Friday, 15 October 2010
An interview with... Farnham Castle
Squatting on a hill to the north of the town centre, Farnham Castle keeps a solemn eye on the folk below.
The history of the building is fascinating, you can read about it on their website, and the historic keep is now free to visit - open 6 months of the year.
But I wanted to know what went on today inside Britain's oldest continuously inhabited building.
Before arriving to talk to Matthew MacLachlan at the castle I had some preconceptions. The combination of fortifications, albeit ancient, and scant signage bar a simple "International Briefing and Conference Centre" I remember reading many years ago misled me into thinking this was yet another of the area's military nerve centres.
But I was wrong, and once again surprised by the diversity of businesses based in Farnham - seen by many as a sleepy nondescript commuterville where retired stockbrokers sit-out their days raging at any and every plan to drag the town into the 20th (sic) century.
For nearly fifty years the castle has been used as an intercultural training centre, visited by employees from blue chip companies and not, a bit to my disappointment, as a secret military base.
The steady globalisation of business since the advent of affordable air travel has created a market for cultural training. As preparation for business negotiations or an extended overseas posting the training can pay for itself many times over, and in many cases help with the health and well-being of those posted to countries whose culture differs significantly from ours.
So, what's it like doing business in Farnham
"Well we wouldn't choose to launch our business here if we were starting today," started Matthew, although his smile said this was part of a multi-layered answer. Which it was. Plus it's a somewhat moot point, given the practicalities of moving a historic building, brick by brick...
"The traffic can be terrible, the train connection is okay for London, if a bit slow, but near-impossible for anywhere else, particularly Dorset and the West Country; plus in our industry there's often a preconception that London-based training centres are of a higher calibre - which of course is a view we take serious issue with."
"But our clients love the setting. The combination of the castle's historic buildings dating back to the 15th century, the picturesque town centre and Farnham Park create a break from everyday business life and contribute to a great atmosphere for learning."
What one thing, given the chance, would you change about the town?
"It would be a straight choice between fixing the traffic, finally getting something under way on the East Street development, or improving the rail links."
Has the internet or modern technology changed your business?
"Yes, and we're adapting all the time to new developments. For example three years ago the top three referrers for visitors to our website was Google, Wikipedia and then direct from mailings etc. Now it's still Google at number one, but with a much smaller proportion, then Twitter.
"Twitter has helped us directly win clients and find trainers. We provided the venue for Farnham Twestival last year simply from a reply to a tweet.
"When we needed an expert on Greenland last year we were led from the website of the Greenland Chamber of Commerce to the Danish Chamber of Commerce in London."
Danish? I didn't know Greenland was part of Denmark.
"Neither did I, and neither did the lady from the Danish Chamber of Commerce in London...
"So I tried Twitter - and we found a fantastic expert, calling himself an Eskimologist, it was a remarkable find for a country with a population of under 60,000 - the majority living a traditional innuit life.
"But social media does take time and effort to make it work. Some days it can take time to think of interesting and relevant things to post.
"To get the most out of Twitter I think there needs to be a level of interaction, and with that there's a balance to find between inter-cultural topics and general conversation. We need to sell what we offer but need to keep our followers interested. It's a fascinating tool."
Many thanks to Matthew MacLachlan of Farnham Castle
Farnham Castle is available for training and events. The beautiful Great Hall can take up to 120 guests, and I'm told their pastry chef is excellent and their prices mid-range!