March 25, 2014 – Fortune

Indoor surf parks aim for big money

March 25, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Indoor surf parks aim for big money

Indoor surf parks aim for big money

The CEO of Body Glove is leading the effort to bring surfing indoors — and maybe to a mall near you.

By Shawn Tully, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE — In a lifetime of promoting the sport he loves, Robbie Meistrell has long sought the power swell capable of propelling the laid-back world of surfing into a universal, lucrative phenomenon rivaling golf. Now, he swears, he’s found it: wave-machine generated, mainly indoor surfing, driven by fresh technologies that can replicate six-foot barrels and chest-high mushy waves, in every imaginable, computer-sequenced, ocean-imitating combination, at surf parks the size of football fields. A pair of these emporia will soon open in quintessentially non-beachy locales: in the New Jersey Meadowlands at the forthcoming, gigantic new American Dream mall built by Mall of America developers Triple Five originally; and in snowy mountains of Sochi, Russia, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

 

“This breakthrough in wave machine surfing is what we’ve been waiting for all these years,” says Meistrell. “It could multiply the number of surfers worldwide, and easily multiply the size of the surfing market by a factor 10.” Today’s soccer moms could become tomorrow’s surfing moms, and look for the Olympics in the 2030s to host contests on computer-planned waves, a kind of aquatic, next-gen Super Pipe with surfers in the role of snowboarders.

 

Meistrell is the scion of a surfing business dynasty: In 1953, his father and uncle founded water sports retailer Body Glove, and in the 1960s invented the first practical wetsuit for surfers. Today, Meistrell serves as Body Glove’s CEO, licensing the famous brand name for bathing suits, snorkels, water shoes, and waterproof cell phone cases, as well as those signature, super-stretch form-fitting neoprene huggers that keep surfers toasty in the icy foam. The family’s flagship store, Dive ‘N’ Surf in Redondo Beach, Calif., remains a legendary destination for water sports enthusiasts. Meistrell runs surfing camps for kids, sponsors pro surfing tours and events, and at age 62, still paddles out to catch the curls at L.A.’s Manhattan Beach.

 

Yet Meistrell has faced years of frustration in his campaign to attract hordes of new surfers, and hence build the gigantic market that, he believes, the sport merits. “When you get the feeling of the water moving beneath your feet, there’s nothing on earth like it,” he marvels. “It’s totally addictive.” The rub is that millions of potential surfers live too far from the ocean to experience that magical sensation.
And even on the coasts, kids and neophyte adults shun the sport because once they tote their boards to the beach, the fickle ways of nature furnish waves that are too big, or arrive far too infrequently, for beginners to learn. The weather delays and long waits between rideable waves also soak surfing’s allure as a spectator sport. “You go to Rincon Beach in Santa Barbara,” says Meistrell, “and the surfing is good maybe four or five days a month. In most places, you paddle out and catch two waves in two or three hours. It’s not that surfing is so hard to learn, it isn’t. It’s that it’s so hard to practice.”

 

Another problem is what Meistrell calls a kind of tribal “localism.” “On the good days, hordes of people from all over flood the surfing beaches,” says Meistrell. “The groups of local surfers don’t like it, and don’t want you there.”

 

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Hence, surfing remains a major cultural trendsetter, shaping fashion, music, and lingo. But measured in dollars, it’s a decidedly minor sport. Surfers worldwide spend around $10 billion a year on equipment, camps and lessons — TV revenues and ticket sales are miniscule, by the way — less than one-sixteenth the total sales golfing commands.

 

Today, Meistrell views the innovations in indoor — as well as open-air — surf parks as the game-changer. Surf parks have been around for decades. Their appeal, however, is limited. The big ones typically produce waves at extremely long intervals that severely limit how many surfers they can serve, and hence their revenues. The small ones generate thin swells that move far faster than normal waves, so that denizens need skateboard-sized boards sans fins to ride them.

