Six Trends from the Vans US Open of Surfing: From
Eco-Conscious to Family-Friendly

Approximately half a million consumers descended upon Huntington Beach, CA, for the Vans US Open of Surfing, July 28 through August 5. The free, nine-day extreme sports festival featuring some of the best surfers, skateboarders and BMX bikers in the world attracted more than 20 brands seeking to engage a group of consumers defined by their passion for action—and EM was there to take it all in. In surveying the scene, we found that in place of tech-heavy, Instagram-inducing activations you’d expect at cutting-edge urban events were family-friendly games, art-based activities, athletic competitions and eco-conscious integrations. Because while this crowd may love the extreme element to sports, building real connections with them is a bit like riding a wave: you’ve got to go with the flow. So, sit back, pull up a beach chair and read on for all the fun in the sun.

Brands including Vans, Pete's Coffee, Jeep and many others pitched tents in the sand at the 2018 Vans US Open of Surfing

Brands including Vans, Pete's Coffee, Jeep and many others pitched tents in the sand at the 2018 Vans US Open of Surfing


Multiple brand activations incorporated an eco-friendly element that benefitted the preservation of the ocean, waves and beaches this surfer-loving crowd so passionately desires to protect. CLIF Bar built a wrapper-grabber game where consumers of all ages and sizes were invited into a plastic booth to catch as many CLIF Bar wrappers as possible as they were blown around the space. The brand donated one dollar to the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that preserves the world’s oceans and beaches, for each wrapper that was grabbed (and then recycled by the brand). Consumers who grabbed 10 received a CLIF Bar-branded beach towel while all participants received a bag of the brand’s Energy Granola.

Hydro Flask, which sells vacuum-insulated, stainless-steel water bottles, had a contest of its own that benefitted the Surfrider Foundation as well as the nonprofit Boarding for Breast Cancer, both of whom had their own booths at the show. Consumers paid one dollar per ball and tried their hand at a game of Skee-Ball. Winners received a 22-ounce tumbler, with all proceeds going to the nonprofits.

One brand at the event, Let It Block sunscreen, incorporates eco-friendly into its brand messaging. A first-timer at the festival seeking to market to a crowd that believes in protecting the world’s oceans, Let It Block touted its mineral-based formula that it says doesn’t damage ocean reefs. It also ran a Boomerang contest (more on that below) for tickets to Ohana Festival, an event that supports maintaining the California coastline.


While not in-your-face, social media integration at the event was nonetheless present. It tended to focus on Instagram and Boomerang booths. Let It Block ran a contest where consumers posed in front of a step-and-repeat with props. Posting with the hashtag #howdoyoublockit and tagging the brand’s Instagram handle gave attendees a chance to win swag bags daily. Staffers chose what they thought were the best each day and alerted winners through direct message.

Equipment brand LifeProof’s Boomerang booth was a big hit. Its backdrop was a blue- and purple-hued crashing wave. During the four seconds that consumers were instructed to move, streams of water poured down overhead, keeping people dry (almost) while creating a shower effect in the final animation (MC2, New York City, handled).

Peet’s Coffee, which brought a truck offering samples of three flavors of cold brew out of taps, took its “coming in cold” theme seriously (Havas, New York City, handled). It built a photo booth out of fake blocks of ice and invited consumers inside. Though not a Boomerang, the activity succeeded in eliciting quite a response: while consumers posed for pic three, the booth emitted a sudden burst of freezing CO2 from overhead, scaring the crap out of unsuspecting posers. Say cheese!

Woolmark’s activation displayed a line of clothing the brand created for the World Surf League that’s made of Merino wool, a natural fiber for athletic wear in all temperatures. Its Boomerang entailed stepping into actual super-soft Merino wool fibers and posing for a chance to win the brand’s entire collection that was on display (Lauren Sims Creative, Los Angeles, handled).


A booze-free, family-friendly atmosphere at the US Open of Surfing translated to plenty of games and activities for the entire fam—despite the lines that accrued every day, all day, in the blazing sun. Because if there’s ever been a group of consumers willing to wait in line for a game, it’s parents with kids. There was the aforementioned CLIF wrapper-grabber game and Skee-Ball at the Hydro Flask activation. But title sponsor Vans was the winner in this category.

