LEADER SERIES: Travel Oregon’s Hilary Sager

Sager 3For Hilary Sager, Destination Development Manager with Travel Oregon, leadership is about rising to the moment, no matter what your title may be. In this time of social justice reckoning, that means asking big questions about how recreation and tourism can be part of creating a more equitable world.

When Hilary Sager signed on to our inaugural Outdoor Industry Leadership program, she wasn’t sure what she was looking for.

“Destination development is a bit different from the marketing side of tourism most people associate with Travel Oregon,” Hilary explains. "We’re typically on the ground helping communities across the state identify and strengthen their local assets, or what we call tourism products, which could be a trail or some other kind of curated experience. We want to help attract visitors, but ultimately our goal is to improve the quality of life for the local Oregonians. To do that, we spend a lot of time meeting with community stakeholders to listen to their concerns and help design shared visions for the future.


“There is a lot to learn in this work, and when I first got involved with the OREI leadership program, that’s what I was focused on. I wasn’t really sure how to think about myself as a leader, especially given that I am still early in my career.”

This was in the early days of the pandemic, when economic shutdown and general uncertainty were sending waves of layoffs and furloughs through the outdoor economy. Then came the murder of George Floyd and the re-energized Black Lives Matter movement.

“For me, the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t a wakeup call, exactly, because I knew that systemic racism was real and insidious. Instead, I think of it as a call to action. It gave all of these big, overwhelming issues new urgency and focus. I felt the strong need to bring an actively anti-racist approach to whatever small part of the world I was able to touch, beyond just participating in protests. I started thinking that my biggest opportunity was to bring that commitment to my work at Travel Oregon, where I was spending 40 hours a week.”

Sager 4Hilary joined Travel Oregon’s new internal DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) taskforce, and decided to make that new role the focus on her leadership training. She was helped along the way by professional coach, Greer Van Dyck, and Zavier Borja, a fellow cohort member and Oregonian.

“I was a Destination Development Coordinator at the time; I hadn’t been promoted to manager yet. I was struggling with the feeling that I was taking on issues that were above my level of seniority, but the leadership program, and especially conversations with Greer and other participants in the cohort, really helped me see how being a leader isn't tied to having a specific leadership title. It’s about how you show up in your organization, and how you respond to the world around you.”

As Hilary started to embrace her potential as a leader, she found herself drawing on expertise from different parts of her life in a way that helped her re-conceptualize outdoor recreation and tourism development work.

“I had studied public policy in college, and before I came to work with Travel Oregon, I was a staffer for an Oregon state representative. Working in policy was really rewarding, because you can see the direct impact you’re having on the world. Of course, that’s still part of my work, but recreation and tourism is about having fun. We spend a lot of time thinking about crafting the perfect vacation! That will always be part of my job here—and don’t get me wrong—it’s great! But working on the DEI taskforce helped me think about destination development from a different viewpoint and to start looking at changing our planning systems and policies to advance a much more inclusive and just recreation economy. I was able to add a new and very meaningful layer to my work.”

Through her work on her capstone project, Hilary identified some core principles that will guide her in the years to come.

Sager 1“One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is the impact of the earliest decisions on any given project,” she says. “For example, when we’re thinking about helping a community develop an attraction, can we include people in that conversation earlier and in a different way than what best practices have suggested in the past? Who may be impacted by this project both positively and negatively—and can we have those conversations at the very earliest stages? The goal is to expand our definition of stakeholders and craft an invitation that is meaningful to them on their terms, not just on our terms or on the terms set by people who are used to being included.

“It sounds very abstract, but it boils down to taking the time to get clear on the impacts, needs and interests of as many groups as possible and then building projects on that foundation. That’s a slower and messier way to start a project. The simplest thing is to talk to a few prominent community representatives, and then bring everyone else in at a later stage. But when people are only asked for their feedback once the work is gaining momentum, they’re not being fully included, which means that we may be building things and systems that have unintended consequences. We’re learning that taking the time to build real relationships is so much more effective in the long run.”

Hilary knows that the work of building a truly welcoming, inclusive and diverse outdoor economy has only just begun, but she’s committed to doing her part.

“I feel a lot of urgency about this,” she says. “But I’m learning to think in terms of a longer time-frame at the same time. I think that by holding onto both—the momentum along with that big picture—I can help make a difference in this space. That’s pretty inspiring.”



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