What do you do when you work in the events industry – and suddenly there are no events? 2020 marks exhibition stand designer Rebecca Shipham’s first decade in business, but she could never have imagined her anniversary year would pan out quite like this. By Sam Hawcroft.
Here at BW we’re all about inspiring stories of entrepreneurs who have overcome various challenges to pursue their dreams – but Rebecca Shipham, like many others in the events industry, is right in the middle of her biggest setback after enjoying 10 years of establishing herself as one of the most respected names in her field.
She’s quite frank about the fact that it’s difficult to put a positive slant on things at the moment. While many businesses in the hospitality industry have been able to diversify to some extent, such as gastropubs running takeaway or delivery services, all of Rebecca’s work stopped dead in March. Exhibitions are places of mass gatherings, so they were among the first to shut down, and they will be among the last to restart.
However, as a limited company director employing herself, Rebecca was able to take advantage of the furlough scheme, and she also accessed Hull City Council’s grant funding for small independent businesses. “The furlough scheme has been an absolute lifesaver,” she says, “and the council grant has managed to cover some fixed costs.”
Rebecca found her niche very early on while studying design at college; she had liked the idea of designing for public spaces, so her tutor recommended a degree in museum and exhibition design (the course was founded in Hull more than 60 years ago). It was the immediacy of the art form that appealed to Rebecca. “Obviously you get designs that last years and years, but with exhibitions, they can be built and taken down in just a few days and that's quite good fun.”
The degree is now called event, exhibition and performance design and is based at the University of Lincoln, where Rebecca eventually graduated in 2004, after being one of those students caught up in the transition to the Lincoln campus in the early 2000s. She admits she’d previously been a bit of a homebody, and initially missed Hull, but the move gave her the “push” she needed.
Rebecca then spent two years teaching design – “it wasn’t really what I’d wanted to do, but it was a great first job” – before spending the next four years in London working in exhibitions and retail interior design. Then along came “the first recession in my lifetime” and, aged just 28, she was made redundant. She didn’t really think twice about setting up her own business, and practically overnight, Ships and Pigs was born. “A friend of mine had gone freelance and she said to me, just ring Companies House and tell them you’re setting up as self-employed and they’ll do it all for you. So I left my job on a Wednesday and by the Thursday I was set up and ready to go. There wasn’t really much planning – I just used my computer and got going. I think the fact I didn’t think about it helped – if I’d given it too much thought, I’d have freaked out!”
Initially, the world of being a business owner was a “language I didn’t really understand”, says Rebecca. Her partner, an experienced businessman, was a lot of help in the early days, offering advice on practical things such as invoicing, and she learned as she went along, like most entrepreneurs. She also learned how to toughen up; when she first set up, glad of any income at all, she admits she was way too nice. “I look back at my first invoices and I think, God, those guys got value for money! You learn how to earn a bit of respect. At first I was a bit of a pushover and would just say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that for X amount of money and don’t worry about when you can pay me.’ But you soon learn there is a value to what you’re doing, and gain the confidence that you’re doing a good job, and that it’s worth paying for – and when you’ve got that in your head you can justify why you charge a certain amount.”
Being a “one-man/woman band” in business can be a bit of an echo chamber if you let it, and it’s easy to let your confidence and direction slip if you don’t make an effort to keep talking to your industry peers. But the exhibition design world is close-knit, Rebecca says, describing it as a “really nice family”. “It’s actually a really small industry,” she adds. “Everyone knows each other – so it’s quite easy to build up a reputation because people move around and then talk to each other.”
In recent times, despite the lack of work, she’s kept in touch more than ever. “I’ve got four or five freelance designers that I keep in regular contact with – two, in particular, I Skype daily, and we'll always send each other screenshots of our work and say, what do you think of this? Just having that network is invaluable because I’d had about a year before any of that came along, and I’d just be sitting with my head on my desk, thinking, I can’t do this! You need other people to bounce ideas off. And we’ve really supported each other through this; we ring each other regularly and make sure we’re doing OK. And if they're struggling financially, I'll give them a push on social media saying, ‘don’t use me, use these guys’ – and vice versa; we'll help each other out when we need to.”
Rebecca’s service is a “one-stop-shop” in that it’s not just about the design, but the build and installation too; she has years of experience in sourcing materials to a budget and finding a balance between creativity and practicality. “I’ve had some clients come to me with wild ideas and it’s about channelling those and saying, we can’t actually do that, but here’s what we can do. And I’m really keen for clients to meet the build team – I’m not there myself with a hammer and nails! I like to get them talking and liaising – I think it makes for a better exhibition because everyone knows each other.”
While she’d like to be present at every build, technology being what it is nowadays means that most of the time she’s based at home in Albert Avenue, west Hull, working from her dedicated office, The Studio, at the front of the building. “I can’t be everywhere, and in the good old days, I had design work coming out of my ears! I could be anywhere in the world, as most of my clients just email me, but if it’s a case of meeting them I prefer to go to them so I can get a feel for their business and understand the product they’re trying to sell.”
And now we’ll confront the elephant, or rather, the pig, in the room. Why Ships and Pigs? “Well, my surname is Shipham,” says Rebecca, “which explains ‘ships’, but everybody always calls me Shipman, which is really annoying, so ‘pigs’ comes from the ‘ham’ bit! It’s amazing how many people remember it. I didn’t think they would – I thought I’d made a mistake, but I’ve had people say to me four or five years on that they’ve been in meetings and someone has said, ‘I’m sure there’s a business called Ships and Pigs,’ and it’s just stuck in their minds.”
In 2015, Rebecca was named freelancer of the year by IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed), which gave her the push to become a limited company. “It just changed my mindset; it didn’t really change the way I worked but I suddenly felt I was a proper business! Putting yourself up for industry awards just gives you a bit of a boost.” Further recognition came last year when Rebecca was a finalist in the EN (Exhibition News) Awards and won Yorkshire’s exhibition designer of the year at Lux-Life magazine’s Designer Awards.
Now, though, Rebecca is looking towards the post-Covid future of exhibitions which are likely to include innovations such as personally branded touch pens, the use of safer materials such as copper (which has antiviral properties), and washable hard furniture and surfaces, along with the inevitable one-way layouts and extra space to allow for social distancing. Meanwhile, the Event Industry Alliance has set up Project Confidence to provide a unified voice and promote the safe return of events, and Rebecca fully supports We Make Events’ Red Alert appeal to the Government to give more help to the live events industry and the supply chains that depend on it.
She is hopeful that things will be able to slowly restart from October – and she’s adamant that virtual shows will be no substitute. “I think face to face is really important. Exhibitions are worth £11 billion to the economy, and the event industry as a whole is worth about £100 billion. A lot of the people I work with in putting up exhibitions will then go off and build a stage at Glastonbury – it’s all interlinked. These are talented people and they’re losing their jobs; we don’t know what’s going to happen – it’s scary.”
Rebecca can also offer interiors, branding, and website design services – and if she has to, she’ll be forced to diversify more into these areas just to put food on the table. But it’s not who she is. “I’ve had 10 years self-employed in this industry, plus three years working for someone else. I’m the exhibition girl! It’d take a bit of a change of mindset to do something else, but I don’t really want to. I just want to see what happens, and hopefully, things will start to pick up.”
In the meantime, she just wants to put the message out, especially to firms in our region, that she’ll be ready and waiting to take on work as soon as the situation improves. “Any businesses in Hull, when they feel comfortable to exhibit again – just give me a call. They'll get a specialist service from an independent, and the full agency package.”