Fiona Jeffery: Every drop makes a difference

Interview Article with Atta Director Fiona Jeffery in Time & Leisure Online:

Diplomacy, leadership and creativity are a few of the skills Fiona Jeffery, former Chairman of the World Travel Market, brings to the Just A Drop charity writes Paul Critcher

Anyone who works in the travel business will know the World Travel Market (WTM) – a behemoth of a trade show that encompasses the Excel Exhibition Centre every November and features 5,000 companies welcoming 50,000 people coming from nearly 200 countries around the world. It has become the largest dedicated trade travel and tourism event in the world. Anyone who has walked the large halls of the WTM will know what great business opportunities it offers with stands, seminars and networking events aplenty, and if you've attended you'll also know how exhausting a full day of it can be. So imagine running the event? For 26 years Fiona Jeffery provided visionary leadership and determination to make WTM the best it could possibly be.

Having stood down as chairman, Fiona is now able to dedicate more of her time to Just a Drop, a charity that raises funds to put clean water and sanitation into communities across the world, It's a charity that Fiona founded and has been able to grow using her business acumen and considerable contacts.

I met with Fiona for a coffee near her home in Wimbledon to find out what it takes to become such an influence in her chosen sector - travel. A stylish Glaswegian, Fiona bustles into the cafe with her Staffordshire bull terrier, Captain, fresh from a walk across Wimbledon Common. She is intelligent and warm, and it's obvious that a natural ability to put people at ease has held her in good stead, in a career that has encompassed dealing with everyone from heads of state, government ministers to international delegates.

'WTM was five years old when I joined and there were 350 exhibitors. I eventually became exhibition director and ultimately managing director and then chairman. When it started it was a very UK focused event running out of Olympia and so over time my challenge was to internationalise it and make it an international brand that the travel and tourism industry loved, respected and wanted to take part in. For me it was never about running the biggest travel and tourism event in the world, it was about running the best. It was always about making sure that the reason the business existed was that people found it valuable and that we were adding value all the time – whether it was at government level, the business level of sales and marketing or whether it was through a sense of responsibility as an industry that we could do more than just run events.

'So I developed a Responsible Tourism Initiative, which was all about educating how the industry could become more accountable and responsible for delivering its business. My raison d'être when I took over WTM was that unless we protect the very product we're seeking to promote then we destroy our own business model and that to me didn't make any sense. That was way before the environment became an issue to people - nobody was talking about the environment, so I was very much a lone voice in the industry.'

That initiative is now known as World Responsible Tourism Day and works in partnership with the UN. It's the largest gathering of Responsible Tourism professionals in the world with 5,000 people attending.

'It might not change the world,' says Fiona. 'But I think we all need to take more responsibility and if we know how to make a positive difference and a change, the chances are we would do it if we could.'

Given that a lot of top roles in business are occupied by men, I ask if she found it tough as a women to take on the role at WTM? But, if anything, Fiona sees her gender as an advantage.

'The nature of the role required me to be able to compete in a very commercial world, but I wouldn't say it was male dominated, and I just had to be able to compete on a business level. Where I think being a woman worked is on an international stage where the art of diplomacy and understanding is important. The ability to relate to all cultures, whether you're dealing with the Japanese or someone from South America, the Middle East or the Congo was always important. In that sense I was always good at building trust with people, and on an international business level that was a considerable advantage. Women tend to be well organised, so I think being well organised helped. Although I wouldn't say I was particularly well organised - I'm chaotically organised.

'I always had a vision for the business and I wanted it to be successful and grow and be international, but as a woman I wanted it to add value. Adding value is a common statement now but 25 years ago it wasn't. I always felt that whatever I was doing had to be more than just for business, which is why the  World Responsible Tourism Day, doing an annual Ministerial Summit, which brought together ministers of tourism from around the world to discuss key issues, or the development and launch of Just A Drop, they were all expressions of adding value to the world of tourism, so it wasn't just commercial value. I knew that commercial value was hugely important, but for me it wasn't the only measure of success.'

Running a big event such as WTM is not just about the business side, sometimes world events can take centre stage. When I asked about her most memorable moment from her 26 years, I expected an amusing anecdote, but Fiona turns sombre as she recalls the events of 9/11. 

'9/11 occurred ten weeks before WTM ran and after it happened, the following week in my inbox I had over 500 emails asking if I was going to cancel it. I'd never thought to cancel WTM and I felt strongly that it should go ahead. The travel and tourism industry took a huge blow because it was planes that hit the World Trade Centre and everyone was terrified of flying. I felt it was even more critical for the travel and tourism industry to come together and what I did was sit with my PR director in a dingy pub in Victoria and we rewrote the whole programme in an evening. We went ahead with WTM and everyone was hugely appreciative because it brought the industry together. But during the show another flight came down in New York travelling to Dominican Republic, and on the show floor we had lots of screens showing CNN and this plane crashed [later shown to be an accident] and you could feel the terror within the hall. It was the first time I've ever done a broadcast across the whole show to explain what had happened. We had to deal with the fears of some 30,000 people. 9/11 will always stick in my mind as a key time. I think we responded responsibly - running a show like WTM means you are in the spotlight because it's a major event and there are times when you have to show leadership.'

