk about more stuff. But then I know that if we get rains for a couple of weeks, it’s gonna kick down the path, and here, for example, when it got wet, it wasn’t like one day of rain credit, one day of delay. It’s got to dry. You’ve got to extract the water. The conditions may not be safe for it. Do you get to go on? All these sorts of things can multiply how that works, right?

So it’s it’s giving me plenty of gray hair mate as you can see now over the last five years, but it’s this horrible dance between you want to commit to the customers and I want to commit to the staff as well because that In fairness of the staff at URBNSURF, they’re like all over me. When can we do this? And I love that. I applaud that because that’s what they should be doing. But I always feel really bad because I’m like, nah, guys, just give me another week, I have to kind of push back on them, and that’s been quite challenging from the construction perspective.

I think the messaging has been pretty consistent and strong. You’d always like it to be five times more; that’s just the ambition in it, but it’s actually close to the targets that we kind of set, which is really exciting. So, I think we’ll have a vibrant member and local community here. We’ve got members that are a walkable distance from the local area, Newington, which is really cool and they’re just like “This is great, I’ve been waiting for this for years”, and then you’ve got members who are from northern beaches. For example, where I live they just want to be part of the action. I’m buying my membership when I finish that’s for sure.

Jess Ponting: You’ve got less than two weeks left as the CEO of URBNSURF? How are you feeling?

Damo: It’s next Friday! It’s next Friday mate! It’s a bit weird buddy. Almost five and half years and it’s been an absolute sprint to the finish. I was kind of hoping my last couple of months would be a bit of golf and long lunches. But it’s surf parks, right? So, it definitely hasn’t been that. It is an absolute Sprint to finish.

I have been very lucky that Jen was able to come on six weeks ago so it’s given her time, and me time, when I’m running manic to do things. We’ll catch up, have conversations, or just piggyback on things. which is really good rather than this sort of hard fast Handover. I’m really delighted to have had that time with her. But yeah, it is a bit surreal. I don’t think it’ll hit me till I’m actually not coming to work every day in the construction gear every day. I’ve got a house renovation to finish so I know my wife Sal has a long list of things for me to do, which is fine, I don’t mind getting on the tools. But it’s a bit weird. 

It feels like the right time. I wanted to get Sydney done. We’ve been through a lot as a team. Melbourne was challenging in those early days just to get it off the ground then we had COVID straight after that and bloody red rain and bushfires and everything you can imagine thrown at us. And then the Sydney project in 2022 it rained for nine months. It was record rain levels. I was just never going to quit until Sydney was open and done. That was just the way it had to be and it was like a personal commitment.

Our CFO is also finishing a couple of weeks after me, he’s been on about a five-year journey as well. So for me, it feels like the right time. It feels like an exciting time for the business. I feel like I’ve given everything to get it to a point, which has been some of the challenging phases, and that’s the stuff I do enjoy, mate. I like the tough jobs where people say it can’t be done, and there’s been plenty of that. And here we are, so it’s kind of nice. I really will miss the team, there are some people on the journey from those early days. I think there will be some emotional moments over the next few weeks. But I just can’t wait to come back as a customer, too, and just relax and enjoy it.

I think surfing while working in surf parks and in URBNSURF and surfing at URBNSURF is fun, but I never quite was able to release like I used to in the ocean before I worked in the business. I think now I just want to get that love back and find that happy place without thinking about “Oh I shouldn’t be out here, I should be working”.

Jess Ponting: What can you tell me about the future of URBNSURF? I know you’re about to hand it off to Jennifer. What do you think the direction is moving forward, and where do you see Jennifer taking things? If you have a comment about her strengths, I’d be interested to hear that, too.

Damo: I think after the Sydney project we definitely got to consolidate and make sure this business is firing really well from both parks’ perspective. And that’s where Jen, and I’ll come around to Jen in a second, she’ll definitely bring some value to that. That’s step one. This surf park game is like North and South Pole, right? One is development and construction and one is the operational side of it, and they don’t play nicely together. They just don’t. I don’t mean people, I just mean the style of Industry. Because your construction project catches a cold, your business gets the flu. It really has an impact. So I think there’s a period of sort of that consolidation. Get everything where it needs to be and then there’s certainly a view to broader growth and where that leads, but that’ll be done in a selective fashion. I think that’s the right way to go while we settle the business down. 

With regards to Jen she comes from a really strong commercial background with a focus on customers, membership, data, segmentation, that type of thing, and that’s where we need to focus. For us there’s an opportunity here, because you are talking to such broad groups of people, to really expand the penetration of our customer experience into the broader market.

You’ve got surfers, ‘tick’, no worries, but an example I would use is do we communicate effectively enough to that culturally and linguistically diverse audience that is multicultural Australia. Probably not yet. And that’s just because we haven’t quite got there yet because we’ve been focused on other priorities and that’s where I think she’s going to bring tremendous value and strength when we’re talking to customers more directly. More uniquely. Where we’re identifying their needs for where they’re from and who they are, and how we talk to them and all those sorts of things. That’ll be a huge focus for us going forward. That’s really exciting to me because she’s just a heavyweight in that space. 

It’s really just refining the operation now. We do it pretty well. Do we do it as best as we could? No, we’re not there yet because they’re still learning, and that’s okay. I have no qualms in saying that. We’ve just got a lot to learn. Now, having a couple of parks in operation, stabilized, with construction risk taken away, provides a platform for that growth to really accelerate. So that’s exciting.

Jess Ponting: So what’s next for you Damo?

Damo: I don’t know yet mate. I don’t know. It’s only because I resigned back in October last year. Simon, our chair, we’re very close, and we went through the trenches five years ago with Melbourne all that sort of thing. I love him to death, I felt so bad. We went out for a few drinks and dinner one night, and I broke the news to him. I had never felt so guilty in my life. I feel like this every time I leave a job. From that point, I was like, right, I’d better think about what’s next for me, but the last six months since that official resignation have been so intense on the Sydney project and the rest of the business that I barely even thought about it. I had a couple of conversations here and there but I also came to the realization that after five years of intense surf park madness, I need to get a bit of clear headspace. I owe the family some time. I want to finish the house renovation project. We want to get back overseas, that’s definitely on the cards. 

My son just started junior high so part of the decision around finishing was getting the family back overseas. We lived overseas for 10 years before URBNSURF and the kids were born overseas. So I said to Sal, my wife, if we’re gonna do it let’s do it now so we don’t interrupt the kids’ high school.

So, yeah, that’s what I’m putting my effort into once I finish at URBNSURF. I think I’ll take a few weeks just to decompress, play a bit of golf, go surf, and then I’ll be on it pretty quick. And everyone’s been saying to me, board members especially, you should be taking a six-month break. But I know there’s no way I could take a six-month break. I’ll lose my mind. I’m too addicted to the challenge and the rush but I do recognize that you’ve got to have a short break. I’m not silly about that. So mate, nothing permanent on the plans yet. I would love to still be involved in the surf park space, whether it be full-time, part-time, or whatever it is, because I do enjoy it and have learned so much, and I think there are a lot of really strong visionary people out there who want to make it fly. And then we’ll just have to wait. Watch this space mate. I’ll certainly be staying in touch, don’t worry.

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