Interview: Bob Hurley On The Australian Open Of Surfing
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Bob Hurley is the man behind skate-surf-lifestyle brand Hurley International (the inspiration behind Weezer's last record). He's also the guy who took a little Australian surf brand named Billabong to the U.S. and made it one of the most visible brands in surfing with top pros like Taj Burrows, Joel Parkinson, Jack Freestone, and the late Andy Irons wearing the ubiquitous Billabong waves plastered on their boards and trunks. Bob is also heavily involved with ASP Prime event the U.S. Open of Surfing a week long comp that also features skate events, art and live music. This year Bob is bringing the Open down under, with the first ever Australian Open of Surfing. The event will be held at Manly Beach, NSW, and kicks off from 11-19 February.
With a handful of talent from the lineup having just been announced, we thought it was timely to post the chat we had with Bob when the event was launched by he and Billabong CEO, Derek O'Neil, in June last year. Bob's absolute passion for the world his industry exists in, and his super-friendly Californian vibes made him one of the nicest guys we've ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Here's our (slightly outdated) chat about Australian surfing, the big brand phenomenon, what to expect at the Aus Open and Mr Kelly 'Eleven' Slater...
PEDESTRIAN: Bob, tell me why you choose Manly of all the Australian beaches. BOB HURLEY: It is very significant because 1. it is arguably the home of modern day surfing. So from the early 1900s from Manly to Freshwater, Australian's have led the way in surfing pretty much since then. You have big famous brands like Rip Curl, Quicksilver and Billabong coming from Australia. A lot of the top athletes are from Australia and it seem fitting for this type of event we needed a stadium like atmosphere with a beach and metropolitan area. As you look around there are a lot of great beaches, so when you say 'hey what about Manly, the home of modern aero surfing?' it just makes a lot of sense.
I think Manly has an authentic 'surf community' feel - is that something you also want to capture? The council is willing and excited to work with us as well, which isn't always the case. We found at Huntington Beach [where the U.S. Open is held] the police, the lifeguards and all the local business' we were able to do something wonderful. Manly is already there and willing to embrace this event, and we can do something amazing. It will generate a lot of income and excitement. A good positive outcome.
In terms of competitors when do you figure out who is coming along? So what happens is, that will not be known until the start of the event. It is 6 star rated, which under the One World rating system is pretty important. It's not mandatory for all the top guys to go there, but it is close. The likelihood of guys not turning up there is pretty low. Especially considering there is the Quicksilver event right before it in Australia [Breaka Burleigh Pro in Burleigh Heads]. Surfers will want to come for many reasons: for entertaining the crowd, with points and satisfying your sponsor, but just the sheer thrill of an athlete performing in front of a big crowd.
From the feedback you have heard about the U.S. Open, is it a comp they really like competing in? They do. Our team went to great lengths to really take care of the athletes, and treat them very special. Because they are! Up until the U.S. Open in Huntington they hadn't really been treated that special. They didn't necessarily have basic amenities - like their own separate bathrooms or private areas to stretch in. So in Huntington we provided a concierge service for them and their family. Need tickets to Disneyland? Need to change your plane ticket? You need dinner reservations? Or if you need vanilla ice cream at 2 in the morning, we have you covered. We really went out of the way to create an amazing experience for them. Which in turn created an amazing experience for the spectators - everyone was happy and energetic. We hope to do the same in Manly. We have a bit of a reputation now for upping the ante on how to treat the athletes. Thankfully, now other companies are doing the same which is really great for the sport and great for the athletes.
Treat others as you would want to be treated? Well it is a golden rule. It's kinda what I believe in business is most successful. If I was at that high of a skill level [as the World Tour competitors], I would expect some sort of assistance or security taking me down to the beach so I didn't get mobbed. Or somebody helping me out with whatever. I think it's important. We got personally engraved laptops and iPads for these guys, they come custom with their names on it. We give them free gifts and a surfboard in their room. All this stuff you would expect to get as a celebrity. Until Huntington that hadn't been happening.
I guess Kelly Slater has done a lot for creating that - for creating the 'surfer as celebrity' image - just for having been around for such a long time, and for being such a champion. Do you think Kelly Slater is good or bad for surf business? You know I think he is, he is really good at business and I think he is really good at surfing obviously. He is very smart. He knows what is important to his sponsor and his sport. He is amazing.
Who else really gets the business, sponsorship side of that world? Honestly, in this newer era of stadium-like events, Mick Fanning has been instrumental. He has a good relationship with Pat O'Connell who is our head of sport marketing, and Pat called up Mick and said "hey I wanna pick your brain on this. I would like to get all the top athletes to come to Huntington beach. They never have. What can we do? How do we do it?" Mick said "I'm going to help you do it". We got almost everybody [on the tour] to show up first year and second year. It was a pretty big deal. Mick recognised the value [for the sport] of having an adoring public.
