If you could have your dream job, what would it be? Is it safe to assume it might revolve around surfing? Would you desire it to include heavy doses of travel and adventure, allowing you to surf the world’s best waves in exotic destinations? Would playing a role in helping others realize some of their own dreams help top things off?
Most people never get to live their dreams, because they don’t pursue them. Others, like Bryan Pohlman, do, precisely because they make it a point. His job, as Global Sales Consultant for Waterways Travel, the world’s largest surf travel agency, is a veritable Endless Summer.
In fact, the parallels between Bruce Brown’s iconic surf film, which celebrated the virtues of travel, wonder and discovery by following two surfers–Mike Hynson and Robert August–as they chased summer around the world, and Pohlman’s own life and career, are uncanny.
Pohlman not only spent a significant part of his career shaping boards for August, but also constructing a life to satisfy the deep wanderlust within him and the DNA of pretty much all surfers, that Brown’s film so beautifully conveyed. Indeed, the film’s concept was born at the suggestion of a travel agent who informed Brown that a flight from LA to Cape Town, South Africa and back would cost $50 more than a trip circumnavigating the globe. This inspired Brown’s idea to make the film about chasing summer around the world and to call it Endless Summer.
Pohlman, who began his career with Air New Zealand and also worked for Quiksilver Travel, has surfed in multiple locations around the world this past year alone, all while collecting a paycheck and helping others pursue their own endless summers. I caught up with Bryan to gain some insight about his professional journey, and his current dream job at Waterways.
Tell me a little bit about Waterways, and your own career timeline.
Waterways is the largest surf-travel agency in the world. We’ll be celebrating our 21st anniversary in 2015. I’ve personally been in the travel business since 1996. I started at Air New Zealand and worked there for three years, took a break to be a ghost shaper for Robert August, shaped 600 boards, and then started Quiksilver Travel in 2001. I worked there until 2013, before moving over to Waterways?
How’d you get the job?
I met Sean Murphy, the owner, on a surf trip to remote Panama in 2007. Even though we were competitors at the time, we got along really well. When Quiksilver Travel shut their doors, it seemed natural to transition over to Waterways, since they were the biggest and best at what they do. And I knew that Sean was probably the only guy in this business who I could still learn a lot from.
How great is your job?
I love it. Getting to interact with traveling surfers keeps me stoked. It also keeps me in tune with tour operators all over the world and gives me a unique perspective on global surf patterns. This year alone, I logged tube time in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. Not too bad!
What does a typical day/week look like at Waterways?
Normal office job from 9AM – 5:30PM, but Sean is the best boss ever. He’s always buying lunch for everyone and we’re looking at photos and watching surf contests. Working at Quiksilver for over 10 years was pretty special and had some insane perks, but I think on a day-to-day basis Waterways is a fun place to work because of the people that work here, not to mention our many awesome clients!
Have you always been a frequent traveler?
Always. I’ve been going to Baja since I was 8 years old. I’m just one of those people that sees a map and says, “I have to go there.” So, that’s what I’ve done.
So, you get to travel and surf a lot for work?
Yes, we all get out to R-and-D our surf tours several times each year. I like that part because not only do we get to know our tour operators well and really evaluate their operations, but we also get to meet our clients. I can honestly say that having been in the business for so many years, that most of my best friendships started as client/agent relationships. I love being able to help others fulfill their own dreams. Obviously, I can relate.
Do you get special rates?
We turn down tour operators all the time that want us to come down to their spots. Everyone wants us to check out their tours, because we are the front line of the sales force. So yes, we do get offered lots of free trips, but we don’t expect free trips. We understand that our tour operators need to make a living and we don’t take advantage of them. Plus, I find it’s better to pay, because then you don’t feel obligated to sell a specific resort if they aren’t up to Waterways’ standards. The old saying “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is definitely true in the travel business.
Where all have you been?
(Laughs) a lot of places, and most of them multiple times. Sumatra, Mentawai, Bali, Sumba, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji Islands, Samoa, Hawaiian Islands, Chile, Peru, Panama (Pacific and Caribbean), Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mainland Mexico and the Dominican Republic .
What’s your favorite destination?
I’ve learned that every destination is unique and different in its own way. But my favorite wave in the world is probably Macaronis.
Some have said that travel is increasingly become a luxury item, a privilege enjoyed primarily by the wealthy. Would you say this is true?
I definitely think having a discretionary income to travel is a luxury. Of course, a lot of surfers travel while they are young and before they have families. And if you’re smart, you can get great value on a surf trip.
