Keep looking to improve — Get feedback, get better, and keep an eye out for ways to adapt and evolve to keep the business and all the people that rely on it moving forward. I built Rise Up with limited experience in marketing, accounts, feedback systems, and human resources. As we have grown, we’ve been working hard to put the right people in these positions, people who share our values so we can sustainably move forward. A prime example is how we had to adapt following the pandemic to ensure our longevity.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Southan.
Born and raised on the island of Barbados, Philip Southan attended University in the UK and then spent the next three years traveling around the world before settling in Nicaragua in 2007.
In 2010, he founded Rise Up Surf Retreats, a surf program centered on in-depth surf coaching, yoga, and the reinforcement of connections — both with the natural environment and the Rise Up community.
Rise Up Surf provides life-changing experiences to people from all corners of the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always had a deep-rooted desire to make a positive impact on people’s lives but I would say that It was a combination of my love for yoga, surfing, and Nicaragua with its incredible local people and empty waves that led me to this point. Before starting Rise Up, I’d worked in various roles, developing skills in many different areas. I volunteered on a sea turtle project, owned and managed Nicaragua’s biggest hostel, set up an adventure tour company, and ran a non-profit cafe in Leon. As tourism began to take hold, I moved to the coast, so I could be there full-time and consistently pursue my passion for surfing. It was after one sunrise session with some friends in 2010, that the idea of Rise Up was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have so many stories from living and running a business in a developing country! When Rise Up became my full-time focus in 2013, I leased a property that only had four rooms. Demand was growing, so we decided to build three more rooms, taking bookings to match. I knew nothing about construction, so I trusted the builders with their assurances that the build would be completed on time. We’d had a really heavy rainy season and this meant the construction was severely delayed — so three days before our biggest group booking arrived, we had to find a new place to host the retreat. It was super challenging due to our remote location but we rallied together and found another location on a beach three hours north of our resort. As always, we made sure the guests had a great time and we were rewarded when they returned to visit us on another retreat.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We’d taken out a tiny boat with ten of us on board. Conditions were perfect and we had very little surf, yet we managed to flip the boat! It was a shock that it happened as in those conditions, it should have been virtually impossible! Fortunately, no one was hurt but it was an important lesson on safety, being prepared, and teamwork. It became one of the stories from the group trip and we still laugh about it now!
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
One of the things that makes Rise Up so special is the people. We have always worked together like a big familia, so it makes it difficult to pinpoint one person. It has been our ability to work together as a team that has guaranteed our success. Shay became my first real mentor when I started, while Gemma, my business partner in the hostel and tour company, was there at every step of the way when we were starting out. Hugh, Steve, Oscar, Chinto were all key in the early days too, however, Rise Up would not exist without the love and support of Corina, my wife. We met on a beach in North Nicaragua through a mutual friend and it is thanks to her love and dedication that Rise Up is where we are today.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
At Rise Up, we focus on high-level surf coaching that takes into account people’s emotions in addition to all the technical aspects of surfing. Everyone lives as a family. Human connection is the cornerstone of our retreats. We combine that with healthy food, yoga/ movement, and activities that connect people with local culture and nature. In the future, we hope to incorporate more spirituality and mindfulness into the retreats. At Rise Up, we have created a connected community of like-minded people.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
The pain point we have always address and will continue to perfect is the lack of human connection in today’s world. One of the main reasons for the lack of human connection is the rise of technology and social media, which has made it easier for people to communicate virtually rather than in person. This has resulted in a decrease in face-to-face interactions, which are essential for building meaningful relationships. Additionally, people are becoming busier with work and other commitments, leaving less time for socializing and connecting with others. Finally, there is a growing sense of individualism in modern society, which can make it harder for people to prioritize building connections with others. All of these factors have contributed to a general sense of disconnection in society, highlighting the importance of actively seeking out opportunities to connect with others. All our guests have understood our ethos around communal living and connection and it has served us well because we’ve always had such positive feedback from our retreats, with many returning guests.
As you know, COVID-19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
Since Covid, we’ve found people are looking for more human connection and genuine experiences, where you meet people of a similar mindset and make friends for life. For us, it means continuing as we are and continuing to enhance the retreats where possible. For other businesses, I think it’s focusing less on fitting as many people onto a bus and moving them from place to place and more on creating a connection between those people. It’s not just the place that you travel to, that makes the trip, it’s the people too.
There will also be an increased emphasis on sustainable and eco-friendly travel. At Rise Up, we ensure that we create experiences that ensure the environment and it’s people are left in a better state than we found it. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, travel companies will need to adapt by offering more sustainable and eco-friendly options, such as carbon-neutral hotels, eco-tourism activities, and transportation options that produce less carbon emissions.
