Everest climber mixes business and adventure in Colorado

Luis Benitez tapped to lead state's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office

Noting a collection of companies, natural assets in the state and a workforce animated by getting outside, Gov. John Hickenlooper carved out a spot for outdoor recreation under the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in 2015, Utah was the only other state with a similar governmental post.

"It sounds like one of those awesome dream jobs – and frankly, it is," admits Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

But don't let the outdoor czar's modesty fool you. His position stands to influence a massive – and growing – segment of our local economy.

In Colorado:

  • Outdoor recreation generates $35 billion in consumer spending annually.
  • The industry accounted for 300,000 local jobs
  • In 2014, the outdoor recreation and lifestyle sector paid out a whopping $4 billion in wages

While the Centennial State might be known for its slopes – we're ranked No. 1 in the nation for overnight ski visits – Benitez says. "Skiing represents only $5 billion in industry earnings."

Beyond resorts, Colorado houses gear manufacturers, retailers and guides operating in a broad range of arenas, from hunting and fishing, to biking, hiking, rafting and camping – even ATVing.

"This isn't a part-time, seasonal thing," says Benitex.

And neither is his affinity for the great outdoors.

Benitez was "a really sick little kid," he recalls. His asthma was so bad he couldn't go outside regularly until he was 10 years old. But that didn't stop him from lending a hand at his grandpa's outdoor shop in St. Louis, where he stocked shelves after school.

Benitez's doctors encouraged him to swim indoors and spend time at altitude, too. His family started summering in South America – the elevation equivalent of living in Leadville – where Benitez stretched and strengthened his lungs, hiking in the mountains. 

At 14, Benitez was healthy enough to climb 19,347-foot Cotopaxi in Ecuador, his father's homeland – and that was only the beginning.

Benitez has made 32 successful attempts on the Seven Summits – six on Everest. He toured with Outward Bound before joining a New Zealand-based guide company in 2000, where he garnered a reputation as one of the most sought-after mountaineering guides in the world.

"For me, climbing has been a lifelong journey attached to health and wellness," says Benitez. The mountaineer's professional experience, though, is broader than that. Benitez has consulted for Vail Resorts, and when Gov. Hickenlooper called him, he was serving on town council in Eagle, working to expand the community's mountain bike trail system and develop a forthcoming white water park, among other projects.

Now Benitez is drawing on decade of diverse industry experience to unite entities that have failed to coordinate the way other big industries have.

"It's a lot easier to organize a homogenous group," Benitez says, pointing to the energy and pharmaceutical industries.

It's not that recreationists have competing interests, per se.

"But everybody has their own constituency to represent," he says.

The goal, then, is to bring together key industry players, and help them understand that they're part of a larger collective organism that's an economic powerhouse here in Colorado.

To that end, the outdoor czar built an advisory council, a statewide coalition of gear manufacturers, guides, conservation groups and land-management agencies, among other vested parties. The group gathers quarterly to identify potentially divisive issues – wilderness access, for example – and find common ground.

OREC Advisory Group Members include:

When he isn't forging networks, Benitez might be concentrating on, say, conservation and stewardship – or economic development, the latter of which involves recruiting new companies to Colorado and making sure existing outdoor businesses have the tools they need to operate: access to cash, for example, or permits for land use.

Benitez has brought business to the state including: Brooklyn Boulders from New York, Haibike from Germany and Evo from Seattle/Portland.

Benitez is also working to get academia "caught up," he says, with an industry that has historically been advanced ad-lib by passionate people. Western State Colorado University is preparing to launch an Executive MBA crafted specifically for the outdoor industry, and that's something Benitez has pushed hard for since taking office in 2015.

In the meantime Benitez is working with other state schools, among them Colorado Mountain College and Metropolitan State University of Denver, to quantify and qualify mid-level degree programs for components in the outdoor industry: ski and snowboard shaping, bike building and trail forging, for example.

"There's an entrepreneurial spirit in Colorado – and what we really want to do is capture and harness that," Benitez says.

Categories: Economy/Politics, Magazine Articles