Q&A With Patricia Rojas-Ungar
Get to know OIA’s new Vice President of Government Affairs
With a deep background in federal policy, years of experience and connections on Capitol Hill and many recent successes heading up government relations for another trade association, Patricia Rojas-Ungar is sure to keep OIA’s advocacy work on the up and up. Get to know a little bit about her here and stop by to meet her in person during Outdoor Retailer November.
OIA: Tell us a little about your past professional experience, most recently at the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) and before that as a Congressional staffer.
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: I’ve spent the past ten years at the U.S. Travel Association, where I came on board to run and grow the government relations practice and then moved on to help manage several public affairs campaigns. During this time, I’ve built strong partnership with every segment of the travel community, including those that intersect closely with the outdoor industry, such as the state tourism offices in Utah, Oregon, and Colorado among others. My work has revolved around promoting federal policies that increase travel to and within the U.S. with a large focus on attracting high-spending international visitors to America. For example, I advocated for policy reforms that reduced travel hassles for Chinese visitors and allowed them access to more visas. As a result, visitation to the U.S. increased from 500,000 (in 2009) to nearly 3 million today. This growth is critical to the U.S. economy because the Chinese now spend more than $33 billion, making them the highest- spending market among international travelers in the U.S. Thankfully, one of the top activities that the Chinese enjoy is visiting our national parks, so there is an opportunity for OIA members to capitalize on this growing market.
I also spent quite a bit of time educating Congress and the administration on the value travelers have on our local economies, both urban and rural. I helped to develop and maximize our economic data to advance our policy agenda. Prior to my time at U.S. Travel, I worked for two members of the House of Representatives and for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee for then-chairman Joe Lieberman from Connecticut.
OIA: What were some of your biggest legislative wins at U.S. Travel and what learnings will you bring from that to your work with OIA?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: I’m proud of all my legislative accomplishments at U.S. Travel, but passing the Travel Promotion Act, which created a program to market the U.S. to international travelers is one that stands out. The program, known today as Brand USA, raises $100 million from a nominal user fees imposed on international visitors, by the federal government, and those dollars are matched by the private sector for a total budget of $200 million. The U.S. now has the biggest travel promotion program in the world and is attracting millions of new international visitors to our shores. We got the bill authorized in 2008 for five years despite strong headwinds, and reauthorized a year early in 2014, which doesn’t happen often.
OIA: Why not?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: Congress doesn’t usually work on a bill until it’s up against a deadline, and often they wait until the deadline even passes before they act, so it was a real win not only to get the bill reauthorized, but to do it a year early.
OIA: What drew you to this opportunity with OIA? Is there anything about the outdoors, the outdoor industry or the policy agenda that fuels your enthusiasm for the position?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: I am excited for the opportunity to bring some new thinking and ideas to such a dynamic industry and also glad there is a natural connection to travel. OIA already has a great government affairs team with really deep knowledge of the industry and its issues. I think the new perspective, experience and Congressional relationships that I bring to the table will expand the value of what our policy brain trust offers OIA members and policymakers.
OIA: What synergy do you see between your work at U.S. Travel and the work you’ll be doing at OIA given that trips and travel make up a large part of the outdoor recreation economy report and those trips and travel are facilitated by outdoor products?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: Since we know that a large percentage of products that our OIA members sell, manufacture or supply are used during travel, I believe there is a natural synergy and I want to use my relationships with the travel industry to expand our network of allies and partners. It’s critical to bring in new voices from other related sectors to OIA’s coalition efforts to strengthen and advance our agenda. I also plan to use my existing congressional relationships to expand OIA’s network and to build new champions for the outdoor industry. The fact is that our OIA members span the country in rural and urban areas and in red and blue states which means that every member of Congress should have a vested interest in becoming a champion of the outdoor industry.
OIA: Any thoughts on how our industry can build a broader and more inclusive base of support—from Americans and from elected officials—especially as the population becomes more diverse and more urban?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: There’s a lot to say about bringing in new allies and finding opportunities to be helpful to them as much as you want them to be helpful to you. That may include doing more outreach to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, where I have strong ties. Approaching them with ideas about how the outdoors could help their constituents as well as informing them about the issues the outdoor industry already champions is the first step. In terms of engaging urban communities, since there are already so many members of OIA who have stores or businesses in urban areas they can look for opportunities to host or sponsor local outdoor activities and engage local leaders and social media influencers to share the message about outdoor recreation.
OIA: You officially begin with OIA in late November, but you’ll be at the Outdoor Retailer show to listen to and speak with members and stakeholders. What questions will you be asking, and what do you hope to come away with after the trade show?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: A lot of my time will be spent listening and learning more about the different segments of OIA’s membership: suppliers versus manufacturers versus retailers and hearing how they think OIA’s government affairs team can bring them more value. I’ll likely be asking questions about how businesses intersect with federal agencies, if at all. I’d like to know what could help their business grow more effectively and if they believe the federal government is helping or hindering their growth. I’ll ask about their political engagement, their relationships with local elected officials and their interest in helping to advance OIA’s advocacy efforts. Most people don’t realize that even the smallest advocacy engagement can often have a big impact. But let’s be honest, I’ll also be super excited to see all the great gear.
OIA: What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
Patricia Rojas-Ungar: I love to fly fish. Washington D.C. can be so fast-paced and high-stress; it’s hard to find ways to decompress and slow down. To me, there’s nothing better than being on a boat on a river with a fly and forgetting about everything else and focusing on catching that fish. It’s a beautiful time. I’m hoping that now that I’ll be traveling to Colorado more often, I’ll get a chance to get on the rivers out there.