I think many consumers will also be looking for more authentic travel experiences that allow them to immerse themselves in local cultures and communities. This means that travel companies may need to offer more local experiences, such as food tours, cultural experiences, and opportunities to meet locals. This is something we’ve done at Rise Up since day one. All of our retreats allow our guests to learn about the culture of the country they are visiting, experience local traditions and of course meet and connect with the local people.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Well, every vacation experience is different but what makes an experience perfect for me, regardless of whether you’re in a 5-star hotel or at a local restaurant, is when the staff truly cares about taking care of you. I’ve traveled as your typical ‘surf bum’, but also in first class to 5-star resorts. The core foundation of a great experience is always the same — care, attention, good vibes, and making you feel welcome and valued.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Rise Up is all about connection. We are an all-inclusive experience. Everyone is connected through different aspects of daily activities, whether that’s surfing or at meal times. Everyone has a full week together; staff and guests eat, surf, and hang out together as a family, cultivating incredible bonds. Our experiences allow people to connect with the local culture and nature through activities such as jungle hikes, horse riding to local families’ houses to make tortillas, or even hiking one of the many active volcanoes in Nicaragua.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Having a talented crew of people.
We have an unrivaled team of individuals who are not only excellent in their roles but work as a formidable cohesive unit to make the Rise Up experience, what it is. Our team is in an environment where they feel valued, where we share a common vision and mission, and where they are encouraged to be free to be themselves and empowered to approach their roles how they see fit. This is all based on a foundation of good and consistent communication. Our team, or familia as we call each other, is the most important aspect of Rise Up.
- Unique destinations with a personal meaning.
All our retreats are in locations where we’ve felt a connection to the local culture, nature, and people. Our destinations in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Barbados, and Guatemala were chosen as we have spent time there and have an in-depth knowledge and love of the waves. In each, we’ve chosen unique resorts and villas, where we can offer the type of personalized experience that we strive for. As experts, we want to ensure people are surfing the best waves for each time of year and in the best locations — this is one of the key foundations of our retreats.
- A personalized experience for every guest
Every guest is taken on a journey where they feel a connection to us; from the first email to when they leave. We don’t want to provide a ‘good’ experience, we want it to be exceptional. All aspects of our retreat from the food to the surfing are catered to each guest and are done so with love, with each guest receiving a personalized surf coaching plan, tailored to their level and being paired with a coach that we feel will resonate with them, both in and out of the water. Together, they work on their goals and struggles, which often leads to major personal breakthroughs, not only in surfing but in life. We have seen guests change their whole life after a retreat and spending time with our amazing crew and guests.
- Being consistent
Even if the location is different, we craft an experience where people feel safe and confident that we’ll take care of detail. This creates consistency, where guests know that at different Rise Up locations, the service and experience will be based on the same principles. We’ve had some guests stay with us more than seventeen times across four locations, confirming that consistency is key.
- Keep looking to improve
Get feedback, get better, and keep an eye out for ways to adapt and evolve to keep the business and all the people that rely on it moving forward. I built Rise Up with limited experience in marketing, accounts, feedback systems, and human resources. As we have grown, we’ve been working hard to put the right people in these positions, people who share our values so we can sustainably move forward. A prime example is how we had to adapt following the pandemic to ensure our longevity.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’ve always worked as closely as we can with the local community by employing locals, sourcing fish and produce locally, and investing in projects in the communities around us. Thanks to one of our guests, Heather Martin, we started an official NGO called Rise Up Kids International which has enabled us to further integrate with the community and bring opportunities to the villages that would otherwise not have been possible.
This has included education workshops in local schools focused on health and hygiene and environmental issues, sea turtle conservation projects, (together with another NGO, we’ve released over 20,000 sea turtles over the last four years), reforestation efforts, donations to local schools to cover supplies, cleaning and maintenance and help towards infrastructure costs, monthly food deliveries to over 150 of the poorest families during covid, investment in English classes for local kids and adults and we also run surf clubs for local children.
It is important for us to give back to the community.
Aside from our NGO, the ethos of Rise Up is how we can make a long-lasting impression on people’s lives. We strive for each guest to feel better within their mind, body, and soul when they leave us. Naturally, this uplifting experience has an impact not only on their world and daily lives but on those around them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Globally people’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health are all in decline which is having a devastating impact on our children and their future.
To combat this, I would incorporate spirituality, management of emotions, and more creativity into today’s curriculum in schools and ensure valuable life lessons such as how to manage money, build, cook, and other real-world skills are not missed.
We need to balance out the competition-based system with fun and creative outlets, where kids have more time for creativity and less time for high-level academics. This will bring more health, happiness, and love to the world. I grew up in a school system that harvested self-disbelief and shame but it is creativity and passion that has made Rise Up what it is.
Create an overall dream of what you want and be sure to base it around daily habits and lifestyle — how you look at diet, movement, happiness, sleep and
My dream is to live on a farm close to the ocean, surrounded by nature, where we grow our own food and practice a variety of different activities such as woodwork, fermenting, and smoking.
I would have a fishpond, where we can row a boat and go fishing, and a homestead for our family, friends, and community.
We would have a small, well-designed retreat center with a swimming pool for training, a full gym and wellness area with a sauna, ice bath, and treatment rooms (for private practice of massage and other holistic modalities), and meditation and workshop areas.
It will be a regenerative farm, where we value the land and livestock and only take what we need. It would include a sanctuary for domestic animals, perhaps a small cafe and children’s play area, and possibly a community center so the local community can be involved and use it for their own events and gatherings.
Our lifestyle is based on the four principles of proper rest and sleep, pursuing happiness, proper diet and movement, and community connection, both global and local.
Most importantly, we would encourage connection to the mother ocean, because after all, we love surfing and we love the sea.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!