Josh Harrington ’06 helps take Maine’s longest operating ski resort to new heights
Ask Josh Harrington ’06 what he’s done for work at Shawnee Peak ski resort in Bridgton during the past 12 years, and you’ll get a response that is at once economical and comprehensive: “Whatever has needed doing.”
Josh Harrington ’06, photographed with the quad chairlift he has at times helped maintain and operate, holds fast to his childhood dream of one day owning Shawnee Peak ski resort in Bridgton. (Photograph by Marc Glass)
En route to his current position as sales manager, Harrington has been terrain park manager, marketing director, lodging manager, events manager, ticketing manager, and snow sports director. He has installed chair lifts and snowmaking pipes, rebuilt groomers, cut new trails, sold tickets, organized races, taught lessons, recruited staff, mowed lawns, and maintained buildings.
“For someone who really wants to be in the industry year-round, you can’t limit yourself to one particular aspect of it,” says Harrington. “You need to be ready to do anything and everything.”
In this installment of the Q&A series Ask Me Another, Harrington explains how he turned his childhood passion for skiing in Maine’s lakes region into a year-round career and lifestyle, the challenges facing the industry, and the joys of helping to lead the state’s longest operating ski resort into its 81st season.
How did you get from there to here, as far as becoming sales manager at Shawnee Peak?
I grew up skiing here, at what was then Pleasant Mountain, and it was always my desire, as a kid, to actually own this place, or at least run the mountain. I’m originally from Gloucester, Massachusetts, but my my family had a camp in Bridgton, which is how I wound up skiing here so much. We moved to Maine in 1998, and I finished high school at Fryeburg Academy, and then right into college at Farmington. In the fall of my senior year, I approached the mountain management and said, ‘I’ve been taking all of these business and ski industries classes at Farmington, and I’m going to be graduating in May with a degree. Do you guys have any opportunities here?’ After some back-and-forth, they hired me a year after I graduated and put me in a temp position where I was helping the group sales manager and a part-time corporate sales person, who eventually was made full-time. That was really fortunate timing for me as I was able to fill the vacant part-time position. I did well enough with it my first year that the owner approached me at the end of the season with an offer to work year-round. He said, ‘You’re going to have to do more than just sales. You’re going to have to be willing to do anything.’ And I said, ‘Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it.’
And what did a willingness to do whatever actually mean in practical terms?
A lot of operational things. That summer I did lift maintenance, trail maintenance, and groomer maintenance. Basically, I did whatever needed doing for the next few years, which is invaluable experience for working at a resort. I can’t imagine many sales folks at large resorts having the opportunity to put in multiple chair lifts, rebuild groomers, cut new trails, install snowmaking pipes, and maintain buildings. For someone who really wants to be in the industry, you can’t limit yourself to one particular aspect of it. You need to be ready to do anything and everything. I’ve been terrain park manager, interim marketing director, lodging manager, events manager, ticketing manager, and snow sports director. As a result of everything I’ve been involved with here, I could go to another mountain and plug in to just about any part of the operation and help the team.
What roles do you see Shawnee Peak and resorts of its size playing for the ski industry?
Mountains of our size, what I think of as learn-to-ski mountains that introduce families and children to the sport, play a huge, vital role to the industry. Because of our size, proximity to Portland and Boston, our learn-to-ski programs, and our affordability, we’re positioned to draw families in and help novices become life-long skiers. With our trail layout and manageable size, parents can safely give their kids independence here. In Maine, we bridge the gap between Sunday River and Lost Valley. Sunday River is a pretty big mountain with a lot of terrain that’s definitely the next ability level up from Shawnee. I feel like Shawnee Peak is really the biggest small mountain in Maine. It’s big enough for a family to enjoy for multiple years until the kids are ready for the next level. In this business it’s important to keep in mind what families are going through just to access the sport: You have to drive, you have to have all the right clothing and all the right equipment, you have to learn, and you have to convince your kids that it’s fun to go outside when it’s only 10 degrees. Given all the challenges, we try to make skiing as affordable, fun, and easy as possible, and that’s really what we focus on every season — getting families here and into the sport. I do feel that once we get a family here and they have a good experience, they’ll be back. I’m very confident about the product we deliver.
What are some of the challenges facing the ski industry as a whole?
The challenges relate to weather and weather volatility. You really have to have good, cold, dry weather early on to make snow, and then you need to have consistent snowfall through the season — but you can’t have it on the weekends. You need to have it come midweek to give folks from Boston enough time to dig out and travel here for the weekend. Sometimes the snowfall is fantastic, but nobody is here skiing because they can’t get out of the city. Also, the energy costs associated with snowmaking, lighted night skiing, and lift operation are huge. Then there’s the reality that this is, all the way around, an expensive sport. The trend now, especially among larger mountains, is toward consolidated, conglomerate ownership to minimize risk. If the weather is tough in one part of the country, but good elsewhere, the gains at one resort can help offset losses at another. It makes good business sense, but many of these conglomerate-owned resorts are also starting to serve only economically upper-end clientele. I see that as a dangerous thing. If the industry only caters to to the top, once those skiers age out of the sport, you have no follow-on generation of skiers to replace them. That’s why I think the importance of Shawnee and similar-size mountains is going to become more apparent. The industry needs feeder mountains to keep bringing people into this sport.
You mentioned that working 70 to 100 hours a week is the norm at the height of the season. What keeps you going and motivated in the face of those demands?
I get to look at and enjoy a beautiful mountain every day. To work at a mountain, near a lake, surrounded by everything that really speaks to me — to have a professional job and be outside a lot is the best of both worlds. I also get a lot of enjoyment from being involved with people that have that passion for the mountains. This job has afforded me the lifestyle I hoped for as a kid.
And then there’s getting to ski every day.
Almost every day. I don’t ski on weekends. That’s the time for our guests to rip it up. On a typical morning, I’ll come in, check my voicemail, check my email, and get the snow report out. I like to chat with each of the managers of the departments, not really to find out what they’re doing that day but just to keep up strong connections with the folks that work here. It’s such a small mountain, you need to have good working relationships to operate well as a team. After I do all that, I might not have anything super pressing to do for a couple hours, so I can go out and ski. If I have experienced the conditions first-hand, I’m in a better position to sell the mountain. People may call and ask, ‘Is it super icy out there?’ If I have just came in from skiing, I can say, ‘The snow’s great. It’s firm, you can definitely set an edge in on it, and there’s nobody here.’ And people will say, ‘Cool, we’ll be right up.’ Sharing the enthusiasm that comes from just being on the mountain is a nice reward.
What advice would you give to young people who want to work in the ski industry, especially year-round?
Start building a relationship with a ski area where you want to work. I think just skiing at that mountain and figuring out the vibe is a good first step. Obviously, taking your business courses and your outdoor recreation-related courses is important. As you get into your junior year, consider reaching out to some mountains and say, ‘I’m going to Farmington, and I’m going to be graduating in a year or two. Are there opportunities there?’ I think that can get your name in front of them and maybe your foot in the door. Even if you find just one person at a mountain who says they want to keep the conversation going that could be your lifeline. That one person might take your resume and feed it up. If you’re given an opportunity, you have to make the most of the opportunity. If you can get your foot in the door — even if you’re working part-time for Sugarloaf or Sunday River as a ski instructor, a terrain park person, or a snowmaker — if you work hard and show that you’re in it for the long haul, there are opportunities. The turnover rate in the industry among seasonal help is huge. In the wintertime, it’s almost impossible to find enough staff. If you’re a loyal, reliable hard worker with good customer service skills, you can set yourself apart when the opportunity for year-round work comes along.