WSIA Parasail Operators Symposium 2021 Recap: New Location & Record Attendance

At this year’s Parasail Operators Symposium, presented by Custom Chutes, over 300 operators, owners, captains, crew and industry professionals reunited in-person at the beautiful Hyatt Regency Sarasota, to discuss best practices, safety and training, the search for captains, and various other important topics.

Now in its eleventh year, the 2021 event was a huge success and garnered a record crowd. The new Sarasota location was well received and the new larger meeting area allowed ample space for all in attendance. With easy access to the water for demos, a great pool area, and all rooms on-site, it might be our best location yet!

Photos: Brandon Thomas

The event kicked off with a welcome breakfast and opening remarks from Larry Meddock, James Vaught and James Krawczyk.

The speaker lineup began with a presentation by Capt. Rachel Bryant and Lt. Seth Wagner from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), followed by LCDR Peter Bizzaro from the US Coast Guard, addressing trends and important topics in boating safety.

Next up was our expert insurance panel, with representatives from Belter, Xinsurance, Prime, McGowan Allied, Morris & Reynolds and more. At a time when insurance changes are a big topic in parasailing, this informative session was a chance for operators to learn more and ask important questions.

A familiar face at the event was Michael Harlow with the FAA, who provided an update on the latest flight rules and reviewed a recent case study to help instruct current operators.

Katerina Koperna from ASTM International is another “regular” at WSIA events, and joined us virtually this year, to give a brief overview of the current state of the safety standards and any balloting underway.

Following these great sessions with our partner organizations, we heard from our presenting sponsor, Custom Chutes. Lee Abbott went through a series of new product updates, for both convenience and safety. Topics addressed the effect of the global supply backlog, predicted order lead times, and even took a few questions. 

Next, Keith Brown from Volvo Penta spoke about their upcoming innovations and product changes, all of which attendees could see up close at their booth in the exhibitor hall. The audience was very engaged and discussed engine changes and backwards compatibility, warranties, and the innovation roadmap ahead.

Rob Guarini from CWS Boats made a brief introduction and answered a few questions from the audience about his perspective on the industry, and what he’s seeing as a boat manufacturer.

Then we jumped into “speed rounds,” which are brief, rapid-fire presentations from our tier-3 sponsors. Indexic led the way, with a short video about their online booking and waiver software, then Brad Smaling from CustomUSB talked about some new products.

Rachel Dickey from Tripshock gave an overview of how their booking site can benefit parasail operators and Josh Foley from Everything But Stromboli covered what’s new in memory cards, USB drives and ways to enhance the customer experience.

Finally, J. Parker Lindsay from Xinsurance recapped some topics from the expert panel earlier in the day and took a few additional questions.

In group discussion time, the owners, captains and crew in attendance covered the need for qualified captains, and strategies for recruiting and developing more. 

Safety and best practices are always big themes at the Parasail Operators Symposium. That was made a focus at this year’s event with the playing of a public service announcement, written by the late Joe Campana. The 12-minute audio clip tells the story of the rise, and tragic fall, of a great parasail operation, and was a stark reminder about the responsibility in the hands of the captain and crew.

Capt. James Vaught, who is also the WSIA board secretary and member of the executive committee, helped to rally the crowd and encourage more participation in the parasail committee. We gathered over 20 new people willing to meet and help strategize how we can best support the parasail industry.

In the early afternoon, we broke from general session for on-water demos and networking time in the exhibitor hall.

Everyone regrouped at The Boathouse for a cocktail reception hosted by Indexic, followed by a delicious banquet dinner. To wrap up the first day, four awards were presented to some very deserving operators.

There were three Recognition of Excellence awards: Steve Potate presented an award to Kenny Pastor, and Turtle awarded his long-time friend, Joel Richard. Dave Winkler told a few stories and presented an award to Kevin Kramer, which was accepted by his manager, Christian Ball.

Then Lee Abbott took the stage for a heartfelt, funny and insightful presentation on his father, and Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Chris Abbott. Chris was instrumental in the early development of the parasail industry, from chute design and experimentation, to performing stunts for TV shows and movies.

Our second day opened with more group discussion on possible inclusion of water craft rentals, including some helpful Q&A time with BRP representative, Larnel Smith.

Those talks transitioned well into the next expert panel for manufacturers. Reps from Custom Chutes, CWS Boats, New England Ropes, BRP and a team from Volvo Penta addressed current supply chain issues and product availability, safety innovations, future expected engine updates, among other spirited exchanges with attendees. 

Before breaking for lunch, attorneys from the firm Wiggin & Dana, Joe Grasso and Leah Mantei, gave a presentation covering risk management and liability concerns for operators. Waivers and proper flight documentation were discussed in questions from the audience.

The final session of the day was a group discussion on finding new captains and strategies on promotion-from-within to assure a strong pipeline of talent to support the industry. 

Led by Neil Newton, this time was also utilized by some new operators to talk about their challenges starting out, as well as aspiring crew who wanted to know more about the financial opportunities in becoming a captain. 

After more demos and exhibitor time, attendees re-grouped for a cocktail reception sponsored by Greg Vanderlaan and UFO Parasail.

That got everyone ready for the big finale of the event: the Parasail Olympics! It’s a timed, head-to-head ninja course that tests parasail crew skills. 

This year’s course was sponsored and built by the amazing team at Custom Chutes. Along with a crew of volunteers, they put on a great friendly competition. Special thanks to everyone that lent a hand, and cheered from the sidelines!

Ten teams battled through the course, resulting in the team from Parasail Virgin Islands placing third, Scupper’s Watersports coming in second, and the team from Downwind Sails taking first place for two years in a row!

It all came together as one of the best Parasail Operator Symposium events yet. Thank you to our sponsors and to all the companies and operators that were able to be there in person to help us advance our mission and support the parasail industry. 

We will see you back in Sarasota in November 2022!