As a kid riding his bike through Assiniboine Park’s “monkey trails” and doing tricks on “Devil’s Dip”, Kevin Hunter would never have guessed he’d one day be in charge of singing the park’s praises to the world.
“Assiniboine Park and Zoo were both a huge part of my childhood,” says Hunter, the Director of Marketing & Community Engagement for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy (APC), which oversees Winnipeg’s historic park, including its zoo. “My friends and I would spend entire days here during the summer and, now that I have a family of my own, it means a lot to be part of making this place something really special for them and so many other families. I really feel I have the best job in the world.”
When Hunter joined four years ago, the APC had already begun working on its 10-year, $200-million redevelopment plan, launched in 2009 to expand and improve the zoo and other public spaces. He’s charged with promoting the park and these new initiatives, including the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s brand-new Journey to Churchill northern species exhibit which just opened earlier this month, featuring animals including polar bears, seals, wolves and snowy owls.
“So much of our role here is to create new and exciting things, which is a big part of what makes what I do so much fun,” he says. “The whole redevelopment of the park and zoo is really unbelievable, and it naturally played a big part in what attracted me to this position.”
Just like the park’s infamous monkey trails, it was a series of twists and turns that ultimately led Hunter to this role.
“I was nearing the end of a Sociology degree at the [University of Manitoba] and realized I had been working really hard towards a career, but not necessarily the career I really wanted,” he explains. Now focused on becoming a radio broadcaster, he applied to RRC’s Creative Communications program and was accepted just before graduating university.
Enter the next twist: Shortly after starting CreComm, Hunter made another important realization.
“After my first week of classes in Advertising [one of the three CreComm streams of study at the time], I was completely hooked on marketing,” he says. He turned away from the radio dream and hasn’t looked back.
“I’ve always been interested in human behaviour and group dynamics. Seeing that I could have a career based on trying to influence those behaviours to benefit causes and organizations I truly believe in made me realize marketing was the perfect fit for me.”
After graduating from CreComm in 1997, Hunter worked in marketing and communications jobs mostly in the not-for-profit sector. Then about five years ago, the father of two decided to try his luck at working for himself, providing marketing consulting for not-for-profit organizations.
Time for twist number three: Happy and successful with his consulting business, he had no plans for a change – until he got a call out of the blue about a new position with the Conservancy.
“It was an opportunity that was just too exciting to pass up,” he says.
Hunter and his team have since provided the marketing and PR support for all APC departments, including its fund-development team and the millions of dollars raised towards the Imagine a Place revitalization campaign. The multi-faceted project already boasts the creation of the child-friendly Nature Playground, the expanded Riley Family Duck Pond, and the new Qualico Family Centre.
Besides Journey to Churchill, big changes at the zoo have included the indoor Polar Playground and Tundra Grill, Toucan Ridge and the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. Future enhancements include development of a new Assiniboine Park Conservatory near the park’s Formal Gardens, detailed design for which is slated to begin next year.
Hunter also considers himself lucky to have been part of initiating some new ways to bring people into the park. Free shows such as concerts and the ballet had already run throughout the summer at the Lyric Theatre, but something was missing.
“A colleague and I started with APC at the same time and we both had the same thing written down as something we wanted to do – Movies in the Park,” said Hunter. “We had seen it done in other markets and it seemed like a natural fit for Assiniboine Park. The first night, we were ecstatic to see a couple thousand people show up and now we can see upwards of 10,000.”
Hunter says his time at RRC helped ready him for the intensity of his career and role at the park in a couple of big ways.
“You don’t realize it at the time, but the pace of the work and the schedule in CreComm is really preparing you for the real world of working in this field. And all of the team projects are training you for the real world too – today, there’s rarely a project where I don’t need to draw on the skills of other people and departments to make something happen.”
His job can be hectic – especially on days when the unexpected happens – but he wouldn’t trade it.
“To be in this field, I really think you have to be the kind of person who isn’t interested in a ‘typical day’. Every day here is exciting and different,” he says. “You can be thinking you’ll be spending your day writing marketing and communication plans, and then you find out in the morning that two tiger cubs were born overnight and your day changes completely.”
Click here for more information about Red River College’s Creative Communications program.
Click here to learn more about Assiniboine Park Conservancy and its redevelopment plan.
Profile by Sherry Kaniuga (Creative Communications, 1998)