I hate crowds, which is one reason I love my little paradise in Nicaragua. But, in order to spend as much time as possible enjoying my uncrowded slice of heaven, I need to figure out a way to make some money down there. The easiest way to do that is via surf tourism, but that means bringing more people to paradise, which they of course fall in love with, go home to tell friends how awesome it is, which brings more people, and all of a sudden that uncrowded paradise has become something quite the opposite. I suppose it is somewhat inevitable. Secret spots only stay that way for so long. The whole business of surfing is full of these types of conundrums. Surf brands want to keep their core image but sell it to the mainstream. It’s a tricky thing and some amount of compromise in personal philosophy is often necessary.
I had been planning to open a women’s surf and yoga retreat in Nicaragua for a while. In November of 2009 I took the first steps to make it happen and started actively seeking a location. Unfortunately all the places I looked at were lacking something; size, quality, or affordability. I then heard a rumor that some guy (we’ll call him Surf Camp Guy) was coming to Nicaragua to open not one but three new surf camps in 2010. My boyfriend – the soul surfer, never stayed at a surf camp, totally against organized surfing of any kind – was incredibly worried. Surf Camp Guy already owns camps in Baja, Mainland Mexico, and El Salvador, all places my boyfriend has been and loved. We couldn’t believe he was now preparing to take what we see as his packaged exploitation to our Nicaraguan paradise too.
By chance, Surf Camp Guy’s grandson is a kid at my local beach that I’ve watched learn to surf over the years from when he was just 13 years old. He’s now 19 and doing airs and getting tubed. Grandson’s Dad (Surf Camp Guy’s son) is an acquaintance who I’ve met at the beach while he was taking photos of Grandson. The two of them put me in touch with Surf Camp Guy and my goal was nothing more than to figure out what he was up to and where he planned to put his camps so that I could report back to my boyfriend Ryan and our other friends in Nicaragua. When I called him he told me all sorts of things among them that he was planning to focus on women and yoga. “But that’s what I’m doing,” I thought!
I realized that I had three options.
1. Be really angry and worried about Surf Camp Guy’s new camp and spend a lot of time hoping he is not successful (the option my boyfriend and some of our friends in Nicaragua have chosen).
2. Set up a camp down the street and directly compete with him.
3. Figure out a way to work together to minimize the impact on the surfing population.
By this time I had a friend (Cathy Young from the Wahine Kai surf club) wanting to come down the first week of April with a group of girls. She wanted to stay with me but I didn’t have a place to host them yet. Surf Camp Guy’s camp would solve that problem. I also reasoned that if he was going to set up a camp regardless, the more weeks I could fill it with ladies, the fewer weeks it would be filled with dudes.
I drove down to meet Surf Camp Guy at his house in San Diego to work out the details. He seemed very nice and energetic. He talked about hiring from the local community, paying them well, and making sure all the guests were totally stoked. I left the meeting feeling good about the potential partnership and even gave him a hug. We agreed that I would bring my guests to his camp for one week in April to test it out and if things went well, I would use his camp for my retreats for the rest of the year.
The first sign of problems came when he suggested running an ad with me on Surfline. He thought I would be stoked, but I wasn’t. I wanted the retreats to be advertised through grassroots, word of mouth style methods not only to avoid exploitation of the area but also because I only want to do a few retreat weeks this year since I’m still busy traveling as a pro surfer. Aside from that, I thought that using my image linked to his website would have the side effect of attracting attention to his other camps as well, which of course I wasn’t into. We had our first disagreement.
The first week of April arrived along with 10 guests. The house was barely ready, but the girls had paid a cheaper introductory rate and all had great attitudes, so things went well. There were a few issues, but they were minor, and we had an amazing time!
