After losing his 4-day old job, Senan Gorman didn't hang his head and mope. Instead, he followed the footsteps of his entrepreneurial father and single-handedly began building what would one day become of the most well-known map-design brands in skiing.
Gregg: Senan, take me back to the day 16 years ago. You’d just started a new job a few days earlier. Now you’re heading home with a pink slip in your hand. What’s going through your mind?
Senan: Ah yes, back in 2000, I was the Assistant Advertising Director for a small publishing company on the North Shore of Boston. When my wife and I decided to move back “home” to CT where we both grew up, I began the job search. I was hired as the new Graphic Designer at a family run Advertising Speciality company. In beginning our new life in CT, we both had new jobs, bought our first house and prepared to settle into our new life.
To make a long story short, 4 days into my new job, it became clear that my new boss was an unstable madman. Day 1 and 2, I started in Shipping and Receiving for my new Graphic Design job. Ok. Day 3 I was in Sales making cold calls. As it turns out, he had the phones rigged so that he could listen in on your calls and scream at you…without the customer hearing. A little distracting to the say the least. On the 4th day, I’d simply inquired as to when I was going to get designing for him, as I’d had a lot of great ideas for the catalog. He responded with a question – “Did you bring a jacket?” When I answered, “No?” He said, “Good, there’s the door.”
So, indeed my 11:30 am commute back to our new home was a tough one. I’m thinking – OK, it took forever to find this job; the job market is horrible, and oh yeah, I have to break it to my wife why I’m on my way home a little early today.
Gregg: When you made the decision to throw your resume in the shredder and strike out on your own, did that happen in a moment? Was it a desire that had been stirring? Where did that come from?
Senan: My Father has always been (and still is) my greatest entrepreneurial influence. While working full time, he “leveraged” his assets to start a landscaping business on the side. My 2 brothers and I worked side by side with my Dad some nights and every weekend cutting lawns and learning the value of hard work.
My Dad left Ireland at 14 (our oldest son’s age now!) to drive a dump truck in England and send money home; while my Mother emigrated from Ireland to America at 18 to do the same. She had (as she’ll tell you :) $27 in her pocket. Incredibly, they worked to put 3 boys through college and keep us on the right path; instilling everything from a strong work ethic, ingenuity, love and the importance of laughter in everything we do. So the desire had always been stirring for sure. But North Pole Design was born both out of necessity and a desire to work for myself.
Gregg: Your first product, if I remember, was a safety guidebook that you sold at NSAA. How did you come up with that idea and how’d that first sales trip to NSAA go?
Senan: When I started North Pole Design. The original “product” was actually going to be a new Ski Pole that you could swap out the graphics anytime you wanted!! Thus North POLE Design. At that time, with no real money coming in due to a horrendous job market. Nobody was hiring. I had a few projects for Powder Magazine at the time doing spot illustrations; but my wife’s paycheck as a Teacher was essentially supporting us. So I had to do something without dropping a bunch of cash on inventory, etc. PIVOT!
I began skiing at 8 years old and now in my 30’s, I spotted The Responsibility Code on the back of a trail map and thought – “I’ve never seen this before! I wonder how else ski areas promote safety?” After looking into it a bit more, I ended up coming up with a few characters, Guy Skis and Betsy Boards and had them illustrate what each of the 7 Responsibility Code’s looks like. I also included a handful of games and puzzles centered around safety messaging. The next step was to become a Supplier Member with NSAA and attend my first tradeshow where I had grand plans to have my new Responsibility Code Coloring Book welcomed with open arms! It didn’t quite go down like that. Imagine if you will, walking around as a Briefcase Attendee trying to break into “Red Badge” conversations to wow folks to my new coloring book. Thankfully Tim White, the then Education Director for NSAA (Thanks Tim!!) introduced me around to key individuals and I was on my way!
Gregg: How’d that first season go?
Senan: That first season, I was able to get 25 resorts on board with custom covers imprinted with their logo on the front and contact info on the back. I had a run of about 125,000 coloring books that season! Today, that coloring book is still available as an updated Mountain Safety Coloring Pages and delivered as a .PDF with all pages customized with logos / contact info. Resorts can print and use only what they need, when they need them; even specific sections like Your Responsibility Code, Smart Style / ATML / Environmental and more.
Additionally, that same year, I landed my first Base Area Map project for Mount Snow! Which has been the forte of North Pole Design ever since. It’s crazy what getting fired will do for you!
Gregg: How did you land that trail map gig with Mount Snow? Was that something you pitched or had dreamed about doing?
