Forget limp bacon sandwiches and dreary conference rooms, Sarah Freeman steps out with the netwalkers who prefer to talk business in a pair of hiking boots.
Much like any guided walk, a few days before we set off Mark Reid emails a list of things not to forget.
There’s the obvious walking boots and waterproof jacket, as well as a water bottle or flask, but right at the top of the email there’s a reminder to pack business cards, a notepaper and pen.
Welcome to Netwalking – networking for those who, well, don’t like networking.
It was back in the late 1990s when Reid had anything approaching a desk job. After leaving university he worked as an area manager for various breweries, but he gave it up 15 years ago to concentrate full-time on making a living from the outdoors. His Inn Way guide, which takes walkers around a 76-mile circuitous route, stopping off at some of the Yorkshire Dales’ most picturesque towns and villages and via 26 of the area’s best pubs had just been published and he had what most people would describe as a now or never moment.
It paid off. These days he spends much of his time plotting new walks for his latest book or out on some lonely moor teaching others how to navigate the forgotten contours of the county. For someone who never liked being cooped up in an office, it’s pretty much the perfect job and a little while ago he suspected others might be suffering from a similar business fatigue.
The result was the launch of Netwalking, a group which every other month convenes at a different rural pub. During the course of each morning’s ramble the group cover a few miles of spectacular countryside and the issues bothering the various managing directors, entrepreneurs and company founders who turn up.
“Networking events usually take place in an uninspiring hotel lobby at some ungodly hour in the morning,” says Reid opening up the Ordnance Survey map for today’s walk. “I don’t understand it. It seems counterintuitive to expect people to do good business in such drab surroundings.
“There’s research which shows that people who are ill in hospital recover more quickly if they have a view of greenery rather than a brick wall. Part of being good at business is about being inspired and what could be more inspiring than a few hours in the Dales?”
He’s not wrong. After weeks of grey skies, the clouds have briefly broken and the forecast is good. The Blacksmiths Arms in Lastingham has opened its doors early and while the landlord is serving rounds of tea and coffee, there’s not a limp bacon sandwich in sight, only a plate of infinitely superior shortbread biscuits.
However, even at an event that promises to do away with the usual formalities of networking there’s no getting away from the occasionally awkward introductions.
First there’s Henry, who works as a headhunter and who, aside from meeting potential business contacts says he could desperately do with the exercise. Lesley runs an IT business consultancy. She hates business breakfasts and has also signed up to a charity trek to Everest base camp in November and needs some practice. Then there’s Mike, who after 25 years working in media sales in London has moved back to Yorkshire where he is looking to start rugby training sessions for two to seven-year-olds. Some have met before on one of Mark’s other walks, but most are new to networking. None seem like the pushy type.
Mark is also something of reluctant self-promoter. While he takes a degree of satisfaction from currently being the sixth biggest attraction in Harrogate on Trip Advisor (just below Brimham Rocks and Harlow Carr, but above the Valley Gardens) he’s not yet got round to launching his Facebook page and prefers the idea of word of mouth recommendations.
“Like most things, netwalking started in America, but over there it tends to be a power walk at lunchtime,” he says, explaining our six-mile route will take in the limestone Tabular Hills and a view of Hutton-Le-Hole. “Our version is less intense, more of a gentle ramble.
“Everyone wants to do business with people who they get on with and who have similar interests and this is a way of bringing like-minded people together. Netwalking is a great way of developing business relationships, but it’s also time to think and time to reflect. We don’t do enough of that these days. A lot of people tell me the biggest thing they get out of these days is ideas. When you’re away from the office and you can think about projects without the phone ringing constantly or a billion other distractions it gives you a sense of perspective.”
Mark also promises plenty of stops and time to chat. The latter is what the dozen or so netwalkers are really here for. It’s why the only rule once we leave the pub is that all mobile phones have to be switched off.
No-one minds being disconnected from the office for a couple of hours, in fact most look grateful to have an excuse not to check their emails.
While Mark has promised a gentle amble, the first slope almost brings the session to a premature and undignified end. A few scramble up a shortcut to the Lastingham cross, their boots turning a slightly slippy path into a ice rink. It swiftly turns into a very low budget version of It’s a Knock Out and with one of the party unable to move without risking a domino effect, the only option is to reverse back down the hill and take a slightly longer route round.
Resuming on slightly firmer footing, as we we head down to Spaunton Manor, Mark Sebright, founder of Otley-based Imagen PR explains why he has never quite fitted into traditional business circles.
“When I was setting up the company 20 odd years ago I went to lots of networking events, you have to, but they are very dreary. The thing is you end up spending endless hours with people trying to sell you pot plants that you have absolutely no intention of buying. You sign up to these events because you feel you have to and if you come away without having got anything out of it, without having earmarked a new client, you can’t help but be disappointed. That pressure doesn’t exist here.”
By way of proof as we catch up to the main group, Mark is giving a potted history lesson on the manor. It is one of the few historical court leets still operating in England and while it doesn’t have the scope it did a few centuries ago when it was the centre of criminal justice in the area it still looks after the management of the common land around Lastingham.
Dropping down into Hutton-le-Hole, the group stops again. This time its for a quick chat on the impact of social media and sites like Tripadvisor and the benefits or otherwise of employing a sales manager.
Before we move on, Mark hands out blank pieces of paper and pens. For a moment you can feel a collective dread that he’s about to launch into some forced networking exercise. He’s not. It’s just, he says, in case inspiration strikes. He’s had people write poetry before, but most use it just to jot down ideas or a to do list for when they are back in the office and by way of reassurance he says no one will be asked to read their jottings out.
Heading back towards Lastingham, Mark goes a bit Krypton Factor, the round where contestants are shown a clip of a film and then asked questions on what they’ve just seen. Here there’s no footage, just the the countryside which we’re allowed to study for a minute or so before turning our back to the hills.
“The flag of which country is on the pole outside the house opposite?,” asks Mark, fully expecting that no one will have noticed the red and white maple leaf. The aim is to show that we often don’t see the things right in front of us – except half a dozen of the group correctly answer Canada.
He tries again. This time it’s what colour tie was the landlord of the Blacksmith Arms wearing? Guesses include silver and black and while Mark thinks its red, he’s not entirely sure. It doesn’t really matter, there’s no prizes for right answers.
“I don’t go netwalking to get new business,” says Peter Gibson, managing director of Coles Solicitors. “If that happens – and it has done – then it’s a bonus, but it’s much more about clearing my head, about taking stock.”
Mark and his band of netwalkers share the Ferris Bueller philosophy that “life moves pretty fast and if you don’t stop to look around once in a while you might just miss it”. Back in Lastingham as we all prepare to go our separate ways, Mark has one last question – should he bite the bullet and set up a Facebook page? The answer is a unanimous, yes.
Three days later an email lands. It’s from Mark. He wants to thank everyone for coming to the event and has attached a few photos. Since we met he says he’s also made a few changes to his own business. He’s launched Netwalking on Facebook and promises that if anyone likes his page, he’ll like theirs back.
Polite, respectful and never knowingly in your face, Netwalking is a very British way to do business.
To find out more about Netwalking go to www.netwalkinguk.com