Visitor services manager

Laura Hilton

Laura’s job is to ensure that everyone who visits the Clifton Suspension Bridge, whatever their needs or interests, has a good time!

What are your main work activities?

I am responsible for all of the people who visit the Clifton Suspension Bridge. My job is to ensure that everyone, no matter where they are from, what their needs are, or what they are interested in, will have a good time when they come to visit us!

Tell us about your typical working day.

I don’t have a typical working day – every day is different! We are a small team so I might be talking to our trustees in the morning and unpacking boxes of shop stock in the afternoon! We have lots of volunteers who help with our tours and front of house activities so most of my work is behind the scenes – solving problems, making plans for the future and just keeping everything ticking smoothly along.

(At the moment my to-do list includes writing a new strategic plan, sending some files to be archived, planning a new exhibition and getting an old interactive refurbished, pricing up and adding some new stock to the shop, planning our seasonal opening hours and Coffee Cart offers, recruiting volunteers for an annual stock take and booking travel and accommodation for a conference.)

What do you enjoy about your job?

Accessibility is really important to me so whenever I can I will get involved in projects that improve our services for different audiences and I am currently working with an intern on an Access for Autism scheme. I am also very keen on helping young people get experience in the sector so we run a work experience and intern placement scheme which means that we nearly always have students helping us out in our office. It can be quite hard to find time to mentor, but it is always very rewarding – and lots of them have come back to us for references or popped in to tell us how they are getting on with their careers.

For fun I sometimes lead a “Three Billy Goats Gruff” story walk which involves dressing up as a troll and making scary faces at nursery children dressed up as goats.

What are the challenges?

The job involves long hours, commitments on evenings and weekends and planning months and sometimes years in advance – which can be quite tough on your social life. There are also problems and emergency call-outs which must be dealt with immediately, which sometimes means dropping everything I am doing and rushing off to sort something else out. It is a high level of responsibility but luckily we have a good working family here and everyone does as much as they can to support everyone else. (Remembering to take a lunch break and avoiding the ceaseless supply of biscuits and cake is also quite difficult.)

Briefly describe your career leading up to today.

When I was young, I was very keen on archaeology and was a member of Young Archaeologists’ Club. I pursued this dream all the way up to my first piece of fieldwork at university – where I discovered that archaeology happens in all weathers, and as soon as you find something good it is whisked away for conservation. From here I decided that museums would be a more suitable option and in my final year I took lots of extra modules in museum studies. My degree enabled me to get a voluntary post at a local museum service, which soon became a part time job and I curated my first exhibition. I soon moved into the post of local studies officer for the Library Service and from there, running an HLF project for a charitable trust (during which time I completed my masters by distance learning). My new qualification and experience meant that I was able to become one of the first of seven audience development officers in England and, after five years in this post where I had experience of working with 43 different museums, I relocated to Bristol to run a project to build an HLF funded visitor centre. I am now two years into a part-time doctorate in education theory – although now with 15 years of experience to go on, this one is just for fun.

What key skills do you need to do your job?

I am a practical and down-to-earth person and I prefer to focus on improving the experience of the end user. In my current role I have a great deal of autonomy so I have to be confident in my decision making as I am responsible for progress toward the goals I have set in agreement with our trustees. Networking, research and planning are a big part of this as a bad investment of our capital and resources will reflect back on me personally.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to work in this area

To work for a small charity or trust, you need to be very personable and able to communicate with lots of volunteers and stakeholders at lots of different levels. It’s vital that you are very organised (on paper, digitally and inside your mind) and able to keep lots of plates spinning at the same time: I might be working on several tasks and projects all at once and I can’t miss a deadline – but I also need to know what is happening in the next week or month to be able to think ahead. Creative thinking and problem solving skills are a big plus – if you suddenly have to accommodate 90 children in your building on a wet day, working out how they can all fit in, eat their lunch and use the toilets, this is not the time to get in a flap!

Good computer skills are essential – not only should you understand how to use Word, but you need to know how to apply Excel formulas, edit photographs professionally and deal with simple programming languages and functions so you are able to maintain a website – the more things you can do yourself, the easier you will find your work! (There is also something to be said for being able to pack a cupboard as if you are a Tetras champion as smaller sites never have enough storage space).

Do as much volunteering or placement work as you are able to, visit as many venues as you can to see what they are doing and take advantage of any and all training courses you are able to go on – whether you think they are relevant or not. Your current placement might not require you to know anything about safeguarding or object conservation – but these things might get you your first, or next job! Make sure that you build yourself a physical portfolio: keep copies of any brochures, school packs or resources you have helped to work on as they can be handy prompts when writing a job application and useful to take along to interviews. Remember that nobody is good at absolutely everything, so remember the challenges you have faced and be prepared to talk about the things you think are tricky to deal with: you may find that others agree with your perceptions and find that you have a realistic view of what might lie ahead. Join professional networks if it is affordable to do so – GEM list is a fantastic source of information and a membership of the Museums Association allows free access to lots of exhibitions – which can be very cost effective.

Find our more about Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust on their website.

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