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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 3 years ago

Mr. Sandman

A sand and sun-kissed hobby can really be a thriving business. Mark Mason has done it for nearly 25 years.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Executive Summary
Company. Team Sandtastic Industry. Tourism, meetings Key. Company seeks to grow by doing more team-building exercises for companies.

Mark Mason stumbled across a Newsweek magazine article in 1989 that changed his life.

Then a 19-year-old college student with a high degree of career uncertainty, Mason read about Todd Vander Pluym and his business, California-based Sand Sculptors International.

Wait, what? You could have a successful business and career making sandcastles?

Mason was so curious, that in the days before the internet, he tracked down Vander Pluym. He called him, and Mason and the sandcastle man chatted on the phone for two hours. Vander Pluym invited Mason to meet the Sand Sculptors International team in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where Sand Sculptors International was planning to build a large series of castles for the upcoming July 4 weekend.

Vander Pluym offered no salary, just a hotel room and a chance to learn. Mason took the opportunity. He worked 17 days straight, and wowed the sandcastle team with his skills and hustle. “This was a hoot,” says Mason. “I couldn't believe you could make a living doing this.”

More than two decades later, Mason could still hardly believe it: Now he has his own thriving sandcastle business, Sarasota-based Team Sandtastic.

One side of the company, about 60% of its revenue, comes from building elaborate sandcastles, everywhere from state fairs to festivals to fundraisers. The other side of the business is meetings and conventions, doing sandcastle team-building exercises with corporate groups and family retreats at hotels and resorts nationwide. Mason declines to disclose sales figures, only to confirm that fees for some of the most elaborate sculptures run into the mid-six figures.

While Mason is kid-like giddy that he could do this for a living, he points out there is a hard-work side to the business. He spends a good deal of time maintaining relationships with meeting planners and travels agents and refining his online marketing techniques. For example, the name Team Sandtastic performs better on online searches than merely Sandtastic, Mason learned.

Mason says his competitors are fireworks and boat outings, not toys in the sand. “I'm not fighting against other sand sculptors,” Mason says. “I'm fighting with others for their marketing dollars.”

'Phenomenal work'
Ingrid McClellan, executive director of Keep Manatee Beautiful, is one of the Team Sandtastic's longtime clients. Her organization has used Team Sandtastic for the past 16 years to help create the lead exhibition for its annual America Recycles Day at SandBlast, held on public beaches in Manatee County. Team Sandtastic builds the biggest exhibition for the two-day event, then puts on sandcastle construction clinics.

For the 2016 event, Team Sandtastic built an 80-ton wildlife scene that, like in previous years, incorporates elements of Florida-focused scenery. “Mark and his team are stellar,” says McClellan. “They do phenomenal work.”

Team Sandtastic has been doing that kind of work since Mason started the business in 1993. Before then Mason was with Vander Pluym and Sand Sculptors International for three years, first as an unpaid apprentice and later as an employee.

Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Mason loved the beach lifestyle but wasn't necessarily an uber-talented artist. “As a child I just liked arts and crafts,” he says. “My books were always filled with doodles.”

He later worked in hospitality in the region, waiting tables and parking cars. That experience taught him customer service skills he says he uses today with clients from various backgrounds.

Go global
While business skills are nice, Mason says his longevity in the business is about one thing: sand.

The sculptures Team Sandtastic creates use sand and water only — no cement or glue-based additives and fixatives are mixed into the formula. The sand is compacted into wood forms at first, and all forms are removed while the sand within is sculpted from the top down.

Mason and the Team Sandtastic crews use all kinds of tools to build their masterpieces — margin trowels normally used for drywall work; spreaders; melon balls; soup spoons; cake decorator spatulas; and even dental instruments for the nitty-gritty intricate stuff.

To Mason, this is art that combines whimsical with excellence.

“We don't poke around and turn a beach bucket upside down,” he says. “We push the limit of the sand. We blow you away.”

The list of places where Team Sandtastic has gone to build sandcastles is diverse, from Hawaii to South Africa and the Middle East to Canada. Clients who pay for Mason and his crew, from four to 15 people depending on the size of the job, to fly out to the worksite include shopping malls, conventions and theme parks. There's also the occasional wedding or large family party and corporate event.

Mason says clients tend to call him when they have a lot of people to impress, or when they want someone to build something impressive that will draw a lot of people. Team Sandtastic builds about 60 projects a year.

Mason says few projects are standard, and most clients aim for something different than what's been done for other clients. While being different isn't new, the desire to outdo past projects, says Mason, has grown in lockstep with the proliferation of selfies. People want a cool picture of themselves in front of an amazing sand sculpture.

Besides the hobby-turned-business aspect of Mason's career, one of his favorite parts about his life's work is it's the perfect mix of performance art and visual art. You build and create, it goes away and you do it again.

“We took something goofy and made it serious,” Mason says. “I don't think this is a business you retire from. Why would you?”

Fantastic sand

The list of cool sand sculpture projects Mark Mason and Team Sandtastic have built over 25 years is uniquely deep. The greatest hits include:
A castle and sand-sculpted platform used as the site for a couple's wedding, where 200 guests ate dinner “inside” the walls;

The tallest sandcastle ever hand-built in less than 100 man-hours, at 28 feet, 7.25 inches. Team Sandtastic built that sandcastle in July 1998 for an exhibit at Georgia Stone Mountain Park. The project set a Guinness World Record;

Replicas of the Sphinx, the great pyramid of Khufu, statues from the site of Luxor and other ancient Egyptian settings, which required more than 200 tons of sand. National Geographic hired Team Sandtastic to build the project for the world premiere event of its movie “Mysteries of Egypt.”

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