YOU CALL THIS WORK?
IT’S somewhere around 6:30 Saturday morning when Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” warbling peacefully through the Royal Solaris hotel, is suddenly drowned out by the arrival of the boys themselves, a careening speedball of surfboards, flip-flops and board shorts barreling down the hall and into the lobby, a tumult of dirty jokes, rehashed drunken exploits, stickered surfboards, sunburns, high-fives and four-day beards.
The knot of surfers, caps clamped down, bloodshot rime-encrusted eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, untangles in the foyer only long enough to consult tide-tracking watches and count bodies.
Heads nod, a decision is made, and a half-dozen surf dudes tumble out the door into a sun-drenched morning at the tip of the Baja peninsula.
In surfing circles, rising early to catch the break is nothing new, but for this group, it’s the final act of intestinal fortitude at the end of a four-day business-trip-bender that’s seen Sharpie-drawn mustaches, tequila shots administered from the business end of an inflatable billy goat and more than a few deals hammered out around the hotel pool.
This Baja bacchanalia, an annual tradition for 10 years running, comes to us courtesy of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., whose members and invited guests congregated one long weekend last month to spend 56 hours partying like spring-break frat boys where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez.
The Aliso Viejo-based trade organization represents some 300 manufacturers of boards, fins, wetsuits, shorts, sandals, accessories and all manner of surf-flavored apparel and serves as mouthpiece, promoter and educator for a multimillion-dollar industry.
If surfing and big business seem like an oxymoron to you, then get over it. Surf culture’s influence on fashion may have bubbled up innocently enough from the streets of Huntington and the garages of Irvine, but it’s front and center in the malls of Kansas and on the catwalks of Paris. There’s money to be mined in those monster waves, and the stakes are too high, too enticing to leave entirely to chance.
As a result, the Cabo carnival not only adheres to a partying line but also helps its members chart a business course through increasingly perilous waters. It’s critical especially as outside brands, such as Hollister, begin cutting into an annual retail pie of nearly $8 billion (up from $2 billion in 1998) in the U.S. alone.
“Some people network with a glass of wine and standing around in very formal outfits,” says Fernando Aguerre, co-founder of the Reef sandal brand and the man who first hatched the idea of the Baja extravaganza back in 1998. “Our way is going surfing, going to a conference in shorts, shaving with saltwater on our skin and dancing like teenagers.”
Hammering out deals
Chad DiNenna stands in the lobby of the Royal Solaris chatting with friends between seminars. The 36-year-old global marketing director for Encinitas-based Nixon is wearing a pair of camouflage board shorts, a zip-front track jacket, Electric Visual sunglasses and a towel around his neck. He looks like some cross between actor Vincent D'Onofrio and Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” -- and not at all like someone who split $37 million with co-founder Andy Laats last January after the duo sold Nixon, their 9-year-old watch and accessories company, to Australia’s Billabong label.
“Just talking about strippers and drugs,” he jokes. The chuckle of his Cabo comrades escalates into a gale of laughter.
DiNenna, who joined the association’s board a little more than two years ago, admits that the summit is famed for “the good times by the pool and silly things your friends do when too much alcohol gets in there.” But he’ll also tell you that there is more going on here than meets the eye.
“You’ve got the cream of the crop coming down here,” he says. “People who can really make decisions. This morning at 2 a.m. I was sitting out at the pool hammering out a deal with a major retailer, a content provider and Microsoft.” When asked for details, he declines beyond noting it involved Microsoft’s Zune.
This year’s speakers include Stonyfield Farms Chief Executive Gary Hirshberg, lecturing on how to run an environmentally friendly and profitable business, a look at how today’s teens use technology led by MTV Networks’ Gonzalo Perez, and a Q&A; with former pro surfer Michael Tomson, whose Gotcha label -- which crested in the 1980s with worldwide sales hitting $150 million annually before losing its way and eventually filing for bankruptcy in 2002 -- serves as a cautionary tale.
“In past years there would be 50 people in the seminar room and another 100 out at the pool or getting drunk,” association President Dick Baker says. “This year almost all of them are actually in there taking notes.”
One of those quietly seated in the back of the dark auditorium with pen in hand is Richard Woolcott. He’s wearing a pair of camouflage cargo shorts, a black T-shirt and a ball cap pulled down over an unruly mop of hair. A knapsack sits at his feet. All of it bears his company’s Volcom logo.
A few years ago, Wooly (as he’s known to the rest of the surf tribe) was one of the guys getting drunk out at the pool. Today he’s the president and chief executive of a publicly traded company that saw sales of $205.6 million last year, and he owns stock worth close to $538 million.
Apparently, taking notes pays off.
Feel the burn
Time was the trip to Cabo took 22 hours from San Diego in a Jeep crammed with surfboards. Now it’s not unheard of for companies like Reef or Quiksilver to send the team by corporate jet. Considering the serious shift that the surf industry has experienced recently, it is hardly surprising that the summit is seen as a way to reconnect with the things that drew the board-sport barons to the sport in the first place, even if it does include food fights, binge drinking and hard-core hedonism.
“Coming here is humbling and it keeps you grounded,” Woolcott says during a break in the seminars. “We’re out there surfing and living the experience at the same time and that’s important. It reinvigorates us and gets our creative juices flowing.”
Those creative juices may not translate to the cut of a board short or the shape of a board, but the Cabo conclave is a simple reminder that surfers chase waves, throw back margaritas and hang out. When the business is as much selling the sizzle as the steak, it’s important to get to the grill and feel the burn.
The point is to make “the sport and the lifestyle desirable by living it,” one summit veteran says when pressed to rationalize the endless cocktail hours and party-hearty atmosphere. “If we’re just a bunch of posers who really aren’t living the lifestyle, it will filter out intuitively.”
And for the insular surf tribe that knows nothing else, that’s the kiss of death.
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BOOMERS ON BOARD
WHEN the surf-bro vibe and tasty swells simply aren’t enough to sell the surf lifestyle, the savviest surf brands aren’t beyond digging a little deeper than sand and suds to connect with their audience.
That’s the idea behind the QuiksilverEdition Mission, a pop-up community space that the board-sport behemoth hopes will help sell its lifestyle -- and its wares -- to the geezer contingent of guys (sorry) 35 and up.
Opening at 1621 Abbott Kinney Blvd. in Venice earlier this month and continuing only through August, the Mission serves up a range of activities including free silk-screen workshops, yoga classes, classic surf flicks, live music, seminars on solar power and bio-diesel, and neighborhood bicycle tours.
This being a commercial enterprise, the shop also will offer a small selection of QuiksilverEdition shirts, shorts and shoes hanging discreetly in the corner and a computer kiosk to point you to the website. QuiksilverEdition was launched in the late ‘90s to dress a crowd older than Quiksilver’s bread-and-butter board-riding customers; it offers khakis, washed-down sweaters and button-front wovens in more muted tones, accented with signature pops of orange.
“As a company, we already know how to reach the 18- to 25-year-old surfer,” said Joshua Katz, head of communications for Quiksilver. “What we’re not as good at is reaching the 35- and 45-year-old guys.”
Katz’s solution was to create a space that would cater to the interests of the youngest of the baby boom and the oldest of Gen X. It’s a crowd “that’s not just about slamming tequila but learning about the different types of tequila from an expert,” he said.
The tequila tasting and other events, Thursday through Sunday only, are free and open to the public. The only requirement? Attendees must go to the Mission’s website (www.quiksilvereditionmission.org) and RSVP for each event. “The result,” Katz said, “is at the end we’ll have information that will help us better figure out who our customer is.”
-- Adam Tschorn