Was Mick pretty keen in getting the comp brought to Australia? He was at the event launch. We had surfers there today that don't represent Billabong or Hurley. And the reason is they are vital athletes to the sport. That is what we care about. [The major event sponsors Hurley and Billabong] just assume because we participate we will do well out of it as well. It's not a strong business plan, it will be amazing for everyone, including us.
Australian Open Of Surfing event trailer:
Hurley and Billabong have a long interesting relationship. What is the relationship like? Is there a big brother-little brother relationship between the brands? No I don't think so. Derek who runs Billabong, we were both running certain regions at Billabong at the same time. From the mid '80s to the late '90s. We have always had a good relationship. We have always thought similar things about similar situations. Since we started Hurley I have kept a pretty reasonable dialogue going with Derek because he is a good friend. We have pretty similar jobs. We talk about jobs, family and all that kind of stuff. We always had a passion for surfing. We always try to figure out ... you know... as the founder of Billabong he has a strong passion for surfing and elevating it. So were always thinking what we can do together. We want to participate with folks who are like-minded. If we can do something great for the sport, lets do it. It was very natural to do something with Billabong through Derek, who told me many times he wanted to do something in Sydney. Then the opportunity just came up. So we said why not! It's a bit unorthodox, which I like about it.
I think that's great. Its not about being competitive brands in the same market, it's about doing something positive for the sport. Hey, were still going to try and make a better product than they do, and they're still going to make a product than we do. And that's going to make everything better for everyone - the consumer included.
Hey Bob, Nike 6.0 has come into the market with a vengeance, they have just taken over as the major sponsor of the U.S. Open. It feels like Nike is a company with so much cash and resources behind it that it's easy to push through other brands that have been around forever. What are your thoughts on that? Each division in Nike, whether it is Hurley or Nike 6.0 or Converse, each have their own operating budgets. There is no extra pool of cash to invest or spend. We are all accountable for our results and our brand. Three years ago we invited Nike 6.0 and Converse to participate with us in the U.S. open. It's been tremendous. Actually, the primary title of the U.S. Open in Huntington Beach this year  is "the U.S. Open featured by Converse, Hurley and Nike 6.0". Some folks imagine Nike would just spend money to get into a space. That doesn't really happen. It's just every business has their own PNL that they're accountable for and their own marketing dollars. There is never some pool to use for taking over a market. The consistent encouragement I get from all the folks at Nike is that they create an amazing experience for consumers, create incredible products that are informed and inspired by athletes. It's not always to be bigger but to be better.
That's really interesting to hear. From the outside it's easy to make assumptions about how the business operates. You would expect that right? Maybe 10 years ago, someone from Nike would say "here is $10 million extra dollars go do something". But realistically that doesn't happen.
So with the Australian Open what is on offer to people apart from the surfing? Well there is skateboarding, art and music. We are working with Manly City Council and Arts NSW. We will involve the local art community. And hopefully some musical acts of a high level. Hopefully it will be a create experience. You know the Weezer concert in Huntington beach last summer was the largest free concert in America. Nearly 15,000 people there. It was pretty epic.
Any chance Weezer is coming down? I don't really know yet, what the musical plans are. We like to continue to raise the bar on that.
Weezer perform "Say It Ain't So" in Huntington Beach, 2010
Let me quickly mention Kelly. You just can't write him off can you? [ laughs] A lot of folks have an athletic gift, he seems to have the mental one as well. Its hard, then you throw in the discipline. I don't know anyone more disciplined than him. He is a better surfer now than he was 6 years ago... It's astounding really. It's very unusual. You'd think at some point you could just chill out and eat a hamburger. But nope.
Well we're really looking forward to the Open. Hopefully we'll see some good swell. I hope it's delightful.
The lineup includes:
Men's surfing: Taj Burrows, Joel Parkinson, Adrian Buchan, Jordy Smith, Jack Freestone, Brett Simpson, as well as a heap more - plus Occy is coming out of retirement especially for the event.
Women's surfing: No.2 Sally Fitzgibbons, world No.4 Tyler Wright and the majority of the women's surfing tour
Skateboarding: Bucky Lasek, Bob Burnquist, Curren Caples, Jack Fardell, Grant Taylor, Rune Glifberg, and a bunch more.
For all the information on the Australian Open head to the website or the event Facebook page.
Title Image Provided by Bob Hurley