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URBNSURF’s New CEO Shares What Inspires Her About the Surf Park Industry and What’s Next for the Australian Company

URBNSURF is arguably one of the most well-known names in the surf park space. The Melbourne location has attracted surfers from all over the world to check out the Wavegarden-powered swells. The company made headlines when it announced plans for a second location in Sydney. Since then, the organization has navigated the pandemic, supply shortages and hostile weather to complete the second location. 

Now as URBNSURF prepares to officially open its doors in Sydney, a major change is underway as longtime CEO Damon Tudor steps away from the helm and Jennifer Vandekreeke prepares to lead the team into the future of waves outside the ocean.

urbnsurf ceo

Vandekreeke’s background is heavily in hospitality, and she has worked with resorts and cruise lines, but she’s also a surfer. In our conversation, she shares what’s next for URBNSURF as they become the first company to operate two parks, as well as what she finds inspiring about the industry. However, first, she wanted to share some comments about her predecessor:

Jennifer Vandekreeke: There’s one thing I did want to start with because I think it’s really important. I just want to pay respect to Damon. The man is an absolute legend. He’s built this thing literally from the ground up and has done what no one else on the planet has been able to do, build and operate two commercial surf parks. He’s one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet, and they’re really big shoes to step into, and I just want to acknowledge that from the start.

Surf Park Central:  What about the surf park interest piqued your interest in applying for the role of CEO at URBNSURF? 

Jennifer Vandekreeke: So there are a couple of things. First of all, I come from a surfing household. But what truly attracted me to it was really one key thing: there is no blueprint for how to do this. There’s no road map. We can take bits and pieces from other Industries, but what really attracted me to this opportunity was the opportunity to write the playbook. The entire URBNSURF team has already written the playbook on how to build a wave park and how to operate one. I’m just going to add on the piece, which is how we commercialize it. And then we have the entire playbook, right? And that to me, is super exciting.

Surf Park Central: The surf park industry as a whole is still fairly new. Where do you see it going in the next few years?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: I think there’s a lot of experiments going on out there. And what I’m hoping is in the next three to five years, we figure out what the right business model is to make this work. I mean one of the assumptions that we had when the business started was that there were going to be enough ardent surfers that we wouldn’t even have to market the product. That proved to be wrong because trying to live off the hardcore surfers is not a business model that is going to work. So, how do we basically create stoke for all? I don’t know what the right answer is yet, but I’m really excited to find out.

Surf Park Central: As someone who wasn’t recently outside the industry, what are the biggest challenges surf parks face?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: Surfing, in general, needs to broaden the target market. It is an extraordinary experience, and there’s nothing like it in the world, but it has a huge learning curve. It can be really intimidating. What I’ve seen kind of across the board is there are a lot of people who talk about surf parks, and they talk about the expert waves and how they’re going to fly through the air,  and for a lot of human beings, they have no idea what we’re talking about. So, they’re having trouble getting excited about something they don’t fully understand. 

James Miles, who’s on our team, talks a lot about how we’re the perfect product for the ‘I want to surf but’ category. So, how do we get the message out there? And how do we attract that group? Because if we get there and we get them in, and they start consistently catching waves, they’re going to move into the ‘surfing as a part of my life’ category.

Surf Park Central: One of the great benefits of the surf park industry is how it’s diversifying a sport that historically was dominated by wealthier white men. We’re even seeing a change in the industry, with you now at the helm of URBNSURF and Hazel Geary as the CEO of the Wave. Can you talk a little bit about the significance and unique aspects that you bring to the operation of surf parks?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: Women are just as capable as men are at surfing.  However, and I am an example of this, my husband was a massive surfer, so he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to teach you how to surf.’ He’s like, okay, I’ll meet you up past the break. I don’t even know what the break is. I certainly don’t know how to get out there.

I think there’s a difference in the way women approach learning. We see this just as a general thing with girls when they get to be 13 or 14 and they get to this point where they want to be perfect at things. Learning to surf means you just get nailed over and over and over again in a very public space where everybody can see you. 

The great thing about surf parks is we solve that. We create an incredibly safe space for anybody. It’s a very safe space where nobody really cares if I wipe out, and I’m not stealing anybody’s waves. So, what I love about the wave park industry in general and what we’re able to do at URBNSURF is to create an experience that is warm and welcoming.

Also, hair dryers… 

If I go to, say, a climbing gym or a pilates class or a yoga class and I walk into that locker room, I’ve got warm fluffy towels. I’ve got a hair dryer. I’ve got really nice shampoo and conditioner, and it’s a specific kind of experience. That is very important to females. That’s just one area that we need to deliver on.

Surf Park Central: How do you plan to leverage your experience in the cruise and tourism industry to build on URBNSURF’s success?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: If you had a Venn diagram of surfers and a Venn diagram of cruisers, they would not cross over. They are very different groups with different experiences. However, there are some basic rules to hospitality. For example, using somebody’s name makes them get positive chemicals in their brains. The more that we can say ‘Hi, so good to see’ when someone comes in, it helps apply the basics of the customer experience that we’ve learned over time in the hospitality industry. It’s going to make a big difference.

Also, if you take a step back, the basic business of a surf park and the basic business of a cruise ship are actually incredibly similar. You’ve got a very large incredibly expensive asset, whether it’s a cruise ship or a wave park, that costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to build. You’ve got very high staff costs that are fixed because whether you have ten people in the water or 100 people in the water, you still need lifeguards, surf coaches, and people checking people in. It doesn’t matter if you’re full or three-quarters empty. So, how do I get the most people in the park paying the highest price possible? That is the exact same business model for both cruising and surfing.

The other piece is related to revenue opportunities like the cafe, surf academy, and retail store.

Surf Park Central: How do you plan to tap into new markets to bring more people to URBNSURF?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: We have a job to do to get out there and drive awareness that we’re here and that we are a warm and welcoming place for everyone to learn how to surf.

Surf Park Central: What do you see in the future for URBNSURF?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: My focus for the next six to 12 months is 100% going to be on how we commercialize Sydney and Melbourne. I think that we have gone through five very difficult years of building and getting these parks up and running. I wouldn’t say that we’re never going to build another park because we don’t know. Are there other places we think we could put one? Yeah. Can I tell you where they are or when we’re going to pull the trigger? I can’t.

Surf Park Central: Anything else you think is worth sharing about you or URBNSURF?

Jennifer Vandekreeke: I just want to say how impressed I am with this team here. The blend of passion, talent and hustle that has delivered these two parks is nothing I’ve ever seen before. So I’m really excited to see where URBNSURF goes going forward and where the industry goes because we have this golden opportunity that we actually get to make some mistakes and learn from them.  The last five years have been a process of both, and I can’t wait to see what gems we come up with, both URBNSURF but also the entire surf park community.

Vandekreeke officially becomes CEO on May 17. URBNSURF Sydney opens for surfers on May 13.

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