 

For Meistrell, the breakthrough arrived via the new technologies developed by a surfer-cum-engineer named Bruce McFarland. After receiving a graduate degree in fluid dynamics from the University of California, McFarland worked as an aeronautical engineer at TRW (TRW), then began studying how powerful pumping systems could be used to replicate the process that creates ocean waves in nature. McFarland’s new technology generated its first swells in a tank in his garage at a full three inches in height. In 2000, he founded American Wave Machines, and by the mid-2000s had installed pioneering, outdoor surf parks in Peru and the Caribbean.

 

Intrigued, Meistrell visited the park at the Beaches Resort in Turks and Caicos in 2008 with his two young sons. “We all got completely hooked,” he says, “we were surfing until 9 at night. Our legs were like rubber.” He next recruited two pro surfers, Cheyne Magnusson and Anthony Walsh, to try the installation at the giant Boulevard de Asia shopping complex south of Lima. “I found it appealed to the pros as well, because you can practice so much in a concentrated period,” says Meistrell. “Cheyne and Anthony thought it was a great training device for the legs and the core.” Meistrell was so impressed that he persuaded American Wave Machines to appoint him chairman, a position he still holds.

 

American Wave Machines offers two distinctly different technologies, one for small arenas, the other for super-sized parks. The original system, called SurfStream, creates stationary waves in pools between 12 and 24 feet in width. Hydraulic pumps force thousands of gallons of recirculating water over fiberglass modules to create waves that curl continuously in place, so that surfers can move back and forth across the face of the wave, but now forward. McFarland’s innovation consists of designing a system sufficiently powerful to form the type of thick, standstill, white water swells that attract adventurous surfers in rushing rivers. At these smaller surf parks, folks use regular surfboards with fins, so that the experience is far closer to ocean surfing than the experience at the older wave-making facilities.

 

American Wave provides the equipment, installation, and consulting services to owners who manage the parks. The first indoor facility in the U.S. featuring its technology debuted in late 2013, Surfs Up in Nashua, N.H. Expert surfers can program four-foot barrel waves on an iPad, and mothers bring their 5-year-olds for lessons on one-foot curls. The kids can also try skydiving in the same facility. Today, American Wave has six of the smaller parks in operation and two more under construction, one in South Dakota, and another in Montreal.

 

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The second technology — PerfectSwell — replicates real, traveling ocean waves, and, if it proves as lucrative as Meistrell predicts, will power the giant surf parks of the future. These parks can be over an acre in size, and they’re typically around 160 feet in width. The waves can reach a hurricane-scale eight feet, and they advance the full length of the pool, offering ocean-worthy rides of as long as 20 seconds, breaking when they reach the shallow end, just like the real thing.

 

Here’s how the technology operates. At the deep end are 16 vertical chambers placed at 10-foot intervals, each extending from near the pool floor to above the water level. Powerful commercial blowers push air at high velocity into the top of the chambers. The rushing air forces a piston-like flood of water from the chamber into the pool, producing waves.

 

By altering the timing and sequencing of the water blasts from sixteen chambers, the system can generate a wide variety of sizes and types of waves in rapid sequence, leaving just enough time in-between for customers to paddle out for the next ride. It can produce computer-generated barrels and peeling swells that break either left or right, or “pop up” waves that launch acrobatic surfers skyward. For example, a peeling “big closeout” wave that extends the entire 160-foot width of the pool and travels straight toward the shallow end lasts around 20 seconds, and can accommodate 16 surfers at once. In fact, three big closeout waves can run, one behind the other, at the same time, so that 48 surfers can be riding at any one time.

