Recently a client of my VA company drew my attention to an innovative and inspiring initiative getting business people into the outdoors, for Freshwalks, the benefits of which might surprise a few…
This filthy-wet month, I am trying to spend time outside in nature during my working day as part of the Wildlife Trusts 30 Days Wild. I cannot pretend it has been as easy as last year’s sun-drenched June when gently swaying flower meadows and deserted Norfolk beaches called out to me.
A highlight however, has been the chance to speak to Michael DI Paola, founder of Freshwalks, with whom I had the chance to talk on another rainy afternoon. I asked Michael a few questions about Freshwalks and the benefits of networking in the hills (more information and links at the end):
Can you tell us what Freshwalks is and how you started?
Freshwalks is a blend of full-blooded exercise (in the form of hiking) and networking, with some good pub food afterwards. We organise walks, from a full day 30km trek to a 5km walk, offering a mix of physical activity and networking with like-minded professionals from the Manchester area.
Freshwalks started out as a bit of an experiment. In late 2014 we organised some people within my network to meet up at 8am at Manchester Piccadilly train station and head out into the Peak District. 26 people turned up to this first walk and we were struck with the way people conversed, mixed and responded to each other. There was a different dynamic, a lovely openness to the way people interacted and after the event everyone appeared happy and energised.
By May 2015 we switched to monthly walks and now we have a whole variety to suit different fitness levels.
What are some of the key benefits of your walks and does this differ to people’s expectations?
Aside from the obvious benefits of physical activity such as improved mental performance, wellbeing, increased creativity and reduced stress, there are some reasons why networking in the outdoors differs in a positive way.
We try to encourage a spirit of community, one that is far away from what you may imagine is the typical networking event, with business cards flying left, right and centre, so those who come on these walks with the sole intention of selling tend to be disappointed.
Actually people come with fewer pre-conceptions that you might imagine, with open minds looking to combine physical and mental wellbeing with the opportunity to interact with other interesting professionals. The latter is easier when walking, because even the slickest of networkers feels some anxiety, never mind the average person. However, when you are outside you don’t have to make eye-contact, so it is more relaxing more, less self-conscious. We all start at the same time, nobody arrives late to see that a group has formed. These details help to remove many of the psychological barriers that make networking difficult in a traditional setting.
Of course in the outdoors there are also fewer distractions. All in all people who are nervous about networking in the confines of a room (no matter how big or small) often find they thrive in this environment.
Who comes on these walks?
We have pretty broad church, with a good mix of people and seniority from within the Manchester business community. There is no snobbery here and perhaps this is also because the outdoors is a great leveller.
It’s perhaps harder for people working in bigger companies to justify this to their employer, but this is also changing slowly. It is not the money that is the barrier in the “traditional” workplace, but rather admitting that it is ok to do this kind of activity. As the benefits become more widely recognised in larger businesses we will look to offer business packages.
Although right now we don’t tailor the walks for a particular industry we may do in the future and this may also help to introduce larger organisations to the benefits of Freshwalks.
What’s next for Freshwalks?
I want to continue to grow in the Manchester area of course. We now have a variety of walks, including a Wednesday night series in which we take people out after work and can be somewhere pretty remote in next to no time, so there is scope for variety and increased inclusivity.
We also have a partnership in Liverpool and will be looking at involving people from South Yorkshire in Freshwalks. We are also exploring some exciting opportunities to franchise this in Wales and Scotland.
Find out More on the Freshwalks website: www.freshwalks.co.uk
About Michael Di Paola
Michael is co-founder of award-winning brand agency, Studio North, having started the business over 17 years ago in Manchester city centre. Today, Michael is well known in the local business community for connecting ideas, people and cities through a myriad of branded networks such as TwitFaced, Betworking and most recently, Freshwalks.
Always leading from the front with the purpose of bringing together like-minded souls for their commercial benefit, personal enjoyment and general wellbeing. As founder, Michael spends most Fridays personally leading out Freshwalks events, knowing how to both welcome and connect people, putting first-timers or nervous networkers at immediate ease.