Settled on the California coast in Pacifica and Malibu, Traveler Surf Club & Coastal Outpost is a true gift for water lovers who enjoy playing in the Pacific. With ocean temperatures at 64 degrees Fahrenheit on a warm day and down to 50 during the winter, Traveler provides a place for much-appreciated hot showers after a chilly dip. It also offers surfboard storage, wetsuit drying stations, boutique retail items, and—arguably most importantly—a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive culture for its communities.
The surf club’s founders Julie Cox and Rel Lavizzo-Mourey are partners in business and in life. Cox is a former pro surfer who has a passion for creating inclusive spaces and saw a vibrant niché marketing opportunity within surfing. Lavizzo-Mourey is a clothing designer with an expert eye for interior design and curation plus a passion for supporting local makers and artists. They got married in 2015, and Traveler has become their baby.
Fast forward to 2020, when every small business has struggled, Traveler is no exception to experiencing hardship. However, they realized that they had unknowingly created a business model that actually works for social distancing and staying safe during a pandemic.
We talked to them about how they’re not only keeping their doors open but even growing and able to give back to the community during a global pandemic, beach closures, an unprecedented fire season, earthquakes, and every other obstacle that’s come their way in 2020.
How did Traveler come to be?
Rel: Traveler was born from this idea that anyone could have their own little beach house. In the United States this was a novel idea, but there are tons of surf clubs in Asia and other parts of the world.
Julie: The surf club idea came out of wanting to build a stronger community in a cold-water area [like Pacifica]. I would surf and then drive home in my wetsuit, freezing cold, to jump into my hot shower. So I figured if I wanted a hot shower by the beach, there should be other folks that would want that too. And I missed hanging out on the beach and staying around the ocean for a longer period of time after I got out of the water, which I grew up doing here in the Malibu area.
Rel: In the beginning, it was a challenge to get people to walk through the doors and take a chance on the concept. Today, we have members who tell us they were really skeptical—they just didn’t see the point of paying for a surf club membership when surfing is free.
I think people had an aha moment when they stepped into the surf club’s backyard and took a hot shower or sat down on this heated bench right after they were in that cold water. It’s a really unique experience where you can warm up and relax after your surf. It’s also a place for people to connect, in and out of the water.
“This place is awesome! The perfect boutique surf shop along with a lot of functionality. I mean, it has a big heated bench to warm your bum after freezing it in the Pacific. That’s cool.”– Emily J. on Yelp
Are there similarities between surfing and owning a small business?
Julie: Absolutely. Everything about wanting to become a surfer and an entrepreneur are big risks. You’re committing to, “Okay, I’m going to get a board and a wetsuit.” And, “Okay, we’re going to look for a space and write a business plan.”
Suiting up and paddling out that first time is so intimidating. You’ll fall off your board and be embarrassed or afraid of a wave or the crowd or if you’re going to get yelled at. It’s the same with our business. We wonder, “Are the neighbors going to like us? Are we going to get bullied, or are we going to fit into this community?” Slowly, it becomes more comfortable, and you ride some great waves.
Rel: There are highs and lows in a wave cycle. And this year alone, talk about the choppiest storm ever. It’s pretty crazy. But you learn—you learn to read the waves and judge them better. You are more aware of everything around you, safety, how to take precautions—that’s all part of surfing and running a business.
Julie: There are so many parallels and constant challenges in surfing and running a business. In both, there’s no crossing the finish line. It’s a constant cycle. You can have a great sales year or day, and then things can fall apart. With surfing, you have to pay your dues and learn the ocean. In both, it’s about learning, and being graceful and humble.
How has Traveler gone beyond just being a business and also created a community?
Rel: I think to understand how Traveler is offering something new and refreshing within surfing, it helps to consider mainstream surf culture. Julie used to be a director at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, so she knows a ton about surf culture.
Julie: Yeah, there’s so much. Men and women have been surfing together forever but in the eighties, it became more male dominated, and a lot of the products are male-specific. Magazines rarely have photos of women, and when they do, they are sexualized images in ads and stuff. It just doesn’t make you feel great when you’re a surfer who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of a straight, white male. I think it’s come a long way but there can still be aggression in the water from locals who think they can direct how to experience the ocean.
At Traveler, we hope to inspire people from all walks of life to feel like they have a home and a future in surfing. Our mission is to celebrate diversity and be an inclusive space. We want people to see that there’s a bigger, broader surf and outdoor community out there. We hope we’re reflecting the diversity of our community on our social media and in the staff we choose to hire. We want to be a hub for new ideas.
Rel: There’s a collective of black and brown women surfers who came together because they wanted to increase visibility for themselves in the sport. They’re a cool organization called Textured Waves, and we’ve done a few events with them. We try to be a place where those organizations can gather and amplify their voices—so it’s a chorus rather than a singular voice. There are lots of different people, surfers, and outdoor lovers all over the world that are coming into a greater space of visibility right now, and I think that’s really exciting. We’re among many businesses that are trying to support and uplift.
How has each location been able to service customers over the last nine months?
