Denny Salas, the new executive director of the Water Sports Industry Association, spent four months with the organization learning the ropes before taking the new position. A New England native, Salas became familiar with the boating industry as a lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Before that, he worked with various politicians on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Salas began his career as a stockbroker, and says the market’s ups and downs taught him lessons he applies to his current role. At the WSIA, Salas says his immediate priorities are increasing membership, controlling expenses and defending what he calls threats to the water sports industry and waterway use. His long-term goals include preserving the annual Coast Guard grant to promote boating safety, facilitating a wave-energy study to calculate shore erosion caused by towboats and helping the WSIA become more politically active.
And at age 32, Salas fully understands what #FOMO means: fear of missing out.
We caught up with him as he was traveling to Las Vegas for the American Boat & Yacht Council summit on aquatic invasive species to ask him about millennials and the challenges in the industry and to find out more about his plans for the association.
Q: What drew you to the WSIA?
A: I became interested when the executive committee approached me and asked if I would be interested in becoming a candidate for the executive director position. Initially I was hesitant because I felt I had a lot left to accomplish with the NMMA. About a week or so after I was approached, I decided to give it a shot because of the research I did on the organization. I felt that the WSIA has had a tremendous amount of success and that I would be able to expand on some of their accomplishments, as well as make my own mark.
Q: What did you find in your research?
A: I found an association that has done a wonderful job working with law enforcement officials and numerous regulatory agencies, but not one that has focused on increasing their political advocacy. I believe the strongest benefit for any association is representing the industry to the fullest extent possible and to the highest levels of government.
Q: How long were you a lobbyist for the NMMA and what do you feel you accomplished during that time?
A: I was at the NMMA for nearly three years, and it was one of the best learning experiences I have ever had. The association took a chance on me when I had very little experience in running a political action committee, and it became very rewarding to accomplish some of the things we did. During my tenure the BoatPAC became a well-known political fundraising entity in Washington, D.C. Our bread and butter became hosting successful political fundraisers for numerous members of Congress in both the House and Senate. Because of that, the recreational boating industry became a stronger political force than before.
I am proud of those accomplishments because it led to us developing long-term relationships with influential members of Congress who support the growth of our industry. This industry is a uniquely American one, and over 90 percent of recreational powerboats are manufactured in this country we love. Truthfully, it was an easy task to go to work every day knowing that in a time of increasing globalization we were representing an industry that was still working hard to create American jobs.
Q: What will your experience in government bring to your new position?
A: My experience will bring an increased sense of purpose to the towed water sports industry. Our industry has done a phenomenal job of developing relationships with law enforcement and regulatory agencies like the Coast Guard, but we have a ways to go in making our voice heard in local, state and federal government. From a towed water sports industry standpoint, we should be doing everything possible to develop relationships with our elected officials so they understand the challenges we face.
Q: What are the challenges?
A: For all recreational boating, the No. 1 challenge is to maintain continued access to our waterways. As an association, and as an industry, we must do everything we can to ensure folks can get out on the water and enjoy the activities that bring people together.
Within the towed water sports industry, our biggest challenge is the systemized threat to wakesurfing. We have battled — and continue to battle — a number of local homeowner associations and law enforcement officials who look at wakesurfing and deem it unsafe or destructive to property because of the wave size created by our wonderful boats. These officials have shown a lack of understanding of the activity and science. Because of that, we have worked with a number of law enforcement agencies, like the National Association of Boating Law Administrators, to demonstrate how safe the sport is and deliver practical data and solutions that will allow wakesurfing to thrive.
Q: This is quite a shift from working on Wall Street. What did you learn as a stockbroker?
A: Learning about investing and long-term financial planning was the best education I have ever received in my professional life.
Q: What do you bring from that experience to your position today?
A: When I worked as a broker we had to conduct ourselves in the highest manner of professionalism and that is something that has carried over to the rest of my career.That has helped me in dealing with adversity and difficult situations that have come up along the way.
Q: Water sports have been on the rise. What do you think has influenced that increase in activity — technology, millennials who are coming of age?
A: Towed water sports like wakeboarding, wakesurfing, waterskiing and inflatables are the No. 2 and 3 largest sectors of the recreational boating industry. When you go out on the water, you see families enjoying themselves while participating in these activities. I do believe the rise of these activities directly stems from the influence of parents who want to create a stronger family unit. I mean, there is nothing like spending time on the water together. You are out there soaking in the sun and experiencing a closeness that is rarely seen in other recreational activities.
Additionally, I do believe that the influence of millennials is captured in the technology our industry develops. Our industry invests a lot of resources into capturing the individuality that the attitude of millennials brings into the marketplace. That attitude is based on a creative nature to experience life the way they want to, and this generation is able to customize their products and develop their own story as to why they chose to do it that way. That essence is key to our industry because we value that input from this generation by providing them with options and a sense of fun.
Q: At 32, you’re young for this industry. What will it take to attract more millennials to boating and water sports?
