Paradise gears up for Bond invasion

Cornwall's Eden Project is about to be shaken by the arrival of Japanese 007 fanatics. Ian Nash reports on how it is coping with increasing popularity

A Japanese coterie of James Bond fanatics has decided it is their job to visit every 007 movie location on the tourist map.

That makes Cornwall's Eden Project a prime target since the latest derring-dos of Pierce Brosnan happen among the spheres and biodomes of the tropical paradise.

"We should be delighted," said Colin Crane, a retired civil servant and Eden training consultant. But there is a note of caution in his voice. "Let's hope they don't all descend on one day - there's 50,000 of them."

Allyn Lesworth, one of the ticketing staff, will be ready. "Well, sort of."

She can greet most tourists in their own language. Admittedly, only:

"Hello. Welcome to the Eden Project. Have a good time," and a few other phrases. There is also a guy on the site who speaks Japanese and knows all the etiquette.

Just 4 per cent of the two million visitors a year are from overseas. But that is about to change as they begin marketing Eden internationally this year. And even coping with the "few" is a formidable challenge, says Allyn. "We put out a box of 1,000 leaflets in German and they were gone within 10 days."

She is on a Modern Apprenticeship that includes languages, run in partnership between Eden and Cornwall College. She's doing Spanish and sign language. "Apart from French and German, the other main language is Spanish."

Everything about the Eden Project is huge: the size of the biodomes, the visitor numbers and the revenue it creates for the local economy.

Five years ago, it was little more than director Tim Smit's pipedream in a redundant china clay pit outside St Austell. Today, it brings pound;111m a year into the local economy, a study by Plymouth University has revealed. This is apart from what Eden takes in ticket money and sales, with daily visitor numbers peaking around 14,500.

Cash has poured into the region's hotels, shops, craft centres and catering outlets. Small businesses and local providers have flourished. Nineteen out of 20 companies in Cornwall are micro-businesses with fewer than five staff. Hundreds of the businesses feed into Eden.

But Tim's vision would have remained a pipedream without one essential ingredient - training. Five years ago, Kary Lescure, Eden's development director, and Mark Williams, head of operations for Devon and Cornwall Learning and Skills Council, sat down in a wooden hut in Heligan and drew up the training plans.

Tim's vision of Eden grew out of his work renovating the Lost Gardens of Heligan. But it needed more than the cash on offer from the Millennium Trust. The disaster of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich bore witness to that.

"The problem with the tourist trade is its seasonal nature," says Kary. "Hiring in April and sacking in September for pound;3.70 an hour."

Youngsters with no incentives and no decent pay left in droves. Meanwhile, older people with money migrated to Cornwall but there was no one to service their needs.

"We wanted to break this pattern, to keep own staff longer with better pay and prospects. We started training in the garden shed in Heligan," says Kary.

The size of the problem was immediately apparent. Eden needed to employ people 52 weeks a year across a range of jobs, mixing catering, horticulture and tourism. This would allow people to switch across high-skill trades with the change of seasons.

Moreover, if the quality was to be high, the whole package had to be on offer to everyone, regardless of age - in Eden and the feeder companies - a complex challenge given the number.

Colin Crane had the skills to spot the right calibre of people. "We wanted people with the right approach rather than formal qualifications. We were looking unashamedly for the 'Eden person'," he said.

Tanya Bellingham, head of tourism and leisure at Cornwall College, joined the partnership to create an entirely new diploma in tourism attraction operations, part of a Modern Apprenticeship that pulls together the multiple skills including environmental tourism and customer care.

Last year, 72 Eden staff signed on at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) accredited by Edexcel. This year, 160 are lined-up for level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualifications on full pay, in the workplace or on day release with college staff on site. "I cannot stress hard enough how important the partnership approach is," says Tanya.

Employees of all ages and educational backgrounds have jumped at the chance to return to learning and widen their skills. The modular programme is assessed through a variety of methods from peer assessments to written assignments. "Beyond that we have about 200 Eden staff signed up for courses at the college."

If you stop almost any member of staff they will talk about Eden and the joy of work with more zeal than a Japanese Bond addict. The value of training is rapidly singled-out as invaluable.

Rosie Rickard quit nursery teaching some years ago and jumped at a job at Eden in retail selling and plant husbandry. How many people in the plant trade get to know the science in such depth?

"Working here is like someone's dream that has become a reality in which we can all share," she says.

A week working with the "green team", as the horticulturists are known, has motivated Rosie to sign up for a level 3 Royal Horticultural Society diploma at Cornwall College. Her future may lie in the business or in a return to teaching in her new trade. "I am undecided," she says.

Anne Vendy, in admin reception, meets the front-line visitors. "I think you can pass on the enthusiasm and excitement to everyone you meet. I did horticulture here as a challenge (also after a stint with the green team).

"It's many years since I've studied. I find it hard but I'm sticking at it. It drives my husband mad but it adds to the job I do. I've done my foundation MA and I'm happy with that," she says.

And it has made her far more aware of her surroundings. "It's made me wake up about recycling and the environment. I did not think much about it before I worked and studied here."

Even high-flying graduates are signing up for Modern Apprenticeships. Francis Shepherd, archaeology graduate from Lampeter College, spotted a real opportunity at Eden.

"I wanted to work in conservation management and this was the perfect opportunity." He never considered returning to learn when he took the job. "But it was an integral part of the job and just what I need," he says.

Tanya Bellingham sums up the level of enthusiasm when describing the staying power of students. "I have taught hundreds of courses and thought a 75 per cent retention rate was excellent. The stay-on rate at Eden last year was 100 per cent.

"We will keep encouraging staff to go on. We are looking at foundation degrees and postgraduate work in leisure and tourism."

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