Luis Benitez is leaving the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office after almost four years directing the country’s second-ever office of its kind and establishing the state as the epicenter of the outdoor industry.
The mountaineer and former Town of Eagle trustee who united Colorado’s diverse outdoor community, helped land the Outdoor Retailer trade shows, lured new businesses to the state and helped seed outdoor recreation offices around the country, will be joining Denver-based VF Corp. in a position created just for him. After what he called “an evolving conversation,” he’s going to be the new-to-Denver company’s vice president of governmental affairs and global impact. It was the “global impact” that lured him.
“When we finally landed on government affairs and oversight of the VF Foundation, that’s when this idea really started to take shape and got exciting for me,” said Benitez, who in his guiding life before public service climbed Everest six times and reached the famed Seven Summits a combined 32 times.
He’s also going to help direct employee philanthropy for VF Corp., the 70,000-employee parent company of outdoor industry heavyweights like The North Face and Smartwool that last fall announced it was moving its 800-executive headquarters to Denver from North Carolina.
Benitez is a fan of public service. After two years as a town trustee and four years with the state, he’s diving into the private sector. But it’s safe to bet his name will show up on a ballot sometime.
“Any good public servant has spent time both in the public and private sector,” said Benitez, who once directed the Colorado Outward Bound Professional school and designed leadership development programs for Vail Resorts. “I have an opportunity here to take the things that we have talked about in the public sector and galvanize and rally the private sector. And it’s an opportunity to help one of the biggest organizations in our industry truly find their compass bearing as it’s landing in our backyard.”
Benitez is a compelling speaker, able to energize listeners with his outdoor gospel. He gives speeches like “How Outdoor Recreation Can Save The World.” The father of a young daughter, he has tirelessly trumpeted outdoor recreation as not just the economic engine that can jumpstart rural economies but the lever to address health issues and get kids away from screens and outside. His work to bring all outdoor recreation camps under the same tent — he calls it “tearing down silos” by gathering diverse groups — has helped the outdoor industry forge a more unified voice as it finds itself a nascent yet powerful economic, political and social force.
Colorado’s outdoor recreation office was the second in the country, following Utah. Since then the number of states with outdoor recreation offices has grown to eight with several more states planning to create offices. Benitez was instrumental in uniting those first states, forging the Confluence Accords as a roadmap to promote conservation and stewardship of public lands, support environmental education, foster a sustainable outdoor economy and deploy play as a path toward wellness. He even took his one-man outdoor revival to Puerto Rico last fall, helping the country seed an outdoor recreation economy as it rebuilds following the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Benitez’s work to unite and elevate Colorado’s outdoor industry helped grow the state’s outdoor economy from $28 billion in 2015 to $62 billion today, supporting about 511,000 jobs.
“Luis is a passionate champion for the outdoor recreation industry and his tireless advocacy here at the State has positioned Colorado as the basecamp for the outdoor industry,” state Office of Economic Development and International Trade Executive Director Betsy Markey said in a statement announcing Benitez’s departure. “We welcome the opportunity to partner with him in the private sector to continue to nurture Colorado’s thriving outdoor industry.”
One of the biggest coups for the Colorado outdoor industry was landing VF Corp., which plans to move into the 10-story, LEED Gold Certified building at 1551 Wewatta St. in Denver.
The company’s CEO Steve Rendle called the move “a point of transformation” for VF Corp. He talks a lot about making the publicly-traded VF Corp a “purpose-driven company.” Benitez said he’s excited to see how that can translate into social policy, trade issues, environmental sustainability and supply chain management. VF Corp last week announced it was signing on as the first title sponsor of the all-women’s Colorado Classic bike race.
Last month Benitez tapped Nathan Fey, a longtime steward of wild rivers with American Whitewater, as his deputy director at the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Benitez plans to leave at the end of March and a national search is underway to find his replacement.
Benitez said he hopes to apply to the office’s Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council, which he formed with 24 members representing a diverse array of outdoor interests around the state.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “We’ve all spent a lot of time lamenting that we are all here, trying to move, but we needed to find that connective tissue to galvanize our momentum and I think VF can fill that role.”