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Sand.ee wants to be the Yelp of beaches

Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach’s Main Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In terms of summer hot takes, the question “What is a sandwich?” may get peripatetic foodies up in arms. (In case you were wondering, burgers and hot dogs are most definitely not.) An equally valid query might be: What defines a beach?

Does it have to be on an ocean? Is a sandy shore on a lake a beach? What about a peaceful riverbank?

For Sand.ee, a new site dedicated to cataloging and rating every beach in the world, the answer is: all of the above. Its goal is to help users find the right beach — no matter their definition of the word. Its growing database includes more than 50,000 beaches in 178 countries and territories around the world, says founder Randall Kaplan.

Kaplan, a serial entrepreneur who also co-founded Akamai Technologies Inc. and is the chief executive officer of venture capital firm Jump Investors, says he got the idea for Sand.ee about six years ago in Mykonos while trying to find a black sand beach. In an attempt to help, his hotel concierge took out a paper map and circled an unidentified place with a black Sharpie, sending Kaplan out on a chaotic pursuit along back roads with no cell service. He eventually found a pristine, private beach after hours of searching.

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“I thought there just has to be a better way,” he says. “There was no definitive source where people could find information on every beach in the world.”

Several million dollars of his own money later, with the help of consultants — some 75,000 man hours, Kaplan estimates — and surveys of more than 10,000 people, Sandee LLC was born. The company plans to raise its first round of outside capital later this year. A Kickstarter campaign (with promotional video) in late 2016 raised $35,008 from 57 backers, followed by an additional $33,285 in related donations, says Kaplan.

Right now, the website is in a “soft-launch” stage and is seeking additional photos and recommendations from users. Although the site is comparable to TripAdvisor and Yelp, which also list user-submitted reviews and content on beaches, Kaplan emphasizes that what sets it apart is its specific focus.

“We love those websites,” Kaplan says. “But they’re not known as beach websites. We’re doing one thing and one thing only: beaches.”

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Elizabeth Monahan, communications manager for TripAdvisor, says the travel site does feature an annual list of favorite beaches around the world based on the quality and quantity of traveler reviews and ratings over the previous 12 months. She declined to comment specifically on Sand.ee. Yelp also declined to comment for this article.

Anybody can search for a beach by name or location from the Sand.ee homepage, although users who want to sift beaches by their amenities or post photos or reviews must create an account and log in to use the “Explore” feature. Early tests raise some functionality issues. For instance, a beach that doesn’t have a photo in the database might appear as a result, but users can’t click into its entry; users with accounts can search for the nearest beach, but they can’t search or sort for sand quality.

Moreover, the geo-locating isn’t always accurate: a search for “New York City” or “New York, NY” returns nothing, but a search for “Rockaway Peninsula, Queens” returns Rockaway Beach, a stretch of sand within the city limits and accessible by subway; the first search ideally would return what the latter did. Further searches for “Fort Tilden” and “Jacob Riis,” — two separate, supremely popular beaches near Rockaway — failed to surface either one. As each has a very different scene and vibe, they’re potentially a perfect use case for Sand.ee’s database.

Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, a coastal scientist and professor at Florida International University who early on met with Kaplan to discuss a partnership, cautions about the site’s lack of data on safety: “I can’t recommend a beach without noting the safety.” His own 50-point list includes water cleanliness, wind speed, smell, and wildlife. (Kaplan says Sand.ee does currently feature information about shark attacks, jellyfish, rip currents, and riptides, although not in a prominent or searchable fashion.)

Strauss Zelnick, founder of private equity firm Zelnick Media Capital and a friend of Kaplan, is more sanguine. He says Sand.ee fits in well with the trend of travelers wanting to do extensive planning before a trip. “We don’t do much of anything without researching it online first,” he says. “The consumer likes to be educated.”

To identify the beach boundaries, the Sand.ee team consults satellite images, local city and county governments, latitude and longitude coordinates, blogs, websites, and even Wikipedia. It has identified about 2,300 destination-marketing organizations that specialize in promoting beaches along the way.

Kaplan says that in 98% of the cases, it’s clearly defined where a beach begins and ends. “In circumstances where it’s hard to tell, we would rather err on the side of including versus not including.”

Once identified, beach entries are given written descriptions and essential details such as whether it’s public or private, the current weather, contact info, hours, and the color, size and texture of the sand. There is also a sortable checklist of 94 data points that catalog amenities (including lifeguards, fire pits, party scene, showers, Wi-Fi, whether dogs are allowed), activities (bike paths, fishing, ATV, jet skiing, etc.), chair or umbrella rentals, food, transport options and accessibility.

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To find cover photos for all of its beaches, in addition to user submissions, the Sand.ee team has been soliciting photographers to get free rights with credit. “Many take amazing beach photos that are sitting on a laptop — people would rather see their work online somewhere,” says Kaplan, noting that one photographer has contributed more than 1,800 drone photos.

Sand.ee’s revenue model includes sponsorship deals with the website, which it will seek from hotel chains, airlines and beach brands, as well as advertising opportunities for individual beaches. The site also plans to license its property data and photos to destination marketing organizations and local tour operators. Kaplan is planning to start work on an app in three to four months.


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