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This article was written on 10 Mar 2015, and is filled under Business, Events, Green, Nature.

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Rebecca Cork: Outdoor events manager

rebecca-cork

Rebecca Cork walked away from a conventional career in the charity sector in London to set up her own company, HoneyWoods Camping, inspiring, celebrating and educating people about nature. She now runs a number of successful, sustainable events each year, including the annual Feast in the Woods, the forthcoming Easter Family Wild Day and regular Wild Woman Retreats. We spoke to Rebecca about how camping and bushcraft aren’t just for men.

OM: Can you describe an average day at work?

RC: In a word, no! I have many projects in various states of development as well as a part time job running an anti-sweatshop campaign. I suppose the aim was to avoid the average day at work and I have most definitely succeeded there.

Some days I might be at home on my laptop playing around with event ideas, getting them set up online to be marketed, creating social media around them and contacting potential collaborators, or playing around with budgets to see what I can and can’t afford to trial. I could be cajoling people I know into a day’s work putting up my marquee or convincing creative people to volunteer their time and skills for my events. Most of the summer I wake up in my van at a music festival or at one of my own events, ready to do whatever it takes to keep the event going, whether this is emptying children’s composting toilets or managing the production office back stage at a festival. Other days I am learning about woodland management for my new project, which involves restoring an old arboretum so that it can be used for local community outdoor education and learning.

It sounds great, but some days I spend indoors working out my expenses, chasing invoices, tweaking balance sheets, unloading vans, washing smoky event equipment, untangling bunting and writing thank you notes.

OM: Have you always wanted to be an outdoor events manager ?

RC: I don’t think I have, no. I think I grew up with fairly low expectations of what I could achieve. I knew that traditional post-university jobs held very little interest for me and so I assumed that I was just never going to succeed. I learned languages at university because I love literature from around the world, but I resisted the assumption that I should be a school teacher. But I knew I loved outdoor teaching from my time at school as an outward bound instructor and from placements teaching abroad. After university I travelled and taught a little, but I kept getting involved with human rights issues while teaching. I helped the current Maldivian President overthrow the previous dictatorial president and introduce multi-party democracy, if you can believe that, and so international development seemed like a good career path. I studied for an M.Sc in Economics and International Development at Bath University to learn more.

I then went into charity fundraising because I realised that my skill set was best used in the UK raising funds for educational programmes abroad for children in various countries where education is difficult to access, through poverty, war and disease. I started to put events on in my spare time to raise money and realised that even though I found it extremely stressful, I kept coming up with ideas for more. I took an events fundraising job in London where I was eventually raising the better part of a million pounds a year but I still suffered from a nagging feeling that I could be more creative.

All the managers were male and better paid but the passion and creativity came from the women. I decided it was time to find work where I was not stifled, away from London’s charity industry, where the men are in charge and the women get lower salaries and form the bulk of the workforce.

So the journey to becoming whatever it is that I am (I am still not entirely sure what to call my career!), was a very complex one, but I think that the essential elements that I was looking for were: to escape the stifling culture and petty politics of traditional management structures in air-conditioned offices; to be able to test and adapt and try again at my own creations without anyone else taking the credit or blaming me for errors, and feeling pride in what I achieve; to encourage individuals, whether children or adults, to learn about themselves and our planet in order to foster respect and valuable life skills; and some more basic objectives such as a short commute on foot, good colleagues, simple living and finding a healthy balance. I just felt that people are more important than KPIs or ROI.

Little things in life, such as a walk by a stream, matter so much more than the ability to buy lots of alcohol after work on a Friday.

OM: What was the hardest part about becoming an events manager ?

RC: Being an event manager is just about gaining experience, with other organisations if you can, and if not, just starting something yourself. Put on a gig locally for Oxjam. Volunteer for a festival as a steward. Contact your local food bank and see if they will support a fundraising event. For me the hardest part was self-belief, which might not be the same for all would-be event managers, but certainly when it came to giving up the full time salary and permanent job contract to start a business, that was when the self-belief had to come into play. I made the decision that it would be better to try, and fail, than to never know if it would be possible. You just have to start. It’s like jumping off a cliff, but if you choose a manageable sized cliff with some good clear water below, anything is possible!

OM: And what’s the best part of the job?

RC: The passion I see in people around me for what I do. The support I had from the day I stated on facebook that I was going to start a company has been overwhelming. Individuals that I barely know have stepped up to help, sometimes grafting for days to get a site set up in return for some ciders and fireside chat. People take time off work to come and help, they problem solve for me, lend me BBQs, clean crumbling barns, look after my dog while I am talking to guests, offer their skills and enthusiasm at every turn. I keep expecting some of them to turn around and say “You know what Bec, I’m tired of this” but they just keep on supporting me. People love HoneyWoods. People love being outside, building things, bringing people together, watching kids learn and explore and discover the outdoors. I have a strong community around me and it is all because I went out and started this thing called HoneyWoods. I love it. If you do what you love, the rest seems to fall into place.

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OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?

