It’s 9:30 in the morning on a warm, sunny Friday after months of gloomy weather. The water conditions are good. Longtime Coronado local Teevan McManus, who runs the Coronado Surfing Academy, is helping two groups of smiling customers get suited up for surf lessons. He should be stoked, but for McManus and his company, it’s shaping up to be a cruel summer.
He’s just received word that his contract to teach surfing lessons at the Hotel del Coronado has been terminated. Instead, the Jamie O’Brien Surfing Experience, a company out of Oahu, Hawaii, will take his place.
“I feel wronged,” says McManus, who’s been running the Coronado Surfing Academy since 2005. “It feels like the big guy squashing the little guy.”
McManus says he could understand if the surf school wasn’t successful, or if there were problems. But he said it’s just the opposite. Since his company was awarded the contract with the Del in March 2022, McManus says he’s doubled revenue. He says he did this while the Del was under construction and in disarray, and with cross-border sewage contamination closing beaches for days at time.
“I would understand if we did a bad job, but we did everything that was asked,” says McManus. “We doubled business without a lot of support.”
He says that in May of last year, Coronado Surfing Academy grew business by 86% as compared to the Del’s previous vendor.
“We were cranking,” says McManus, who also invested in $25,000-$30,000 worth of new surfboards and Quicksilver wetsuits for the contract. “We were working nonstop seven days a week. We didn’t miss a beat. I was here 83 days in a row.”
Coronado Surfing Academy, which gets five-star reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp, is local to its core, says McManus. The company hires an all-local staff, often transporting boards and wetsuits across the island in the “Cool Bus,” a converted school bus. Many of the surf coaches are students at Coronado High School; Coronado Surfing Academy has employed hundreds of local kids over the years.
“I had 17 employees last year, all local kids,” said McManus. “So I have these little grommet kids and some older kids too.”
McManus says the decision to terminate the contract wasn’t made by the Hotel Del. He says the hotel staff has been “great” and has had nothing but praise for the Coronado Surf Academy. But his bosses at the Hotel del Coronado also have bosses.
He says that Blackstone, the New York-based private equity giant that owns the Del, ultimately made the decision to replace him with a non-local company out of Hawaii. McManus says it’s bad business.
“We kicked butt,” said McManus. “Now, they are going to replace us with a guy (Jamie O’Brien) who’s not even going to be here.”
Turns out, in addition to owning the Del, Blackstone also owns Turtle Bay Resort in Oahu, which is home to pro-surfer Jamie O’Brien’s surf school brand, the Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience. McManus says that it’s because of this corporate relationship that the change was made. Jamie O’Brien has no ties to Coronado, and is only contracted to actually teach at the Del about six times a year, according to McManus.
“The thing is, these guys aren’t local,” said McManus. “I mean, if I tried to go to Hawaii and open up Teevan’s Snorkeling Tours, they would lose their minds.”
And then, there is the question of permits. McManus says that, to his knowledge, only four companies are currently permitted to run surf schools at Coronado beaches. The permitting process is complicated, and it’s something that McManus himself pioneered in 2005. Before then, Coronado had never allowed a surf school on its beaches. The few who tried it, did it under the radar, without permits. McManus wanted to make it legal.
“Instead of fighting the city, I tried to see if I could get them to embrace it,” says McManus, who holds a degree in business and commercial recreation.
So he reached out to the Coronado Recreation Department and met with risk management. He won city approval to run the Coronado Surfing Academy, taking out five kids at a time. Things grew from there.
But years later when COVID hit, a bunch of surf schools started popping up on the island without permits. Some of them started getting complaints, and the City realized it needed to create a formal Request for Proposal to ensure that the surf schools operating on Coronado beaches were safe and professional. McManus says that he sent in a 75-page proposal that included everything from injury and illness prevention programs, to commercial liability and sexual molestation insurance and background checks.
