The Ranch at Rock Creek 20 miles outside Philipsburg, Mont., is the world’s first Forbes Travel Guide five-star guest ranch. By default, that makes business major Shea Shaugnessy ’11 the manager of the only Forbes five-star activities department in the world. It’s a position that combines the business education he gained at Colby-Sawyer with the outdoor and hospitality skills he learned growing up in Vermont.
The ranch’s namesake runs through the property and is one of only a few Blue Ribbon designated fisheries. Fly fishing, one of dozens of activities offered at the year-round luxury property, is what attracted Shaugnessy, and he accepted a guide position at the 6,600-acre ranch in April 2016. Three months later, he was promoted to activities manager. Now, at peak season, he oversees 30 guides and balances the demands of managing mostly seasonal personnel with doing whatever it takes to exceed guests’ expectations.
With the all-inclusive ranch experience ranging from $1,100 to $1,700 per person, per night, those expectations are as high as the ranch’s lofty altitude of 5,200 feet.
“We offer a private, personalized experience, so we build guests an itinerary for their activities before they arrive based on their requests, but 98 percent of the time, it doesn’t end up being anything like what they actually do,” Shaughnessy said. “They’ll be set up for a fly fishing excursion in the morning, and we’ll have a fly fishing guide for them, have everything they need, and they’ll come in and say, ‘I really want to go shooting this morning. Can we do that instead?’ And, you know, in the hospitality industry, you try to say no as little as possible, so hiring multi-faceted people is important.”
Shaugnessy cut his teeth making customers happy at his parents’ general store in Reading, Vt., where he ran the cash register almost before he could see over the counter.
“It was a Mom and Pop store, and then my parents got divorced when I was in sixth grade, so it became a Pop store,” Shaughnessy said. He worked there all through high school, the store barely riding out the recession. “The only thing that saved us was our great local following; my dad was a butcher and we had a great meat department that drew people. My dad was a big staple of the community.”
Colby-Sawyer, about an hour from Reading, appealed to Shaugnessy because of friends’ positive experiences at the college and because it was close enough for him to help at the store, which his father sold in 2013.
A major in business was a natural fit, and just as he’d discovered the value of the relationships formed behind the counter, Shaughnessy appreciated the relationships he formed with his peers, rugby teammates and faculty.
“The biggest benefit of my education was the relationships I had with my professors,” Shaughnessy said. “Especially senior year with our Capstone project, which was such a personal experience. I had great classes throughout, but that experience of having so much work to do and so many expectations – respect is the biggest thing you can gain in business, and I had that from my professors because they saw I put forth my greatest effort. You get that personal experience at a small school like Colby-Sawyer.”
After college, Shaugnessy headed to Utah to ski for a season, then returned home to Vermont to open a CrossFit affiliate. He ran that for a year, but the West was still calling.
The Thin Line Between Work and Play
An avid hunter and fly fisherman, Montana had long intrigued Shaugnessy. Once there, he fell in love with its life in small towns under a big sky. He also discovered a new appreciation for history, his own talents and what it takes to manage people.
“There’s something that just brings me right back to small towns, and Phillipsburg is pretty special,” Shaughnessy said. “There’s a lot of really cool history in this area, mining and otherwise, and it’s another great treasure of being in hospitality that I can share that history with the guests.”
Teaching is teaching, Shaughnessy believes, and though he hadn’t been a guide before signing on at the ranch, he found that his experience teaching CrossFit transferred to fly fishing. It may help that he maintains a student’s perspective.
“I constantly try to keep learning in general, and fly fishing is something you will never know everything about,” he said. “If you get addicted to fly fishing, you’ll spend your whole life trying to figure it out. It’s very frustrating, but it’s rewarding.”
Like fly fishing, Shaughnessy’s found his management role both frustrating and rewarding.
“It’s a never-ending battle, hiring new people every season and having a week to train them and needing them to work out,” Shaugnessy said. “Appreciating people and their hard work is a big thing and goes a long way, though. As far as the job goes, it’s great to be able to do what you love as work, but this is my first big management position, so it’s definitely been a learning experience.”
By late summer, when the seasonal employees have trickled back to college or left for their next gig, Shaughnessy can hit up to 18 days in a row without time off. Though he has an office, he’s more likely to be found guiding an activity, talking with guests, arranging a photoshoot, or stepping in wherever needed. When he does get a moment, though, he remembers why he – and the guests – make the trek to The Ranch at Rock Creek.
“People ask what we do here when we’re not working, and it’s pretty much the same thing as when we are working. All our shooting guides are avid hunters and shooters; they shoot when they’re not working. Most of them fly fish, too. The fly fishing guides are fishing their whole time off as well. And the wranglers, they’re off riding. After all, we are the fun department. At the end of the day, it’s all great.”