Julie: In Los Angeles, the beaches were closed for two whole months. You couldn’t even walk on the sand. So we had to close down the club in Malibu, but in Pacifica, our members could still surf. They were able to use the club, access their surfboards, and get a little exercise in the ocean—all while practicing social distancing.
Rel: If you go to the club in Pacifica, you’ll see everything is outside. When the beaches were closed during the shelter-in-place, there were very few outlets for exercise, which can weigh on mental health. Surfers in Pacifica could still use the club, and they’ve told us how grateful they were for being able to use the space that’s clean and safe where they could take a shower.
I think the hygiene aspect is so important, especially now. Normally surfers change in the parking lot at the beach, and it’s pretty dirty. But knowing that after you get out of the water, you can get fully cleaned up and feel like there’s that cleanliness aspect to your outdoor wellness routine, that is definitely important.
How is it being in business with your spouse?
Julie: She’s been there since I had the dream. I think you came up with the name Traveler. I would not have been able to do it all by myself. I roped Rel into the business, and our partnership is so helpful because we are a yin and yang. She’s more strategy and interior design stuff whereas I’m more like boots on the ground with the everyday operations. I feel grateful we can work together and make it happen.
Does being a same-sex couple play into how you run your business?
Rel: I think that as a gay couple, our mission is to lead by example or show by our actions. We try to just be ourselves and be good partners in front of our team.
We are also conscious of the visuals we put on our social media. We want to honor the members of our community by sharing images that reflect who they are. And we hire a diverse team of surfers.
Julie and I may be the same gender, but I think that the whole goal is to just be ourselves and hope that we attract people to our business and to our community who feel like it’s a safe and comfortable space where they can be themselves too.
What was it like for the business when COVID hit?
Julie: In February, we had just sold out a trip to Nicaragua that we were going to take with some customers and members—a longboard and creativity workshop in Nicaragua mid-May. We were really excited and planning everything. And we were just about to celebrate our one-year anniversary in Malibu, which of course was literally March 17.
Rel: I have a lot of friends on the East coast who are physicians. So these folks that I went to college with all started talking about the reality of what was hitting them in hospitals, particularly a good friend of mine who was in a Brooklyn hospital.
I remember calling Julie, and being like, I think we’re going to have to shut down. It was pretty scary. We had this weird realization in that moment of, “Wow, we just lost control of everything.” I remember calling our staff member who was on the floor of the shop in Pacifica and talking him through how to close everything down, put signs up, and just walk away.
Julie: Rel’s doctor friends on the East Coast were showing us photos of their personal protective equipment (PPE). We started getting samples made and crowdsourcing the design for masks. Two weeks after the shelter-in-place went into effect, we were one of the first companies to start making fabric masks through our three factory relationships around San Francisco and Los Angeles. We were donating and selling masks like crazy, which made us feel really good. In all the chaos, we had a purpose, and we were bringing the community together. I believe so far, we’ve donated 5,400 masks.
What did you learn from the mask production process?
Rel: Produce more in the United States. When your supply chain is outside of the country, you don’t have control, and you really put yourself at risk.
It started because we had these relationships with factories in California but we hadn’t done production with them for a while. We had made sweatshirts, hoodies, T-shirts, those types of things with them, but we hadn’t done production with them for masks. We reactivated our relationships with these local manufacturing companies, and they became our lifeline.
We had one factory in San Francisco, and a gentleman from their company was dropping off 200 masks in our backyard every two days. He had key code access to our club in Pacifica. He would come in, drop off masks, our staff would take them in, spray the box down with Lysol, and then package them up so that we could redistribute them to essential workers who at that point really had no access to appropriate PPE.
In addition to COVID, how did the recent wildfires have an impact on your businesses?
Julie: Yeah, we’ve been hit hard this year with everything. With all the local wildfires, roads and beach access were closed. One weekend, the beaches were closed due to the wildfires so that people wouldn’t clog the roadways and so firefighters could get down Highway 1. That affected business, and then the next weekend, we were closed over Labor Day weekend because of COVID.
Rel: The thing that saved us—being an outdoor business model—then became a liability with the fires. So it all flipped. That’s the unfortunate reality of California.
Julie: Yeah, people weren’t going out to shop or go out to surf because you don’t want to be out there exercising in the terrible air. In both locations, the smoke was really bad. The staff already had to wear the masks for the virus, and then they had to double up with N-95 masks because of the smoke in the store.
It feels we’re back to year one in a lot of ways—just rethinking, rebirthing.
What’s next for Traveler in 2021?
Julie: There is something that we’ve wanted to do since the beginning, and in the beginning of the year, we actually talked about it a lot. Just by coincidence, we started a partnership with this van outfitting company so hopefully soon Traveler will launch a really cool camper van with a pop top! You’ll be able to drive it back and forth between Pacifica and Malibu and have your epic California road trip. And she has a name…
Rel: …the van’s name is Sandy, and she’s khaki colored. We’re going to launch the Traveler van as a little part of how we can grow this year in a fun way without taking on too much.
Photos from Traveler Surf Club & Coastal Outpost