While most sponsor activations ran the perimeter of the event, Vans’ activities were centrally located within the Van Doren Village, the headquarters of Vans’ activities. The area featured a ping-pong table, foosball and bean bag chairs, and an emcee roamed the space daily to interact with consumers and announce special events, like surfboard shaping and glassing by pros. Attendees waited in long lines to play a different game of Skee-Ball (this one was running nonstop) for a chance to win Vans swag like checkered headbands and sunglasses. Consumers lined up for a ring toss (around Vans sneakers, naturally) to win swag. And on several evenings, Vans screened surf movies at outdoor mall Pacific City, one block from the competitions.

Families also had the chance to get creative with their kids in the village, within a designated space protected from the sun and filled with tables and chairs for lounging. The brand set up music equipment—guitars, drum sets and amps donated by Bose—for consumers to jam on. Strangers formed impromptu bands (impressing us immensely) while others jammed on guitars privately with headphones. Each day there were a few scheduled activities, from button making to creating guitar picks to tote bag coloring to Vans t-shirt shredding. Consumers who purchased a white tee from the Vans retail store on-site could customize it with one of 32 graphics specifically created for the event.

Vans incorporated local artists into its engagements as well. At a designated time, consumers lined up to receive free trucker hats. Kids then brought their hats—either given away for free or purchased at the Vans store—to artists who would customize each one with colored markers.

Meanwhile, official watch sponsor Swatch brought two booths to the event, the smaller of which featured a chalkboard mural where consumers could finish the phrase “The Time Is Now To…” Oversized Swatch watches hung from walls painted by local artists, and families and kids could attend a live painting the event’s second Saturday from 12-4 p.m. Work by one of the artists, Michael C. Hsiung, could be seen at other parts of the event, including Vans’ ring toss booth and all throughout the skate park grounds.


One sure-fire way to get this crowd excited: Put their athletic prowess to the test. With some of the world’s best surfers, skateboarders and BMXers performing tricks, doing signings and wandering the event grounds, the “extreme” in extreme sports was positively contagious. The U.S. Marines’ area offered a pull-up challenge. Attendees who managed seven won a water bottle, while 10 earned you a t-shirt. Magnets and posters were freebies, and a sign-up was available for interested consumers. The U.S. Army’s booth—bare-boned, no frills and set up by the same privates working the tent—featured a pull-up contest of their own at another part of the event area’s perimeter. Friendly Army representatives offered pointers on form, even to little tykes who appeared to be around the age of three (which we found pretty darn adorable). Team Army built a football toss contest as well, which seemed just as popular as the pull-up challenge. Prizes for both included U.S. Open Army dog tags, lanyards and t-shirts, and the record for most pull-ups for the day for both men and women was updated throughout the day on scrappy signage. Like we said, no frills.

Michelob Ultra’s sizeable footprint was close to the water, where the surf competition was happening throughout the day. Consumers received a koozie, a cellphone fan and sunglasses as free gifts for participating in five-minute surfboard yoga classes. Signing a waiver and entering your information also earned attendees a chance to win a surfboard or the grand prize: two tickets to Michelob Ultra’s Fit Fest in September, a fitness, music and alcohol festival in the desert. The space also featured a photo op in front of gold surfboards, a nod to its Pure Gold product that officially launched in May. Behind the activation and close to the water, the brand built a VIP structure, the Michelob Ultra Pure Gold Surf Deck, with prime views of the surfing competition and free Pure Gold beers for invited attendees (Fusion Marketing, St. Louis, MO, handled).

A couple surfboard balance games peppered the grounds, including Barefoot Wine’s “Catch the Wave” photo op where consumers would compete with two friends to come out on top. Attendees visiting the activation for Internet and TV company Frontier Communications also could play a surfboard balance game for prizes including a charger, water bottle and sunglasses (Fusion Marketing, St. Louis, MO, handled). The goal: to balance on one leg on a gyrating surfboard for 60 seconds. Attendees could also enter a raffle for an Amazon Echo Dot and VIP tickets for the US Open. A station with the video game Fortnite sat in the corner, in case kids wanted a break in the shade, and few outlets were on hand to charge up phones.