Who are your primary customers? Do you work with traveling pros at all?
Here at Waterways, we’ve been in business since 1994, so most of our customers come back every year or every other year to book their surf trips. I don’t have any official stats, but I think an average age of about 35-45 year old men, some traveling with their non-surfing companions, make up the bulk of our customers. We work with pro surfers and photographers on a regular basis, because many of our destinations offer world-class waves with the best accommodations possible.
Did the recession impact your business significantly, as it did so many others? If so, how did you weather the storm and are you seeing continuing improvement?
Yes, things slowed down some for a while, but we are back on track. Waterways is a niche business with a great reputation and track record. We’ve always offered great prices and work with the best surf tour operators in the world. When you’re the best at what you do, people will buy your products in good times, or bad.
What are some tips for cost-effective surf travel?
Well, if you have more time than money, you can just go with the flow and show up places. You can meet local surfers and do things on the cheap. But most of our clients can’t leave work and family behind for a month at a time. Most are traveling for 7-14 days. When you have only a few days, you can’t take 3-4 days getting settled in. You need to hit the ground running and be connected with someone who can take care of the other little things like food, transportation and lodging logistics, so you can forget all that, relax and go surfing. That’s what you’re there for and that’s our specialty at Waterways–maximizing the value of your time.
These days, people are increasingly placing value upon “experiences” over “things.” People have realized that you can lose “things” (like homes) and are realizing that these kinds of material possessions can be fleeting or lose their value, whereas experiences last forever. And of course, experiences help shape our identities and define who we are. Have you seen evidence of this in your job?
Absolutely! As a group, surfers have always placed a high value on experience. That’s what surfing really is… it’s an experience. And no one can ever take that away from you. At the same time, you can’t take a wave home with you after you ride it. It’s gone and that particular experience is over until you paddle back out for another one.
I’ve done a great deal of surf-traveling myself and know that sometimes, things can go wrong. Have you seen much of this in your career?
Things can go wrong on any trip, but for some reason, we love to talk about the worst surf travel experiences in our surf media. I don’t know if it’s a “badge of honor” or if people just love to hear stories about trips gone awry, but my motto is, “Expect the best, be prepared for the worst and the trip will probably fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.”
What are some of the trickiest situations you’ve had to deal with?
As an agent, we deal with al sorts of issues from airlines losing bags to guys getting injured and needing to be evacuated, but cancelled flights are one of the biggest headaches for travelers and agents alike. As a surf traveler, I’ve fended off crackheads, walked through knee-deep mud to find waves, super glued my cuts and had to figure out foreign lineups all alone on some really sketchy days.
For readers, of the places you’ve been or promote, where are some of the best destinations for each of the following:
Nothing but hardcore surfing:
Sumatra, Salina Cruz, El Salvador and G-land
Samoa, Galapagos, Mozambique, Dominican Republic
Namotu, Matanivusi, Chaaya Island and Nemberala Beach Resort
Tavarua, Waidroka, J-Bay, Bocas Del Toro
Best with an unlimited budget:
Kandui Villas, Chaaya Island, Macaronis Surf Resorts
Best on a tight budget:
Peru, Mexico, Dominican Republic, G-Land, El Salvador
So, do you need some help setting up an East Coast office, so that we can get folks off to the Caribbean, Nazare, Mullaghmore, Mundaka, The Canary Islands and J-Bay most efficiently (hint hint)?
Ha Ha! Maybe some day. But not now.
Ok, well at least there’s still hope!
Where are you personally headed next?
This year, I was in Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, the Maldives and the Dominican Republic. Next up is Teahupoo, Tahiti in March… nothing booked beyond that.
Any words of wisdom for those wishing to pursue their dream of a career like yours?
You know, the travel industry has changed so much since I began in 1996 that it’s hard for me to give advice to newcomers. I’d just say that if you want to travel the world, do it any way you possibly can, whether that is being a travel agent, chef, boatman or a teacher. Experiencing different cultures and getting to know people that come from completely different backgrounds is truly a priceless, life changing and enlightening experience that will forever shape how you view others and the world around you.
When you hear Kelly Slater talk about his life, he doesn’t brag on world titles. He talks about being a citizen of the world and how many wonderfully diverse friends he has who have taught him valuable life lessons and provided him with differing perspectives… This is because he has been traveling the globe for the past 30 years. The fact he’s the best surfer who ever lived is just a bonus for the rest of us.