That leadership was recognised in 2012 when she received an OBE for services to the travel and tourism industry.

'I was completely gobsmacked,' says Fiona. 'I didn't even read the letter properly when it came in. I thought I'd been nominated for something and didn't really read it properly and put it in my in tray and left it for a couple of weeks. But I was really honoured. My husband and children have been on the journey with me. The kids have been really good about having a working mum and my husband has been hugely supportive. So it was nice to be able to share that with them because they, as well as the teams I've worked with over the years, were as much a part of that success. I don't really see out as mine, it's definitely a family and team effort.'

Other benefits have been the opportunity to travel extensively, but where does someone so influential in travel choose to spend her holidays?

'There are two journeys I particularly loved and both were linked with charities. The first was with The Children's Society and that was walking and climbing to Machu Picchu – I loved that journey. And I created a trip with the Jordanian Tourist Board who were keen to produce a trip walking to Petra. So with Just a Drop we did a journey starting in the Dana Desert, walking up through the mountains and coming in the back end of Petra and that was an amazing. It was five days of trekking – I enjoy trekking, I'm not a great runner but I'm a good walker.'

Having stood down as chairman, Fiona now has more time to dedicate to Just a Drop, the charity she founded in 1998. She also chairs a programme called Tourism for Tomorrow for the World Travel and Tourism Council, and sits on the UN's world ethics committee for tourism. She's also a non-exec director on several different boards, but Just a Drop takes up more time than any of the others.

'I wanted to try to encourage the travel industry to give back and I'd become a mum, so I was looking for a cause that would unite people across the industry so it had to be something that was relevant to everybody wherever they were in the world. I came across the issue of water and that a child dies every 20 seconds because of the effects of dirty water. Dirty water kills more children under the age of five than malaria, HIV or measles combined. At the time £1 could deliver clean water to a child for nearly ten years and I had nearly 50,000 people going through the doors of WTM, so my idea was that if I could get a pound of every person attending WTM the theory was that we could raise £50K. I thought it was an opportunity to give back and influence in a positive way. I'm not a pushy or aggressive person, so it had to appeal to people without expecting too much. And asking people for just a pound felt comfortable.

'What we do in essence is raise funds to put clean water and sanitation into communities across the world. We've operated in 31 countries, we've done over 180 projects in different parts of the world and we look to focus on various parts of Africa, Asia and South America. It means we can appeal to an international audience and international businesses. We're quite good at providing a corporate and social responsibility answer to businesses. Because of my business background and network it felt a good way to encourage businesses to give back. My view was if you're running a successful business and that business is therefore profitable, then business should be encouraged to give back more than it does. The travel industry is an obvious target for fundraising but the reality is any business can give back to whatever charity they choose and it should be part of the DNA of a business. There are a lot of businesses that do do it, but there are still hundreds of thousands that don't. It's not just about expecting employees to fundraise, businesses should engage also.'

With a little more time on her hands, Fiona is enjoying life in Wimbledon where she has lived for 28 years. When she moved down to London she asked a friend where she should live. He suggested Wimbledon, and as she'd heard of it (because of the tennis) that's where she got her first rented flat. So what's her favourite way of passing time here?

'My husband and I like to go up to the Common with our dog Captain and stop off at the Windmill and have brunch. The Crooked Billet is our local pub and I like eating at the Light Cafe on the Common – in the summer we'll often walk up there and sit outside and it's amazing how many people come by that we know on a Friday evening.'

* If you would like to find out more about Just A Drop, see www.justadrop.org The charity has a number of events coming up including a talk at the Royal Geographical Society on 28 January 2016, with Patrick Morris the producer and director of a new 3D film set in Africa called The Enchanted Kingdom. Patrick and his colleague Huw Cowdrey have been responsible for creating Planet Earth, Life and Galapagos and they are offering a behind-the-scenes look at how they went about filming all of these extraordinary settings and scenes. Tickets are only £15. Stephen Sackur who presents HardTalk and is a Patron will be doing a Q&A. The charity also runs lots of different fun challenges and recently launched an initiative with Alexander Armstrong of TV's Pointless called Mum's Army. It's aim is to encourage mums in this country to help mums in the developing world have access to clean water for them and their families by doing their own local fundraising and having fun along the way. For more information visit www.mumsarmy.org