From setting the scene to working in green

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Logo: Itchen Valley Country Park

By Jen Marshall, Visitor Experience Manager

Selfie of Jen Marshall with sunglasses on
Me (Jen Marshall)

If you had asked me a decade ago where I would be working in 2023, a country park would not have been the first answer- not even top five. Having just graduated from a leading drama school with a degree in Stage Management and Technical Theatre, heading into my first professional job, the frenzied colourful world of theatre was a far cry from the green serene surroundings in which I now sit.

My career has moved quite fluidly from stage management, via operations roles, a short stint with the ambulance service, then operations and event management to my current role of Visitor Experience Manager. Looking at these now it’s obvious to me that the commonality they have is people. Ensuring people have a good time and leave feeling how you want them to feel. Whilst my professional life went one way, my hobbies and interests went the other. I spent more time outdoors and in nature - enjoying the peace, clarity, and freedom it brings - I learnt about climate change and human impact on the environment. So, when the opportunity arose to combine entertainment and interpretation with environmental education, I jumped at it. I was very lucky to join an experienced team at a park undergoing a £3million transformation and have the chance to build a department almost from scratch.

The Visitor Experience Manager role is as diverse and varied as the visitors themselves. My team and I are responsible for every part of every visitor’s journey, from the young families looking for an action-packed day out to corporate conferences. Itchen Valley and Lakeside Country Parks are council owned and it is important that we are open for all members of our community, this means every decision I make must be a balance of the commercial income against the subsidised community offerings.

A theatre stage set up with a pond and greenery
I have brought forest to the theatre…. (Jen Marshall)

On the business side, I oversee the café and catering profitability, space hire over two sites, and develop future plans and business opportunities. The success of the business allows me to give my officers more creative freedom for events, trails and workshops - including larger community events for Halloween and Christmas.

Day to day management isn’t about having the answers and the solutions necessarily, it’s about handling a situation well enough until the experts arrive. Do I know how to use a chainsaw? No - at least not safely! Am I a parking machine engineer? Nope. Can I fix a burst watermain? Absolutely not! But life experience and making sure I spend time on the ground has given me the understanding of what to do when the unexpected happens. As a ‘born manager’ (my teachers used to say), I have the incessant need to understand what is going on, so I take every opportunity to learn from other departments - whether tagging along with tree inspections or poking sewage blockages, I take opportunities as they come.

A stage and deck chairs set up on the edge of a woodland
….and theatre to the forest (Jen Marshall)

I mentioned earlier that I spent an amount of time working for the ambulance service, and maybe it’s fate that many medical incidents happen on my watch. I have dealt with many head injuries from falls off play equipment and trees, countless wasp stings, a gruesomely severed finger and the most interesting, a dislocated knee in the most remote part of the park - which had me off-roading my Hyundai through autumn bogs and ditches, headlights at full beam to find the stricken casualty! There are also incidents that can be laughed about - herding escaped cows from play areas and a man hunt for an Emu which turned out to be a bin bag wrapped suggestively round a tree. Once, I asked a lost child what their dad’s name was and was treated to the obvious answer “my dad’s name is Daddy!”- luckily daddy turned up before the child ate my entire stock of ice-cream or escaped from his cafe holding cell.

Every day at the park is different, but at the end of the day parks are about people engaging with the environment. So, the more diverse we can make our managers the more diverse we can make our visitors. And the more diverse we can make our visitors, the more people we have enjoying and looking after our countryside in the future. Having a theatre background has not been a disadvantage to me, I have so many transferrable skills: working with a varied range of people, creative organisation, creative engagement, working on a wing and a prayer, expecting the unexpected, listening to the audience, making a lot from very little, the list goes on.

I recently met up with a theatre friend who quoted the famous phrase “never work with children or animals”. Well, actually, I beg to differ.

Find out more about the park at


First published in CJS Focus on Conservation Support Services on 16 October 2023. Read the full issue here


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Posted On: 30/09/2023

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