 

Serving large numbers of surfers, says Meistrell, is what’s needed to make the parks highly profitable. That’s what American Wave provides. These systems are expensive: The SurfStream costs between $4 and $6 million, and the PerfectSwell far more. Meistrell thinks that the smaller SurfStream parks can greatly augment the profitability of struggling retail sporting goods stores. “Brick-and -mortar stores are under pressure from the Internet,” he explains. “Adding a surf park brings in more shoppers. The park should also be highly profitable on its own.” Meistrell reckons that these small parks can attract 50 people at a time who pay $30 each, and catch 25 to 40 waves in an hour session. That formula would generate over $4 million a year in revenue after personnel and power costs, he estimates, allowing owners to pay off the cost of equipment in around 18 months. The numbers could work — it all depends on whether customers find these parks as enticing as Meistrell expects, something we won’t know until potential owners get to review the experience of today’s pioneers.

 

Meistrell views the giant PerfectSwell parks as the perfect complement to the array of attractions at the new generation of mega-parks. “People want the total experience, they want skydiving, indoor skiing, zip lines, mountain wall climbing — and surfing,” he says. “It all works as a package.” The mammoth parks could also make surfing a major spectator sport. Promoters could organize pro events in surfing arenas around the country without worrying about the weather, with contestants matching their skills in similarly challenging runs of cascading surf. The surfing community has been trying to get on the Olympic calendar for years, without success. “In the ocean, the guy who’s lucky enough to catch the biggest wave often wins, even if he’s not the best,” says Meistrell. For the Olympics, he says, all the contestants would face waves or series of waves of similar difficulty. The vagaries of nature that are blocking surfing’s Olympic hopes would vanish. “You would score people on how they handle six-foot barrels or four-foot mushy waves, like the long and short programs in figure skating,” he says.

 

The future of super-sized surf parks will depend heavily on the success of the first two ventures in New Jersey and Russia. The not-yet-opened $3.5 billion American Dream will rank among America’s biggest shopping extravaganzas and offer the kind of total adventure Meistrell advocates. Visitors can experience indoor skiing, indoor skydiving, spin on a giant Ferris wheel offering views of the New York skyline, and catch the curls on their surfboards, all in the same gargantuan complex opposite MetLife Stadium. That’s fast company. If indoor surfing proves a sensation in New Jersey and Sochi, it’s reached the big time. And for surfing everywhere — the stores, the events, the TV sales, and the new parks — that means big money.

 

February 20, 2014- Surfline

AMERICAN WAVE MACHINES BRINGS SURFING INLAND

SurfStream and PerfectSwell are changing perceptions, stoking investors and inviting the whole world to take the ride

By Matt Pruett
Published:February 20, 2014
In case you hadn’t noticed, our global subculture is heading toward a mechanical renaissance — a bona fide robotic revolution in artificial wave technology that lists exotic lands like Malaysia, Dubai and the Basque Country among its conquests. Sunway Lagoon in Kuala Lumpur was hot, for about a minute. Then came the Wadi Adventure Wave Pool in the United Arab Emirates. Then the Wavegarden, Webber Wave Pools…
Here in the U.S., the latest, if not loudest, of the movement’s visionaries is American Wave Machines, who unveiled their SurfStream stationary surfing experience last fall at SkyVenture’s Surf’s Up facility in Nashua, New Hampshire. More info.

While athletes and investors alike were satisfied, if not thrilled, with the initial results, AWM insists the SurfStream is but a smaller-scale project — and in many ways a dynamic precursor to the PerfectSwell surf pool and what they hope will be their ultimate footprint.

“We have a criteria for making artificial waves,” says John Luff, head of Business Development at AWM. “‘What is surfing?’ Well, first off you’ve got to have a surfboard with fins. That was part of the development of SurfStream, a wave that never ends and can be put it in a tennis court-sized swimming pool right in the middle of every major city in the world. In that way, you could take surfing anywhere. That’s what we’re out to do. We want to create a surf culture where surf culture doesn’t exist.”