Games and giveaways are always a draw at summer festivals. But despite their willingness to collect free swag, attendees weren’t shy about making purchases, either. A cursory scan of the crowd revealed copious Vans shopping bags, procured from the expansive Vans US Open Official Store, a space that seemed to be consistently crowded. To achieve this, the brand put in some work. Luring consumers in with giant Vans shade umbrellas, sales staff roaming the grounds pushed a promotion for the Vans Print Shop on-site. Consumers who purchased a white tee from the Vans retail store could customize it with one of 32 graphics specifically created for the event, and a free blue-and-white plain trucker hat was added as a bonus. Reminders of the promotion were ubiquitous.

LifeProof’s activation was consistently busy, but it wasn’t just the comfy couches and charging stations that kept the crowds coming. On day one of the US Open, we were told, the brand wasn’t offering merch for sale. But when consumers expressed disappointment at not being able to purchase gear, the brand changed its strategy and decided to begin selling merchandise with a 20 percent discount. Next door at Hydro Flask, the company sold insulated water bottles with customizable caps. If consumers had brought their own Hydro Flask with them to the event or purchased one on-site, they could fill them with purified Flowater stations set up to the left of the activation and, for an hour during the event’s final weekend, Surfing legends the Gudauskas Brothers were on hand to personally customize the flasks.


The primary draw of the US Open of Surfing is, of course, the competitions themselves. With extreme athleticism taking place in the ocean, skate park and, in the case of BMXers, on the boardwalk at times, consumers were smack in the middle of the action. And with this young-at-heart crowd, professional athletes are heroes to fans of all ages; the connection to them is meaningful and often lifelong.

Savvy brands, many of which sponsor a professional athlete or team, capitalized on this passion by offering pro-athlete signings and activities throughout the event’s duration. One of the Vans activities cycling through the nine-day schedule was surfboard shaping by professional surfers, including from one of the best, Dane Reynolds, who starred in and introduced the documentary film “The Electric Acid Surfboard Test” on one of the brand’s movie nights. Attendees could observe him shaping a board for a couple of hours, followed by a glassing session of that same board within an adjacent workspace. The lucky kids who took the finished boards home had won a Vans online contest ahead of time.

At Swatch’s larger activation, kiddos played cornhole in a space that was designed to highlight the brand’s four-person pro team (three of whom were women) and the watch’s new design. It partnered with these three surfers and one skateboarder to create the new face of Swatch, on display at the booth and also serving as one of the event’s 32 design options for Vans t-shirt printing. The activation’s walls were covered in casual, colorfully framed photos of the athletes and their personal stories were engraved on surfboards and skateboards standing upright. Branded lawn chairs under umbrellas sat in the sand and a TV played the surf competition happening live.

Signings from sponsored athletes or brand ambassadors seemed to be happening at every turn, with Peet’s Coffee, Goodrich Tires, Let It Block and Jeep all offering sponsored female athletes. In its first appearance at the Open, Harley Davidson’s activation featured a visit and Q&A from surfer Wade Carmichael, a Harley aficionado who signed three surfboards the brand was giving away (Oaken Anchor, Los Angeles, handled). Four 2018 models—two Sportsters and two Softails—were on display for consumers to observe and inquire about. Interested consumers could register, through scanning their driver’s license, for a black Harley Davidson card that would be used for demo rides and other events throughout the year.

Jeep’s sprawling footprint housed five different models that consumers could explore and a technician to provide information on the vehicles’ features (EventNext, Lake Orion, MI, handled). Pro surfer Malia Manuel, sponsored by the brand, made an appearance on-site. She was also part of the brand’s VR experience with an off-roading Jeep in which several pro surfers guided you through mountainous terrain and then surfed the waves with you. Pretty epic. It was the only VR experience on-site, and for good reason: this is a crowd of doers. Who needs a virtual world when you have the real thing?

For more photos of the Vans US Open of Surfing, check out our gallery of Vans activations as well as a look at builds from more than 20 sponsors.