RC: Yes, I do, very much.

I can be on a site managing a marquee being put up and clients will come and speak to my male staff about it, or worse, tell me how to do it. I have had men tell me how to run my business so that it makes more money, and they are entirely missing the point of my business, which is about putting people and the environment before profit. I can be at a meeting around a table and make a strong point about something only to be ignored, while a minute later a man says the same thing and gets a pat on the back. This happens with alarming regularity.

In the world of bushcraft, on online forums, I can’t even be bothered any more to highlight the instances of people ‘escaping the missus and going camping’, or complaining that the missus won’t allow them to buy some piece of equipment, the pervading assumption being that men go wild camping to escape nagging wives and kids. I get asked by contractors if they can speak to the boss all the time, and watch their suspicion and disbelief when I explain that I am the boss. Even at the charity I am working with now, I have to explain that the Directors are women and that I am not admin support. Even trying to buy safety gear for working on sites is difficult. There are sections for all sorts of PPE and the women’s gear gets lumped into one section for ‘Ladies’. At least in the world of music festivals there is a little more parity – we all get the chance to be a rigger or a stage manager. You just need to prove yourself as a person, rather than as a woman. I have learned a great deal from the strong and courageous women that I meet working at festivals and outdoors.

OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become an event manager ? What qualifications and experience do you need?

RC: I was given life advice by a very sage woman a couple of years ago, the quote is attributed to Goethe. I can honestly pin the start of my journey into running my own company to the moment these words sank in:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back – concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Qualifications for event management are distinctly lacking in my career so far. I have a lot of experience on my side. I run the events and I bring in the skills that I need when I need them. You can’t do everything but you can make sure that everything is done well. It does help to have an understanding of what is needed so you may, depending on the events you want to do, want to look at courses such as first aid for activity centres, or something related to the kind of events you put on. In my case I am desperately saving to complete a level 3 forest school education course which would help me to create better camping events in the future. I would love to do a basic bushcraft course too, although so far trial and error seems to be working!

Attitude is probably the single most important attribute for event management. Things inevitably go wrong, and over the years I have learned that this does not mean the event has failed; but the structures and processes you put in place to deal with accidents or bad weather or injury are what makes it a success.

OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?

RC: This one is easy. Believing that you are not good at something because it goes wrong. Time and time again while in the charity world I would run things the way I intuitively thought they should run – bearing in mind I have no event management qualifications, only personal experience. But so often, my (male) managers would meddle in details that they did not need to be involved with, making changes, and then would point the finger when things did not go well. I started to think that I would have to leave the world of events and try something else. Looking back I can see that the only true support I had was from my female managers who trusted me to make my own decisions, allowed mistakes to be learning experiences, and encouraged me to try my own ideas. When things go wrong you look at the reasons for it, and you learn from it. You cannot succeed without a thousand tiny failures, if you stopped at the first you would never excel at anything.

OM: What does success mean to you?

RC: When I decided to start my business, I believed that it would never work, but that I would just start it and see how far I got before the inevitable block that would mean I had to stop. Two event seasons later and I have almost sold out events planned in for 2015. I have doubled my turnover in the second year of trading and I have made a very small profit both years, which is incredibly unusual in the first two years of trading for a new business. So I have achieved my goal – a vague aim to ‘see if it works’ – and the next steps for me involve coming up with the next phase of my plan and deciding what success means to me and my company. One of the most liberating and also terrifying things about the business is that it is up to me to decide what those goals are, no one else can tell me what success looks like for me.

But there are some simple things that help me to define success the way I want it to be defined, rather than the way that I thought the world wanted me to define it.

Putting people and planet before profit; encouraging creativity and supporting other new businesses and ventures; treading lightly; and having the time to do the things I enjoy with the people I choose to do it with. No longer do I work all week so that I can afford to go away for the weekend merely to recover, now I spend all my time outside, meeting people, managing woodlands, creating opportunities to learn and explore. I am very proud of what I have achieved. And tired. Proud and tired.

OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?

RC: This question is an invitation for a small thesis on feminism!

I think if I had one wish it would be for feminism to become something to aspire to be, rather than ridiculed or dismissed. And this is for men, women, or any gender identity, you don’t have to be a woman to believe in equality of the sexes.

Gender inequality is so pervasive and engrained in our culture that we don’t even see it anymore. Once you do start to look for it, it appears everywhere. I have lost friends over differences in opinion on issues such as the pay gap (he was of the opinion that women in some positions don’t have to be as qualified to get the job because feminism has gone too far), but I have some way to go before I feel strong enough to call people on engrained discrimination when it appears. My Wild Women Retreat was designed to allow a safe space for women to explore wild camping and some bushcraft while also being a retreat from daily life. So many men tell me it is sexist and unfair not to include men but the simple fact is that bushcraft weekends are a male space. I just want to offer an alternative.

So I guess my feminist wish for the future is that feminism is not feared, but rather something we can all make use of, we can all play a part in challenging existing gender power dynamics – one strong woman at a time!

Tweet Rebecca here.

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