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Cathy McConaghy

Pink different

Wednesday 30 December 2009 11:00

She gave up a successful business because she got bored with it. Now Cathy McConaghy sells sandwiches from a van. Peter Baber reports.

One day a few weeks ago a Kleeneze salesman was driving through a particularly leafy suburban street in Halifax when he spotted a vehicle he thought looked familiar. Not surprising really, as the vehicle in question was a bright pink Volkswagen camper van with the name “Lulabelle” delicately painted on the side.

He remembered where he had seen it, and quickly went up to knock on the door of the house it was parked outside. A woman with a shock of bottle-blonde hair and sunglasses answered the door.

“I am sorry,” he said, “I don’t normally knock, but I saw your van behind me the other day and I just wanted to say I think it’s great.” The woman quietly said thank-you, they talked a bit more, and then the man went on his way, no doubt pleased to have gone a little way out of his usual run of the day to give someone a compliment. What he wasn’t to know was that the woman he spoke to was Cathy McConaghy, once one of Harrogate’s – if not Yorkshire’s – best known exhibition organisers. And the reason she is now the proud owner of such a vehicle and was at home in the afternoon instead of being busy organising her next exhibition will be shocking to some, and all too typical to others, mainly depending on whether you are a man or a woman and a mother.

What she has to say about her whole experience could also prove starkly interestingfor anyone in the industry concerned. It is certainly shocking that the woman who ran more or less singlehandedly what at the time was the third-largest bridal fair in the UK can now say: “Weddings bore me. They are all the same.” Harrogate itself could probably lay claim to being wedding town of Britain. Europe’s biggest bridal trade show, the British Bridal Exhibition Harrogate (or BBEH as it is just as frequently known), takes place at the Harrogate International Centre, has done for several decades, and shows little sign of moving elsewhere.

The show McConaghy launched and ran for 12 years – Yorkshire Brides – was seen very much as the consumer side of that. It’s to her credit that she could boast 85 per cent repeat bookings year-on-year as the show went on, but it is perhaps not surprising. The exhibitors who would be unloading this season’s round of duchesse satin, organza drapes and pintuck bodices would be totally familiar with the town, and clearly love coming to such an elegant location. The success of the Yorkshire Brides show also prompted McConaghy, who had begun life as a wedding planner but quickly found event organising more interesting, to launch a quarterly magazine of the same name and an associated awards event.

So what went wrong? What prompted her to change her mind? Why has she given up all the schmoozing that running an event like that necessarily entails, selling her beloved show to one of her own exhibitors, Amplitude? Why at the age of 38 has she embarked on a new venture in mobile office catering? She initially says nothing went wrong – she just grew tired of it. “I did not have any interest in the industry any more,” she says. “I had been in it for 12 years. I was an exhibition organiser, so in the wedding industry, but at the same time not really in it.” She insists she made “good money” out of the exhibition. She won’t say how much, but it must have been good. The townhouses in the road she lives in sell for many hundreds of thousands.

One other major influencing factor was the arrival four-and-a-half years ago of her daughter Tallulah. As a single mother, it would certainly have been hard to carry on a job like organising an exhibition – hard, or expensive, or quite possibly both. But like all good entrepreneurs, McConaghy says what has really driven her on has been the excitement of putting together her new venture.

She had first thought of buying a camper van, originally just to go on holiday with, when she had been working out what to do next. “I started thinking that I wanted the camper van to make money,” she says, “and thought of one that I could hire out for holidays and festivals.

“But then I came up with the idea of doing office lunches. I don’t have any cateringqualifications, but I have always loved cooking and food. When I was working for six months on the handover of the exhibition they had a guy who came round in a van with lunches. That was great because it was in the middle of nowhere. But it was always pasties and the like. I thought I would pay double if he could bring me a really nice salad or a nice soup.” We should point out that this is no ordinary camper van. Just as its pink colour and decoration were all her own idea, she has given a lot of thought into creating something special.

“It took me a long time to find the van I wanted,” she says. “I finally found a guy in Bedford who had it. It was originally a 1959 German fire engine, and then it went to Los Angeles to a collector’s museum, and then it went to Bedford. We brought it up in February, and stripped out all its original fittings, and built the kitchen.” Added to that, alongside the sandwiches, soups and salads she sells, she has specially created packets of sweets and other snacks in a design that is redolent of the early 1960s when this van was first in use, when people still went for their summer holidays to Filey and probably spent a good deal of the time huddled around just such a van.

