How Rob Barber built his bodyboarding empire

January 28, 2021 | Bodyboarding
Rob Barber: the founder of Bodyboard School and Bodyboard Holidays getting barreled somewhere in Ireland | Photo: Barber Archive

Rob Barber is one of the most influential bodyboarding people on the planet and one of the few who is continuously bringing new participants into the sport.

He currently runs the Newquay Activity Centre in Cornwall, England.

Barber has written for bodyboard magazines and authored the best books about the sport.

Since becoming a full-time businessman, he taught thousands of people how to bodyboard through Rob Barber's Bodyboarding School (bodyboard-school.com)

The English wave rider also founded Bodyboard Holidays (bodyboard-holidays.com), a company that takes people to some of the world's best bodyboarding destinations.

More recently, Rob teamed up with Rachel Murphy to launch Women + Waves, a women's surf coaching and surf traveling program that is increasing female participation in surfing, bodyboarding, stand-up paddleboarding, wild swimming, and good living.

It's time to get to know the man who keeps the sport alive in the British islands and the Old Continent.

Rob Barber: the water sports entrepreneur started bodyboarding in Cornwall, England, when he was ten years old | Photo: Barber Archive

When, where, and why did you start bodyboarding?

I started bodyboarding when I was about ten years old. I used to go to the beach with my sister, my mum, and my dad and ride polystyrene boards.

When I joined secondary school, all my mates were bodyboarding, and I bought a bodyboard from a guy in my school year that had a sort of dog-bitten rail.

It was an old Auga Madrid bodyboard, and I got straight into it. I loved it.

The reason why I got into it was that everyone was doing it and I loved going to the ocean already. I tried surfing - that was OK - but the only boards I had were big and clunky and felt cumbersome.

I just liked the feeling of bodyboarding and the idea of being close to waves and doing different maneuvers.

I loved reading Bodyboarding Magazine at the time and checking out what pros were doing, and that kind of inspired me to live that life.

Did you feel you were doing better than your peers at that time?

I wouldn't say so - no. We went bodyboarding as a whole pack with guys like Jamie Murden, Anders Siggery, Daniel Swain, Marcus Veale, and Jonny Burt; others we would see from time to time.

There were a lot of bodyboarders in the water, but we quite quickly got into going into competitions, and that made us competitive.

We were surfing all the time and learning all the maneuvers and try to push each other.

It was neck to neck. Then, some went in different directions, and I became pretty obsessed with it.

We were surfing all the time, every day, regardless of the weather. It was the pre-surf report era.

Bodyboard Holidays: Rob Barber takes customers to some of the world's best bodyboarding destinations | Photo: Barber Archive

You founded what probably is the world's longest-running bodyboarding school - Rob Barber's Bodyboarding School. Why do you think you've been more successful than many others?

I think I had a little bit of a head start because I was the first real bodyboard instructor around, so I kind of cut my teeth in how to teach people 25 years ago.

And then, I created programs to get the best out of the people's sessions.

Another thing is that I was working with ThreeSixty bodyboard magazine, traveling around the world, visiting lots of different places, and creating this big network of individuals that I got to know.

So that put me in a really fortunate situation to be able to set up trips to California - because I know Jay Reale - or to Portugal because the guys down there I know from growing up bodyboarding.

There are lots of little advantages I've had from living and breathing bodyboarding from being 11 years old and knowing every aspect of the industry and the sport and the equipment.

I guess it's been my labor of love - it's passion. You do it to live a life that you want to live. It's been good.

Have you developed your own teaching formula? How do you differentiate from others in the business?

Yes, I developed a specific formula - without a doubt.

I taught my instructors to do it that way. I know what works, and I know how each different individual needs different things.

One person might be scared of the ocean and need to sort of build confidence; another person might be landing inverts.

There are lots of different variations and approaches, including face-to-face tuition, video analysis, time in the water, using action cameras, out of the water stretching, physical rehabilitation, exercise plans, regimes.

But the main focus is helping everyone have more fun - that's the bottom line.

You want to help people take their session from being average to excellent, and that's different for every person.

So, yes, the formula is something I've developed and shared with my instructors, and I know it works because I've got this incredible rate of returning customers.