Ocean City, NJ’s, Rob Kelly who serves as Billabong’s Northeast Marketing Manager, was among the first to guinea pig the SurfStream last fall, and after three invigorating trips to the Granite State has unwittingly become the Surf’s Up mascot. However, recalling past wave tank fiascos (the 1989 ASP Allentown, Pennsylvania, event and the 2008 Ron Jon Surf Park implosion come to mind), Rob was skeptical. And this being the first deepwater artificial wave he’d ever surfed, Rob thought he’d just get pitched. Instead, he got barreled. More on YouTube.

“I didn’t have high expectations. The place wasn’t even finished yet when they invited some East Coast guys — Michael and Ben Powell, Todd Holland — to come test-run it to show off to the investors,” remembers Rob. “They were still sheet-rocking the building and cementing the floor, there were live wires… just super underground. It was the FCS fins that caught my attention. And the setup didn’t look like a FlowRider, where you’re riding the bottom like a skimboard. The best way to explain it is: you’re racing down the line on a wave that’s sucking off a shallow reef, like Uluwatu or Desert Point, so you’ve gotta be cooking the whole time. As soon as you stop moving, you get sucked back toward the barrel. That’s how you stall. You can do turns and airs as long as you’re projecting down the line; you can’t really cut back towards the lip.”

“In [this wave pool], you’re actually riding something that looks like a surfboard, feels like a surfboard, has fins like a surfboard — so it immediately feels more like surfing. You’re not sliding out; you’re actually doing bottom turns, little blow-tail snaps.”
–Cheyne Magnusson

This February, Rob invited fellow New Jersey shredder and gonzo media mogul Ben Graeff of NubTV to join him and document another shred for SkyVenture’s grand opening party, where investors saw their money put to good use. More on YouTube.

“They didn’t have heat that first trip, so we were wearing 4/3s and cold the whole time,” remembers Rob. “This time, the water was 80 degrees, it was 85 degrees in the place. We were in trunks, so that comfort level helped our riding level and we started to realize what was possible — trying out different boards, putting ourselves on different parts of the wave and getting better at riding the barrel.”

Meanwhile, AWM tapped Body Glove teamrider and cross-boarding aficionado Cheyne Magnusson to testride SurfStream installations in Peru and Sweden.

“At the Wave Loch or the WaveHouse, you’re in an inch of water, so the board you’re riding is more similar to a snowboard or skimboard,” says Cheyne. “That’s why those guys are immediately standouts every time. It’s all edge, so a surfer feels like he’s standing on a bar of soap. In the AWM one, you’re actually riding something that looks like a surfboard, feels like a surfboard, has fins like a surfboard — so it immediately feels more like surfing. You’re not sliding out; you’re actually doing bottom turns, little blow-tail snaps. On the wider ones, like Peru, you can snap, pump over to the other side then cut back against the wall. You’re using your normal surfing skills to generate speed to do turns. It’s much easier for a surfer to pick up.”

And if that sounds fun, then get a load of AWM’s next move: PerfectSwell — a digital control system working on exact replications of oceanic wave patterns to produce peeling lefts and rights, all of which can be run from an iPhone or iPad. The technology exists right now. A waist-high version is already operating at water park-size in New York. But the first full-blown dedicated surf pool is currently being constructed in Sochi, Russia, with a future project in the works for the Northeastern U.S.

“Again, ‘What is surfing?'” John proposes. “It’s not a line of people waiting for a single, perfect wave to come by every couple of minutes. It’s the ocean, in either a predictable or unpredictable form. So when we decided to make a surf pool, it was going to look like the ocean, not like a wave pool. We’ve had installations all around the world — Sweden, Turks and Caicos, Peru — and professionals surfing our systems before, so we had a ton of confidence going into it.”