She says business so far has been good. She is already making a profit in only her fourth week of operations, and has so far only been going to the more modest sized office developments in Harrogate. She hasn’t yet ventured to bigger spaces such as Cardale Park. And then there are weekend festivals to look forward to as well. “I am not doing any of the big ones this year,” she says. “But I am doing the Halifax and Swinton Park Fine Food Festivals. I am hoping to do the Lyme Tree Festival in July too, and a couple of Volkswagen enthusiasts’ festivals, including one at Harewood, one in North Yorkshire and one in Cheshire.” It is clearly early days, but yes, she has thought about franchising such an operation as well.

“I would obviously like to grow the business,” she says, “and it probably will be franchising, but I don’t quite know how the concept would work because it is a big investment. It has cost me in the region of £25,000 to set the van up, and sourcing the camper van took months.

If I franchised it out it would have to be with a similar van. Vans like the one I have got are really quite rare, they are not your average Volkswagen campers. When they were originally built they were built as a van, and were then converted to campers.

You could convert a camper back to a van, but it is a big investment.” So for the time being she is working on her own – something that is not particularly novel to her, as outside of the actual exhibition days on Yorkshire Brides the only full-time person she employed was a writer to help her on the magazine. But it is a punishing schedule, as she herself admits.

“This is harder,” she says, “because after each show I could take quite a long time off before the next show and work part-time. But this is 6am to 2.30pm every day, and then prep at weekends.

“At six o’clock there’s a very strong coffee or two. I clean down the kitchen, get it ready and bring in the stock. At the moment I am making nearly 50 sandwiches, five litres of soup, a cake, and a tray bake. I set off at 7.30am with Tallulah in tow, go to the bakers and butchers, drop Tallulah off at nursery and start prepping. It all has to be done for about 11. Then I have another coffee, load the van up and set off for 11.40am.” It’s when you ask her whether she doesn’t ever have even the slightest inkling to go back, however, that more comes out about what she has left behind. I point out, for example, that the new job still means working to tight deadlines.

“I can work to deadlines, I really can,” she says. “On Monday night I was at a party and got in at 2am, but I still managed to get up at 6am to do the job. If it has to be done it has to be done. Lots of people say: ‘I don’t know how you can work from home and get motivation without spending all day watching television’. I actually feel guilty if I watch television. I am quite happy to get up even if I hate early mornings. It drives me to generate more and more business. No, I can work to deadlines. But nobody else around me seems to be able to.” And so out come some of major frustrations of the old job.

The conference and events industry in Yorkshire may like to think it is dynamic and responsive, but McConaghy suggests some of the businesses that feed into it still have some way to go.

“I would come up with really good PR and marketing ideas,” she says, “and no one would get behind them. For instance, when we started the magazine my marketing idea was to have everything locally sourced andeco-friendly. So we would send out challenges to tiara designers to come up with a design that was eco-friendly and that hadn’t had diamonds flown in from everywhere. But nobody would get involved.

“I also remember sending a flier out to all the hotels, saying if you can design a wedding menu to a certain brief, the best one will get a free double page spread advert. Not one of them sent one in. I understand they were probably busy, but I would have bitten somebody’s hand off for some free publicity.” She even notices a similar apathy now among the event organisers she rings to book a space for the van.

“It amazes me that so many organisers I have contacted haven’t rung back,” she says. “When I was organising if I got an enquiry my pack was out in first class post that day and I did a follow-up call within a week.” The new job, by contrast, is down to her and her only. She doesn’t even have to worry about PR, she says, because, as she discovered with the Kleeneze man, the van does that for her.

“It used to drive me crackers that half my life was chasing other people,” she says. “Now I am responsible for making these sandwiches, and if someone wants to come out and buy one thank you very much, if not that’s fine. “The first week I did I finished work and thought, it’s only 1.30pm, everyone is still at work, what can I do?” In actual fact she spends a couple of hours recuperating. “But it’s a much better quality of life,” she says. “You can’t do it all, so for me I have the perfect balance. I have my daughter. She is at full-time nursery, but I don’t have to farm her out anywhere.

“We do the festivals at the weekends together. She loves the camper van. Everybody flashes and waves at us, and then I am working with something that I enjoy – food – and I am at home.” It does sound tempting.