“It’s not just going to Costco and buying a bunch of Wave Storms and throwing up a canopy tent,” says McManus. “As mellow as it is out here, it’s still the ocean and it’s still dangerous. You’re working with kids. There’s a lot of liability.”
In 2021 the Coronado Surfing Academy was granted a new city permit, along with three other companies. The Del reached out Coronado Surfing Academy for a one year contract.
McManus says he threw everything he had into his business with the Del. In addition to $25,000-$30,000 he spent on new wetsuits and gear, he recently bought a $4000 camera after the Del requested he provide high-end photo and video packages.
Instead, he got notice on June 1st that his contract was terminated. The last day the Coronado Surfing Academy will operate out of the Hotel Del is June 30th. Meanwhile, the Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience has begun advertising its Coronado surf school on its website.
McManus says that the Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience reached out to him, saying they wanted to include him in the new venture. But the deal didn’t pencil out. McManus says he would only make half of proceeds from lessons he makes right now, with all the same labor costs.
“Their biggest challenge as absentee owners is going to be staff,” says McManus, who thinks they will probably hire some kids from San Diego. “I’ve been teaching so long, that I’ve watched pregnant mothers walking along the beach here, and the babies that were in their bellies work for me now.”
He says that service and the local connections are at the heart of his business, and he’s proud of what he’s built.
“There’s a million surf schools,” said McManus. “We aren’t doing anything that’s revolutionary. But we’re good at it, and we are good at service. We’ve been doing this for 18 years. It’s second nature. We take it very seriously. These guys know if they are late for work, they’re gone. I’m not going to tolerate that.”
And the coaches do much more than teach visitors how to surf. McManus calls them “on-the-water concierges,” as guests are constantly asking for dining recommendations and things to do around the island. The best part, he says, is seeing people get excited about surfing.
“Getting to be down here, watching parents lose their minds when their kids stand up, it’s huge,” said McManus.
So what’s next for McManus and Coronado Surf Academy?
“I want to park my bus right there,” said McManus, pointing to a cul-de-sac just south of the Del, on Avenida del Sol. “So that’s kind of the plan. We’re going to continue for now, at least through the summer, assuming the water stays clean.”
That’s been another problem entirely. McManus says that this year they’ve had more than 125 days of beach closures compared to 20 last year. They go by the health department and the website San Diego Beach Info. If it’s green, they go. If it’s not, they they cancel.
McManus estimates that this year they’ve lost more than $100,000 in cancelled lessons because of the sewage.
“I want to bring more awareness to how nasty the water is, and what we can do to help,” he said.
In the meantime, McManus says that he’s been getting lots of phone calls and text messages from concerned residents who aren’t happy the decision to terminate the contract with Coronado Surf Academy. One Coronado resident even started a petition.
“They think it’s uncool. Bottom line,” says McManus.
A spokesperson for the Hotel del Coronado sent a statement to the Coronado Times via email:
We have enjoyed our year-long partnership, which began in April 2022, and wish the Coronado Surfing Academy continued success. We are excited to embark on a new third party partnership with the Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience which will continue to support the community through employment of local surf instructors. As the largest employer on the island, we are proud of our commitment to the success of this community.
Blackstone did not respond to a request for comment and the Jamie O’Brien Surf Experience representative echoed the statement from the Del.
The Coronado Times has learned that the Hotel Del and the Jamie O’Brien Surf Academy will not be required to apply for the same permits that McManus and other surf companies have undergone. Since the Hotel Del owns a section of its beachfront property, the issue is a little different. Sources have have shared that the Del is only required to obtain permits from the end of the Del property to the waterline.
On June 29, a spokesperson for the City of Coronado said that the City is currently working on an “access agreement” with the Hotel Del Coronado, which would allow the Del to use the portion of the city-owned beach that has traditionally been used for surf instruction by the hotel.
“This agreement is an access agreement and provides the requirements for usage for the Hotel Del to follow their business operations,” said the statement.
6/22/23 Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for privacy reasons.
6/29/23 Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to include an update about permits from the City of Coronado.