The Wave is the UK’s newest inland surfing destination, located in Bristol. Open since October 2019, it offers the chance to catch the perfect wave every time, while encouraging people to get active outdoors.

Nick Hounsfield is the founder of The Wave. He spoke to Blooloop about his passion for both surfing and health, as well as his unique journey from osteopath to surf park owner. He might have been voted one of the UK’s most disruptive entrepreneurs, but prior to opening the UK’s newest inland surfing destination, Hounsfield’s early career was very different.

Nick Hounsfield and Craig Stoddart, founders of The Wave Bristol surf park

Nick Hounsfield, left, with CEO Craig Stoddart

“I have been a surfer all my life,” he says. “I’ve always been into sport and the outdoors – getting out into nature is something that I have always been passionate about doing. But in terms of my career before The Wave, I studied at the British School of Osteopathy.

“After getting my bachelor’s degree in Osteopathy I went straight into employment in that field. I spent the best part of 18 years as an osteopath, later running my own practice alongside my wife, who is also an osteopath. Then, in 2010, I decided to found this new venture.”

A career change

What triggered Hounsfield to change tack and embark on a project like The Wave?

“In 2010, my dad got cancer, and he died,” says Hounsfield “And it was almost like a last promise to him really, that I was going to do something a bit bold, a bit crazy. I wanted to do something that would be a legacy, though I didn’t know what it would be.”

“It was after about 6 months of working through this grief around losing my father that I started thinking, actually, what is that thing that I want to do? I wanted it to be a project that meant something.

“When I was younger, I always thought I would have a job that involved working outdoors somehow. So I started making this plan around creating an outdoor space or a destination. A place that could deliver health and wellbeing to a wide audience. And I started to look at activities and programmes that we could run in that space.

“One day I stumbled across some video footage of some guys in Spain that were making waves in a lake. That was the moment where I thought, that ticks all the boxes. An inland surfing destination fit my vision of delivering health, wellbeing and education in an amazing space. It has the potential to bring people from different generations together.”

The Wave in Bristol

Once he had hit upon the idea of an inland surf destination, the project began to take shape, in part thanks to the unique city that Hounsfield calls home.

“I just knew that it would go well in Bristol. This city has quite an alternative scene. It is very much steeped in being outdoors, in getting that balance right between work and play. Bristol felt like the perfect place to do it.”

aerial view of surfers at The Wave Bristol, a new inland surfing destination

“So that was the promise at the beginning. And then it was about building on that vision and bringing people together who could help make it a reality. I brought on board a good friend of mine named Craig Stoddart.

“He had all the business acumen to be able to put together the plan and the vision with me. Together we were able to turn it into what it is now, which is a fully-built and functioning inland surfing destination.”

Planning an inland surfing destination

In addition to this, Hounsfield turned to Colliers International, the destination development expert, for market viability and business planning services.

“We were introduced to Colliers by Wavegarden, our technology supplier,” says Hounsfield. “What was clear was that they had the prerequisite skills for this project. They were able to help us build up a list of the functions that needed to be taken into account.”

Pro Surfer at The Wave surf park in Bristol

“They have a really good understanding of destinations across the world and different markets. So they helped us to take the business model that we had made and to start putting evidence behind it.

“What they produced was a detailed piece of work that, almost in its own right, you could put in front of an investor and say that is the case for doing this. We were then able to embed that piece of work within our broader business plan and wrap around it our purpose; who we are, the personality of our team and our brand.

“It became probably the most compelling piece of evidence. It was our key document. Today it is still a really valuable tool in explaining to people the value of The Wave. They did that for Bristol, and they have now also done the market assessments for our London project.”

The Wave and Colliers International

Matthew Hyslop is Associate Director at Colliers International. He explains how the company ended up working with The Wave initially:

“We had worked with Wavegarden before, and they knew that Nick was looking into developing a surf park. Since we were both based in the UK, they put us in touch. It was a nice arrangement because Nick needed help in doing early-stage business planning and thinking through the feasibility of the project.”

surfers in the water at The Wave Bristol

“So we have been involved from early on, initially doing that core feasibility study, helping work up an initial view of what this inland surfing destination project would look like. We looked at things like who it is for, why is there a need, why this location, and how it might perform. Then we built a business case around that.”

A great reception

It’s been a long journey, from the start of the project to the official opening in October 2019. But, Hounsfield says, it has all been worthwhile to see it come together.

“The reception has been incredible. We opened just before winter, in October half term, and then it was really busy right the way through until Christmas. The response was amazing. People are blown away by the fact that we have perfect waves rolling down the lake every time. And the surfers are over the moon too.”

Pupil from Trinity School at the Wave inland surfing destination

“More than that, there’s the refreshments and the atmosphere. People love it. We are delivering this whole experience which people love. Now, people are coming back here just to hang out, whether they are surfing or not.

“It has been a really strong start in the first few months. And it’s only going to get busier. Now we are getting the team ready for spring and summer and we are really excited.”

Hyslop is pleased with the outcome of the project too: “What The Wave has done well is that not only is the quality of the product excellent, with this incredible technology, but they offer this total package.

“They have this broader ethos about healthy living and wellbeing. It’s very current, this trend for active participation, wellbeing and sustainability. And the finish that they put on everything is very high quality. It has this premium feel to it. They’ve committed to it and done it properly.”