I thought it went so well that as long as we could improve upon a few little things, I would end up partnering with Surf Camp Guy into the future. A few weeks after the retreat I heard that Surf Camp Guy’s son and another friend from my hometown, were going to be coming in as partners. I was even more encouraged that my partnership would be successful. I figured that since friends from home were getting involved it would further water down the issues I had with Surf Camp Guy. They came down to Nicaragua via a road trip from El Salvador. I realized I might be wrong when I saw a facebook post by Surf Camp Guy’s son saying something like, “just arrived in Nicaragua, can’t wait to take a bunch of photos to sell the hell out of it.” Those weren’t the exact words, but it was something really close to that. I got a little worried. We met for cocktails to discuss some of the issues and Surf Camp Guy’s son was telling me about El Salvador.
“There are so many sick waves,” he said, “we passed a bunch of secret spots. You would love it! You really need to go check it out. I got a bunch of photos and we’re going to take guests there.”
Hang on a second! That’s the whole problem! First you tell me about all these killer secret spots, then you think I’m going to be stoked on you exploiting them and taking a bunch of guests there? I guess I was wrong to think the son would be different than the father.
In order to partner with Surf Camp Guy, his son had quit his corporate job. He updated his facebook status with something like, “goodbye corporate world, I’m going surfing”. To me it seemed like he was just bringing the corporate world to surfing. I tried to explain to them my issues with Surf Camp Guy and his exploitation of a place that I love. I told them that I’m not against surf camps. There are plenty of people that travel somewhere, fall in love with the place, and need to figure out a way to make a living so they open a surf camp. I have no issues with that. I told them that I thought there was a right way to do it to allow it to grow slowly, to provide a service for surf tourists without totally whoring the place out. They seemed to agree. I figured that by me working with them that I could help steer them in the right direction and keep things as mellow as possible.
Finally, I came home from nearly three months in Nicaragua and went to a meeting with Surf Camp Guy’s son and his friend in their brand new office walking distance to my Redondo Beach apartment. I was excited to meet with them, discuss a few things, and plan out how we would run our retreats over the next year. In order to make the retreats financially worthwhile to both the company and I, while making them high class, all-inclusive experiences, we had to raise the price quite a bit. We didn’t come to an agreement on price until the very end of May and by then most of the ladies in my target market had already made their summer plans, so one month out, I had only received a deposit from one lady for our planned retreat week in mid July. The main purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to handle that. Before we even got to that topic, Surf Camp Guy’s son updated me on some of the things they were doing. He showed me the new website that will be launching soon. As promised it showed a focus towards eco-tours, learn to surf, go with a pro, etc. which eased my mind a little bit. It wasn’t just pure surf exploitation. He said they had just added a surf camp in Puerto Rico – at least the exploitation would be spread out. I started thinking maybe they weren’t that bad and everything would be fine.
Then he tells me he had a meeting at a huge surf brand, trying to talk them into bringing their team down to do tow-in training.
**insert scratching record sound**
I instantly got a sick feeling in my stomach. It’s the same feeling I got when they told me about all the secret spots they were going to exploit in El Salvador. I stood up and walked out of the meeting. They don’t get it. They look at cool mellow surf spots and all they see is dollar signs. They tried to tell me that they are collecting a bunch of baseball equipment to bring down to the local kids. That’s great, but that doesn’t make the rest of it ok. They tell me that there are already a bunch of camps down there so it doesn’t matter. Once again I disagree. Almost every other camp in that area is owned by someone who fell in love with the place, lives down there, helps the community around them because they love that community, not just so they can claim good deeds on their website to attract more guests.
We all make choices with our purchases. We have the opportunity to take our philosophies to the level of action when we choose which companies and products to support with our hard earned money, whether it’s shopping at a farmer’s market, boycotting BP, or choosing which surf camp to visit. I still haven’t found the perfect place to setup my retreats, but I am committed to partnering with someone whose philosophy I agree with, who loves the place, gives back to the community, and I can feel good about supporting. I have a few meetings scheduled with those sorts of people when I get back to Nicaragua in July and am looking forward to moving past this and getting some new retreats set up for the fall.