A: I believe that the recreational boating industry has had a hard time reaching out to our generation because it seems unattainable. Our generation is very ambitious and has a belief that we can accomplish anything we want to if we put our minds to it. First, that is probably our No. 1 problem because we, at times, discount the amount of effort that goes into reaching those lofty goals. On top of that, we seek immediate gratification, and if something is not easily gained or benefited from, we tend to drift to other interests.
In respect to boating, I think the best thing our industry can do is expose this and future generations to the activity. For example, bring different competitions to secondary schools, like wakeboard tournaments or bass fishing competitions. If our industry made the effort to collectively go all in and reach out to high school state athletic associations and donate their products, they can have an immediate impact on the popularity of the industry.
Q: Can you speak to this group in general in terms of valuing experience over possessions?
A: I certainly agree that this generation values experiences above possessions. My sense is this generation loves different experiences and goes out of their way to make sure they are doing so. There is a reason you will see that hashtag #FOMO — fear of missing out — and that is because they love the thrill and excitement of getting out of their comfort zones. I think the industry can learn from that by doing things differently and outside their comfort zones, too. This industry can do more in the way they market to this generation and offering more forms of customization.
Additionally, the industry can make it easier to go out on the water and offer those experiences through their dealer networks. I think reaching out to high-schoolers and college kids to get out on the water and experience the joy of boating with friends and family is the sure-fire way to increase interest.
Q: How has the rise in popularity changed manufacturing and boat models?
A: The rise in popularity directly stems from consumers being able to have options. I know that when I am out on the water I love to be able to go wakeboarding, wakesurfing or tubing. With the rise of technology, consumers are always looking for options, and I think that has changed the business plans of many companies. Yes, fishing is still a huge sector of the industry, but participating in other family sport activities is widely popular because kids can go out on the water and enjoy themselves in many other disciplines.
The No. 1 benefit to being a member of the WSIA is being leaders in getting ahead of damaging regulatory actions that can harm the industry. Across the many disciplines in our industry, we constantly seek ways to make sure our products and activities are safe and fun for the consumer. For example, Florida [has passed] the first-ever parasail law that established standards for every parasailing business in the state. That law ensures that everyone is playing by the rules and that each consumer that visits the state to go parasailing is going to have a safe and enjoyable flight.
Q: How does the association benefit members who are making boats more versatile so they can support water sports?
A: Our membership works diligently to create industry standards. For example, our boat manufacturers are in the process of finalizing new warning labels that will be used industrywide in the next model year. Additionally, our board manufacturers continually revisit and update their warning labels that can be seen at any pro shop across the country. As an industry, we constantly work hard to update ourselves so the consumer has the best information to enjoy themselves safely.
Q: How would you like to make your voice heard regarding water sports and challenges?
A: I would not say to make my voice heard as much as making the industry’s voice heard. The focus is to have our members develop relationships with their elected representatives. The strongest position we can place ourselves in is having our representatives know what we care about the most as an industry.
Q: How do you envision going about rallying various groups to make one cohesive voice?
A: The best way is by rallying around a common cause, and that is to promote and protect the towed water sports industry. All of the WSIA’s members are truly passionate about this industry. They have the utmost love for it and see the benefit of working together to ensure that we face challenges together and defeat them. We all recognize that we, as an industry, can accomplish much more together than apart. I have been inspired when speaking to the various groups of our membership and hearing the passion they have for this industry. And because of that it fuels me to make sure I am doing the best job I can to promote and protect them to the best of my abilities.
Q: How does your group interact with the boating industry groups?
A: The WSIA has worked very well with the various groups. All these boating industry groups recognize that if one sector of the industry gets affected, then we all end up feeling the pain. You can see the gathering of all these numerous different groups at the annual American Boating Congress in Washington, D.C. There is no better gathering than the collective boating industry recognizing the importance of storming The Hill and having our voices heard on the issues that affect us the most.
Q: How do you work with the American Boat & Yacht Council regarding regulations?
A: We are in constant communication with the ABYC so that our industry is not facing any pitfalls. I [was] in Las Vegas attending the ABYC Aquatic Invasive Species Summit and [presented] on what our industry has done to address this issue. It is relationships like these that allow us to have a forum in facing some of the most pertinent issues of the boating industry.
Q: How can water sports and boating make more of an effort to expand their customer base?
A: We all know that by 2050 the country will be much more diverse, with the Latino community projected to be the second-largest ethnic group in this country. As an industry we need to market to this demographic group by understanding what motivates them. The Latino community is primarily Catholic, and religion and family are of the utmost importance to their identity. That being said, we cannot be cynical in our marketing efforts by thinking that creating Spanish-language websites alone will do the trick in reaching this growing group. I think our marketing efforts should be primarily directed to creating an image of family fun across all ethnic groups and becoming more inclusive with our promotional materials.
Our industry has done an excellent job because of the wakeboard competitions. These competitions take place across the world and are extremely diverse and inclusive. You have individuals from all over the world competing furiously against each other, but also having the outmost respect for one another. The atmosphere at these competitions is very welcoming and exciting. Because of that our industry has stood above in the boating market in reaching these different ethnic groups.
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.