Senan: At that first NSAA trade show, I had happened to meet the then-Marketing Director of Mount Snow and we talked about the Responsibility Code Coloring Book, as well as what other types of design services I could provide. At that time, I had been designing spot illustrations for Powder Magazine and upon sharing a few designs, I was asked if I thought I could design a map of their Base Area. My answer was of course, Um YES!! This was before Google Earth, Google Maps, etc. so it was all based on their existing top-down schematic map that just showed the footprints of their buildings; so with an on-site visit and many reference photos, I went home and hit the drawing board. Back then I was using a combination of hand-drawn assets brought into Photoshop and creating everything in layers. Thus the beginning and evolution of where we are now.
On a side note – Around this time, I had heard about a design contest through Powder Magazine to design their new Web Logo. The Grand Prize was a week long heli-ski trip to Valdez, AK. With no limits to how many you can submit, I had 15 days till the end of the contest and treated it like a multi-vitamin! One-a- day!
Gregg: And, did you win?
Senan: About a month later while working on the Mount Snow map, I got a call from Powder letting me know that one of my designs had been chosen and would I like to go on an all-expense paid trip to AK for a week of heli-skiing? Whoa. Trip of a lifetime! We were able to fly everyday, except one, where we went cat skiing instead. Just pure insanity! I met some of the coolest people on the planet there and had an amazing experience tearing up ridiculous terrain in the Chugach Mountains. Thanks Powder!!
Gregg: I’ll move on quickly to contain my jealousy. On your next sales trip were you selling trail maps only?
Senan: Indeed, the next tradeshow, I set up a booth and promoted both the Responsibility Code Coloring Book and Base Area and Trail Map Design. From that show, I believe I was able to secure a handful more mapping projects and I was on my way!
Gregg: And the coloring books were still going strong?
Senan: Funnily enough, or not really at the time, when going to renew existing coloring book clients, as I was sure I would be starting out with the original 25 and building off them; it turns out many resorts had over ordered and had a bunch still sitting in boxes. So out of the 25, I think I renewed something like 8 and added a few more.
Ultimately I came to the realization that the books really weren’t being used as I’d hoped and decided to move from a physically printed book to a digital download where the resort receives a .pdf of their customized coloring pages and can now print and use only what they need, whenever they need them. It’s turned out much better, more effective and obviously less wasteful for resorts. Which is great, as it relates directly to the environmental and recycling section of the coloring pages :)
Gregg: Talk a bit about trail maps and where we are. Is the future digital and interactive? Will we always have paper maps?
Senan: I think we will always have paper trail maps. They are so convenient to have on-hand when you need them; versus taking out your phone with no glove; praying you don’t drop it off the lift and navigating to the map on the resort’s site. The print-runs have and will continue to go down; but I do think we’ll always have them.
As far as the future of trail maps are concerned and the format? There is amazing technology on the horizon, that I think will begin to be adapted. Interactive mapping that is mobile friendly / responsive is being offered and can be incredibly useful ( NPD of course offers a super robust interactive mapping platform :) Both from a Marketing side and Consumer usage standpoint, interactive mapping offers a whole new level of communication. Marketers now have an opportunity to show off their resort using big, beautiful images; as well as video PER icon that they drop on the map background. So whether it be a trail map or Base Area Map, resorts can apply video to each icon! Additionally, they can apply Special Offers to their maps at any time and turn it into another customer touch point and ROI source.
Also upcoming tech includes iBeacon technology, Augemented and Virtual Reality; all of which can really enhance the customer experience on a variety of levels. Amazing stuff! I always keep an eye on the tech space and see what can be applied to better provide resort customers with the best overall experience!
Gregg: What does all that mean to the consumer?
Senan: From a consumer point of view, they can be on their way to the mountain and see what’s open, what’s been groomed in the last 24 hours, what’s had snowmaking; even what the latest terrain park layout is (because the terrain park crew has updated the map by dragging park features into their new locations and published). So the level of information at the consumer’s fingertips is almost unlimited and can be updated at a moment’s notice. So digital and interactive is here to stay and evolve.
Gregg: And what does that mean for your methods?
Senan: As far as actual Trail Map Design is concerned – traditionally painted map assets will always be sought after as the preferred style. It’s beauty and landscape design is undeniable. Especially from the Master himself, James Niehues. I’ve been one of his biggest fans since I started skiing! That said, I tend to design trail maps in vector-based digital formats with layers upon layers of artwork.This allows for ease of future editing when a resort cuts new trails, opens up whole sections of the mountain, adds new buildings, etc. I do try to maintain a high level of terrain and landscape design and detail; and am even playing around with hybrid techniques blending painted components with digital elements.
Stay tuned there :)
Gregg: Will there ever be another James Niehues or Kevin Mastin?
Senan: Mr. Niehues will always hold the highest rank of trail map designers, in my eyes. His work is and will always be something to aspire to. Kevin also has created some beautiful work! As far as there being another artist to best that of James Niehues, I would simply say – Nope. Maybe a different style or technique, but for traditionally painted maps, no-one even comes close.
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