“PerfectSwell, in terms of a surf pool, is the only technology that creates real waves for surfing outside the ocean,” adds Bruce McFarland, President & Founder of American Wave Machines, Inc. “What that means is you’ve got waves breaking constantly in different directions, different sizes, just like you’d see if you were standing on a beach looking at the ocean. It’s the total surf experience: paddling out, positioning, paddling into waves and taking off. You can create an infinite variety, anywhere from one-foot to our biggest system now, which will be delivering seven-and-a-half-foot, barreling waves. That’s kind of like the holy grail of surfing outside the ocean. That’s what everybody’s been waiting for.”

This is an overhead, top-to-bottom tuberide Bruce is talking about here. Too good to be true? Not if the money’s honest. Because the science sure is.

“We had a customer say, ‘I want the biggest in the world,’ ‘I want something new,’ and specifically, ‘I want a rider to be able to get in the barrel and come out,'” says Bruce. “That helped us spec the system for them. We went through our standard internal engineering design process and nailed everything down. We used engineering modeling, calculation, CFD and whatever it took to get this feature, and then committed to the mold. We had all the fiberglass molds procured and made it so that when this thing came online, it was not a prototype. It’s brand-new, shiny and ready to go.”

Still, there’s huge variation because the size of the pool and the waves themselves will be dependent on the customer, their land, their budget and their business plan. AWM is surveying several options: at the smaller end, they might be looking at a 150-foot-wide wave-generating area, a natural-looking pool shape surrounding that, and beach area and entry area to spare — with different wave types going to each area, so shortboarders can shred the middle while SUP’s cruise the sides.

The bigger version, however, could theoretically be as wide as a football field. So one can only imagine how many different peaks might be generated in 300 feet, or peeling waves that are 100 yards long.

“Our goal is to get lots of people in the water,” affirms Bruce. “This system is like a generator line: how much swell do we want to generate and how can we cut those waves up into pieces? It could look like a windswell with peaks shifting all around. It could look like a pointbreak with a wave peeling from one end to the other… We can do all these things. We’ve already got an operational model in the office.”

If it sounds expensive, that’s because it is. Expensive to conceive. Expensive to build. Expensive to maintain. Therefore, on the surface it would seem too expensive for good ol’ Joe Sixpack to afford.

“The business models on these places are extremely profitable and wouldn’t even have to charge a fraction of that number,” says John. “That’s why it will give people that opportunity, because if you put a high cost on it, you’ll block people to a certain degree. One of the biggest advantages with PerfectSwell is it will enable people to get a high-quality surf experience without putting out that much money — $45 will get you about a half-hour. And you’ll probably get more standing time than you would in the ocean over an entire week. It’s continuous surf — no waiting for waves. And it’s already happening with multiple projects worldwide. We’re well on track to have something finished this year. You’ll be seeing PerfectSwell in 2014.”

But for now, the SurfStream is the one that social media conduits are frothing on. And if its rideability remains a question — since all the “classic” wave pools like Typhoon Lagoon tend to be, let’s face it: amusing for rippers, a nightmare for average dudes — Cheyne sets our minds at ease.

“In Peru, a bunch of under-10-year-old kids bought an hour, and I’ve never seen anyone have so much fun,” he says. “What this does is introduces people to the sport without them getting frustrated with waiting around for sets or getting paddled around. In turn, that sparks the curiosity, and they’ll probably want to take it to the next level in the ocean. It’s a great introduction tool for beginners — and a great replacement for intermediate to experts when the waves are flat. And as far as getting a core workout, keeping your surf muscles up and training for stuff you don’t normally get to try each session depending on the waves you get, like airs, there’s literally nothing better.”

“It’s not a game changer as far as replacing surfing,” asserts Rob, “but as far as anything else out there that can be built in a small facility and actually have a good return on investments and be fun for surfers — AWM replicates the experience very well. It would be ideal to chase a swell up to New Hampshire and then when it blows out, go ride the SurfStream instead of going snowboarding or to the skate park. In fact, I think out of all those other sports, this is the most like surfing. As far as barrel riding and pumping down the line, the view and the foamball, it’s actually a really similar feeling…”

“And the barrel never gets old.”