Rob Barber: sharing his bodyboard coaching formula in California | Photo: Barber Archive

How do you manage to attract so many customers and sustain a bodyboard travel business?

You've got to set yourself as the go-to business in the industry.

Bodyboard Holidays is where you go to get bodyboard holidays because it's where you'll find people who will take around the world.

We've got these fantastic relationships. We've been doing it for so long and built this system of delivering awesome holidays that makes people come back again.

It's been a passion delivering that and something I've done since I was a kid anyway.

So, it's not been rocket science to get that combination of location, food, accommodation, instruction, and bodyboarding waves.

It's something I've learned since I was a kid, and we've packaged that up and encapsulated everything that a guest would like to experience.

You wrote for ThreeSixty Magazine for 13 years. Describe that period in time.

It was amazing. It was one of the best times of my whole life.

I was bodyboarding Fistral Beach one day, and when I got out of the water, Mike and Louise Searle, the editors and founders of ThreeSixty, came up to me and said: "We're starting a magazine. Would you like to join us?"

And from that moment onwards - being a grom, seeing the sport develop, and then slowly contributing to the magazines, going on photoshoots and trips and helping organize all aspects of the magazine - to then fast forward a few years and becoming the editor, it was amazing.

I had this job where I had to essentially reach out to all bodyboarders and find out what was going on - stories, profiles, competition reports, product reviews.

It was amazing because that's what I loved doing anyway. It was a dream.

And then making this network of contacts and reaching out to international photographers, getting them to meet up with pro bodyboarders, do photoshoots, and sending images to us so that we could get the story together to make a really interesting feature - it was amazing.

I also got to travel to all these locations to review different bodyboarding destinations and try out new equipment.

Once a year, I'd ring all the manufacturers, and they'd send me the best boards they had, and we'd ride and test them.

It seems so surreal now to remember how much fun that was.

All those things improved my product and travel knowledge. I was doing an intensive degree in bodyboarding.

At the same time, I know it was something all the bodyboarders, including myself, used to build our scene, to be able to get this magazine on a monthly or bimonthly basis.

We miss it so much. It was a great thing to be part of for sure.

Why do you think print bodyboard magazines disappeared from the shelves?

It's a number of things.

The internet is one of them. People now get their media online. They don't tend to buy print magazines anymore.

There has been a change in advertising - now, you can do it on Google or social media and get fantastic results. It's tangible, manageable, and you can plan your spending as a result of the return on the investment.

It's a completely different shift. Advertising was one of the main revenues of magazines.

And then I guess they had their day and serviced a purpose.

Towards the end of creating the magazine, we were in this constant battle with our photographers because they were taking great photos but were also uploading them to social media before sending them to us to print.

Or we'd get the images, send the magazine off to be printed, and expect it to be delivered to everyone within the next week or two, and then in that time, photographers would upload the images to social media, so people would see it before they got the mag.

It was a headache and very hard to manage for all editors around the world.

So, for a combination of different reasons, that is why magazines got phased out.

I think there could be a market for a company with skills to make an online bodyboarding magazine that you have to pay for accessing content. I would pay for it if it were good.

I pay a subscription to read an online surfing magazine - why couldn't that be possible with a bodyboarding publication, app, or website?

Rob Barber: the British bodyboarder built a network of worldwide contacts while working at ThreeSixty bodyboard magazine | Photo: Barber Archive

You've authored three bodyboard books - "The Bodyboard Manual," "The Bodyboard Travel Guide," and "Born to Boogie." They're pretty much the only publications available about the sport. Why are there so few books about bodyboarding and bodyboarders? Have you got any plans to release a new book?

I don't think the amount of bodyboarders who buy books is huge.

To be fair, when I was working on the publications, I think we did a pretty good job. They were pretty comprehensive.

But it's quite niche and, again, people absorb media online.

Books for his type of thing are less popular than maybe watching a YouTube video these days, so perhaps things have moved on.

I've got no plans for a new book, although I do look at "The Bodyboard Manual" now, and I think there are things I could add to it now, things that have moved on, and equipment changes.

But I just create instructional videos now for my YouTube channel Bodyboard School and, with over 10,000 subscribers, it's great to have a growing resource like this, which I can keep adding to all the time.

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