What Can the Hospitality Industry Learn from Surfing?

March 2, 2016


This month celebrates the 6th Australian Open of Surfing, a competition that only seems to be getting bigger. And for a huge number of Australians, it’s not just about watching on TV. The International Surfing Association estimates 3.5 million active surfers in Australia. Even if this is a liberal estimate, it’s an awfully big number.


For most of those millions, surfing is an obsessive pursuit that brings no end of satisfaction, relaxation, and freedom. That’s, of course, when things are going well. Experienced surfers have all seen their share of frustrations and injuries. They’ll tell you surfing isn’t easy, but that’s exactly what drives them to improve. Surfing takes training and commitment. And it teaches you so many things about life. That’s another thing surfers say. It’s a gateway to thinking about the world.


Fortunately for the purposes of this blog, surfing is also a gateway to thinking about the hospitality industry. It’s no stretch of the imagination, either. Various principles of surfing really are useful to hoteliers, property managers, and investors competing in the world of hotels and resorts, such as:


Reading the swells


Good surfers learn to read waves, anticipate swells, and put themselves into position for the best possible ride. Good hoteliers do the same thing, except the waves are business. This is why you make (or find) a comprehensive list of business conferences and other major events coming to your city, and begin (months in advance) to position yourself to catch various waves. You connect with event planners, you design promotions, you hit social media. Woe unto any hotel that waits until the big event is two weeks away, then decides to spring into the action. It’s not going to work. Hoteliers must be masters of positioning.


Of course, this also means keeping up on local, regional and national tourism statistics and trends. How are the demographics changing? Who is traveling more, and what promotions or amenities will they care about? These questions are part of reading the swells.


Looking out for the sharks


As we have seen in the last year, surfing comes with a fair degree of risk and most surfers are only too aware that the preparation for perfect wave includes being aware of possible dangers in the water. Whilst they cannot prepare for every eventuality, they can identify possible issues and understand how best to defend against them. This is risk management at its most elemental and the lesson for hoteliers, whilst not as risk-intense, is that we cannot expect things to go along well just because they always have. Whilst “a rising tide will lift all boats” (and by implication a booming city will lift all occupancy rates), one mark of a good manager is how they plan for and manage risks.


Making adjustments


Surfers don’t quit when they stand up on a wave. The point is to ride as long as possible. This means studying the break and speed of the wave while you’re on it. It means adjusting your footwork and posture and learning how to balance.


Can we relate this to guest reviews? The ability to think fast, make exceptions, and find solutions when problems arise—these qualities are directly related to a hotel’s online reputation via guest reviews. So many damaging reviews come out of a hotel not being willing to make a compromise. Of course, there is a fine line. Hotels can’t have guests walking all over them, either. But if you suspect a guest is unhappy, and might leave damaging public feedback, turning the situation around should be a higher priority than being right. Most guests are very reasonable.


In short, the best surfers have fantastic and purposeful footwork, constantly adjusting to a medium (water) that constantly changes. Hoteliers have a lot to learn from this.




For most Surfers, the sport is not something they forget about when they leave the beach. They study the science behind wave formation. They watch slow motion footage of waves and pro surfers. They watch the Australian Open of Surfing. They study the latest surfboard trends, use their watches to keep time between waves, think about the areas in which they’ve been making mistakes.


You get the picture. In a constant quest for improvement, surfers passionately absorb everything they can about the sport. Hotel managers wanting to exceed (or even match) last year’s sales will benefit from a similar mindset. If a hotel’s management isn’t hungry to change and grow with the market—to discover where business will come from tomorrow and how the industry is changing—then the competition will be glad for it.


The thrill of the ride


So things are going well at your hotel. Profits are moving in the right direction, as is your online reputation. You’ve stayed on top of things. You’ve innovated, studied, and the improvements are tangible. None of this may give you the indescribable feeling of being driven effortlessly forward by a flawless blue wave, but speaking from experience, it can be fairly close. The key, in hospitality as in surfing, is to be passionate about what you do, and always driven to get better. And look out for the next wave.



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