Wavegarden surf park technology

The Wave inland surfing destination is powered by Wavegarden Cove technology. Hounsfield says it is this innovative technology that is integral to the surf park’s success:

“The ability to control the waves, having waves at the push of a button is amazing. To be able to completely control the size, the shape, the frequency of the waves and the quality of the waves, that is something that you just can’t do in the ocean.”

Surfer at The Wave Brisol, powered by wavegarden

“We get amazing waves here literally every single day of the year. And in the UK we get really good waves out in the ocean probably only on 30% of days, and perfect waves on only around 15 – 20% of days. So to deliver perfect waves on demand, there is nowhere in nature that offers that.

“On top of that, we have the accessibility factor. People can’t just drop everything and head out to the sea when there are good waves. Especially if they don’t live by the coast. And in winter, it’s hard to carve out times in the working week when you can go out and surf. You have to trek to the beach and wait around for the right waves. It makes it hard to balance family and leisure and work.

“But here, people can come in after work or in their lunch hour. They can fit the surfing around their lifestyle, no matter how busy it is.”

The Wave and wellbeing

It is Hounsfield’s mission to get people enjoying time in nature.

“Surfing is an amazing way of getting people outdoors and into nature,” he says. “They are getting healthier and exercising, without it feeling formal. It is not like going to the gym. It’s a fun activity where you also happen to get fit. And there are so many health benefits of surfing.”

Entrance of The Wave surf park, Bristol

“There is a huge amount of research showing the benefits of ‘blue health’. This looks at how getting in the water and being outdoors is fundamentally good for your mental health, as well as your physical health.

“Of course my background is healthcare, so that is my main driver. Surfing is the tool by which we can start having conversations about health and wellbeing. In a way, I see this almost as a healthcare project. Albeit one that is in a compelling, highly marketable destination.

“We are offering an activity that can help solve some of the issue of stress, or anxiety, or inactivity. I think we can help to improve people’s health and wellbeing through that. In addition to this, we can also then use it as a platform to talk about environmental and social issues too.

“Yes, on the surface this inland surfing destination is a cool place with an eye-catching marketable activity going on. But hopefully, as people scratch the surface and find out more and more of what we are about, they will be able to engage with the deeper meaning too.”

A unique USP

It is this focus on health and wellbeing that Hounsfield believes will be the secret of The Wave’s success.

“That is 100% what makes The Wave different to any other inland surfing destination. For me, it would be great if that was the ethos behind every surf park because it just has so many benefits. It’s a chance to make a change in the community.”

close up of a surf board at The Wave Bristol

“But this USP is not something that we want to keep for ourselves. We’d love to share this approach and get it embedded in the industry.”

“We want to change hearts and minds. I know that we will get large numbers of people who are making a positive impact on their health – both mental and physical. Also, I hope it will be a platform for honest conversations about the world we live in.

“Potentially we can reach hundreds of thousands of people. Our aim is then to replicate this with our London site, which we are starting the planning process for this year. It will have a huge catchment area, and we’ll also be able to reach an international audience there too.

“What we would like to see, realistically, over the next decade is five or six of these sites. They would be in all different places, mainly in Europe. We would develop and run them, delivering this vision to a wide audience.”

The future of the surf park industry

There’s no doubt that the surf park industry is growing rapidly. The sport itself is also gaining more global recognition, thanks to its inclusion at the Olympics for the first time this year in Tokyo.

Around the world, surf parks are being developed to cater for recreational surfers as well as elite athletes, for example, Surf Stadium Japan, BSR Surf Ranch and The LAKE.

Surfing is also part of the retailtainment trend as malls include a surf pool, like Oasis Surf, as a hub for activity, entertainment and related brands. American Dream will include huge surf pool as part of its indoor DreamWorks Water Park.

“Looking beyond the UK and into Europe, and even globally, it’ll be interesting to see where these projects end up,” says Hyslop. “There is scope to be next to cities, to help people who can’t get to the beach, part of mixed-use schemes, or resort-led models with overnight accommodation. We’re seeing it can be warm climate locations or in colder, more seasonal places.”

A growing sector in the UK

“We are at an interesting stage now. There is proof that the model works and the technology works. The Wave is a new high watermark for the surf park industry in the UK. There are a few more projects in development in strategic locations, for example near Edinburgh, and The Wave’s new inland surfing destination in London too.

“But there isn’t the capacity for loads of these types of venues. It’s not something that you can just put into every city, not like a cinema or a bowling alley. They have a regional pull and large catchment areas. It’s more like a snow centre type model, of which there are six or seven around the UK.”

view of the surf lake at The Wave Bristol

“The UK is showing that it is viable to have a surf park in a changeable climate, with year-round operations. When you’re next to a city, there is always an audience. Winter might be harder trading but the weather seems like it’s not as big a factor as you might think.

“We will see other technology providers coming in and offering alternative experiences too as the surf park sector continues to grow. There’s no right and wrong on that, as long as the technology provides a reliable, quality surf experience, with high user capacities at an affordable cost. It has to be investable. ”

The Wave inland surfing destination

Regardless of what the future holds for the surf park scene in general, Hounsfield is confident in the business model behind The Wave:

“We are a triple bottom line business. Yes, we are unashamedly making a profit. But we are also delivering a purpose and a positive social impact, as well as minimising our environmental impact going forward.

Surfer at The Wave, Bristol's inland surfing destination

“For us, that is the key. That is the way to be a successful business in the future. It is important to put some balance between those three things, rather than being purely about the financial bottom line.”