Surf’s up at The Board Club: Peter Belden brings membership concept for board rentals to Newport Beach

Peter Belden walked over to an enlarged photograph of a perfect surf break and a van in which he was living while in Australia. It was the day he came up with the idea for his Newport Beach surf business.

He was at the tail end of a nearly year-long, soul-searching surf adventure, and while the waves were epic that day, his board just wasn’t working right for that particular surf break.

“Why can’t I have access to a bunch of different boards?” the 33-year-old thought.

That was the moment the idea for The Board Club was born, a gathering place that launched in late May for surfers to have access – for a monthly fee – to a quiver of about 100 boards they can check out and use for weeks at a time.

Belden grew up in Newport Beach’s water, a seasoned surfer, water polo player, a junior lifeguard turned seasonal guard in his later years. But after college, he found himself behind a desk doing a range of jobs away from the surf and sand.

He started his own business selling manufactured homes, but after the real estate crash, he switched gears and sold computer software, and later, worked for a startup data analytics company.

“At that point, I was working for career advancement and money and not happiness,” he said. “I was working 10 to 12 hours everyday, dedicating my life to it. I wasn’t happy.”

Then, tragedy hit. One of his best friends, Ben Carlson, was killed while on duty as a lifeguard during a big swell. The two-year anniversary of his death is July 6. Carlson’s death made Belden realize life is too short.

“I quit my job, sold my car and put everything into storage,” he said. “I’m not coming back until I figure it out.”

After the surf business idea hit him on the beach in Australia, he posted up at coffee shops, developing his business plan. He returned to Orange County in May 2015, and while scouring Newport for a place to plant his new company, he worked the summer as a lifeguard by day and an Uber driver by night.

He used those nights driving strangers around as a way to practice his pitch and get the word out about his new business.

“It was a constant revolving door of people who were forced to listen to me and get the pitch,” he said with a chuckle. “I got a lot of genuine feedback.”

He was nervous because in his research, he couldn’t find any existing business that had a similar model. So he took inspiration from his travels and previous careers.

In Australia, board clubs are common at beaches, a gathering place where locals and lifeguards congregate after their surf sessions to eat, drink and tell stories. These places become community cornerstones that help build relationships and friendships.

Then, he looked to his data analytics background to set up the infrastructure.

Belden swiped on his iPad to show how a member’s profile is set up, complete with name, weight, height and photo. Each available board includes a barcode, so that data can be input easily, such as who has checked out the board, and any previous dings or repairs – similar to a car rental company that logs information on its fleet. It also shows trends on how many times a board has been checked out, so Belden can track what’s popular for members.

He looked to the big trend of subscription-based businesses, similar to what food delivery service Blue Apron offers. He developed relationships with surfboard makers, hopeful The Board Club would help bring more exposure to their brands.

Costa Mesa resident Tim Burnham, a surfer who has spent time at surf clubs in Australia, was the third member to sign up.

“The idea is amazing,” he said. “It’s something that’s missing from the U.S. surf culture.”

Burnham said it’s a great way to try out boards without having to drop $600 to $1,000 on a model he hasn’t had a chance to ride yet.

So far, Belden has about 50 Board Club members. The company operates out of a 1,000-square-foot building in the Cannery district of Newport Beach. A private investor is helping fund the venture.

In a room where surfboards line the walls, a computer screen streams Surfline’s live feeds, so surfers can check out real-time conditions and pick the right board for their session.

Belden wants to be clear: The business is more than just about board rentals.

“This isn’t a board exchange. This is a surf club first, and board exchange is just part of it,” he said.

He plans to do movie nights and stream World Surf League contests on a projector set up in a communal gathering space, with monthly member dinners, ding repair demos, surf art shows, and even CPR certification classes.

Surf photos and paintings for sale by local artists adorn the walls, and there’s even an area with surf magazines and books, where Belden wants to create an “old school” library check-out system.

“Grom boards” allow members to check out boards for their kids, so parents don’t have to fork over big bucks before trying them out. There’s also lockers and a hot shower for early-morning surfers headed to work after their sessions, and a coffee station for those cold morning sessions. A garage holds longboards, a kayak, and every-day beach items like chairs, beach games or coolers that members can load up to take to the sand.

The monthly fee is $80 with a minimum three-month membership. Surfers can keep the board they rent for up to three weeks. A surfer can rent one board at a time, until Belden builds up a larger inventory, then premium members can rent two boards at a time.

Belden hopes he can one day franchise the business so Board Clubs dot beaches around the world. If business booms, surfers will no longer have to haul their surfboards on vacation and pay steep airline fees. Members would simply show up at a local Board Club and check out boards.

But for now, he’s working on getting the first Board Club up and running. Demand was greater than he expected, and Belden had to create a waiting list until he could get more boards in stock.

Among the quiver, there are only two boards off-limits to his members. The first one is a shiny, cherry red board that Belden is keeping up in the rafters until he gets the chance to ride it first.

The second surfboard is one that will never be used again: Ben Carlson’s surfboard was signed by hundreds of people at his paddle-out off the Newport Pier, and given to Belden by Carlson’s parents.

“I couldn’t be more honored that they wanted to put it here,” he said, voice trailing.

His friend’s board serves as a daily remember that Carlson was the catalyst for him to pursue his passion. As he next to Carlson’s board, surrounded by 100 other surfboards lining the wall, he took a moment to soak it in.

“Wow, this is my job now. I used to sit and make cold calls and sell computer software,” he said. “Now I’m surrounded by the people I love being with and my favorite thing and passion, surfing. That’s my day now, to make other people happy. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

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