A: Senior female executives reveal how time exploring the globe imbues them with fresh creative energy when they return to the office

‘I think curiosity and stubbornness are what drive me,’ says Melanie Smith, the CEO of Ocado Retail and one of an elite group of women who have visited every country in the world. ‘I must have been about 30 when I came up with the idea, and I remember my boyfriend at the time saying, “You’re never going to be able to do that.” So I thought to myself, well, there’s a nice challenge!’

Fifteen years and 197 countries later, in 2019, Smith celebrated the completion of a journey of discovery that has left her with not only numerous stamps in her passport, but also a clearer sense of perspective, an open mind and a willingness to take chances. ‘I always return from a trip happy, with lots of energy,’ she reflects. ‘Sometimes, I’ll take just a tent, my sleeping bag and some food, and I’ll walk in complete solitude, so I come back fitter and having had a chance to meditate on things. Or I’ll go somewhere I can learn something – my husband and I are off to Iraq this month for a road trip from Baghdad to Basra, because there are so many ancient ruins along the way.’ The vast range of geographies and cultures she has explored has changed her leadership style for the better. ‘I’m from New Zealand, which doesn’t have a lot of cultural diversity, but I lead a business made up of incredibly diverse individuals,’ says Smith, who is Maori. ‘I think my experiences have helped put me in their shoes.’

Jamie-Lee Abtar, a travel consultant who specialises in promoting diversity, equality and inclusion in her industry, agrees that seeing the world has a professional as well as a personal value. ‘Being well travelled is becoming a competitive advantage,’ she says. ‘In our technologyled society, we’re all likely to be working with people from around the globe, so it’s vital to be able to communicate with individuals from different backgrounds and understand their needs. Travelling makes you better at that.’

Of course, those benefits are unlikely to come from a week spent by the pool. There’s still a time and a place for that kind of holiday, but the trend among high-end consumers is towards more adventurous travel that creates memories lasting longer than a tan. Jules Maury, who runs the members-only division of the luxury tour operator Scott Dunn, says clients are increasingly eschewing ‘fly-and-flop’ in favour of unique experiences. ‘After the two ghost years of the pandemic, people are feeling a compulsion to go on big bucket-list holidays – maybe it’s an outdoor adventure in Chile or the Antarctic, or exploring somewhere that has a completely different culture and geography, like Bhutan,’ she says.

Julia Perowne, who founded the travel consultancy Perowne International, has noticed a similar pattern in demand. ‘Since the pandemic, there’s been a real desire for cultural immersion,’ she says. ‘It might be spending a fortnight learning French in the Alps or an adventure to Africa – anything that brings fresh insight and makes you feel alive.’ Solo travel is also on the rise, with a growing number of women finding the confidence to embark on ambitious trips. ‘There used to be such a stigma around travelling on your own, but the rule book is being ripped up,’ says Perowne.

Jamie-Lee Abtar in Barbados.
Melanie Smith in Utah.
Sharon Davies-Ridgeway in Ethiopia
Jules Maury in Chile

My colleague Sharon Davies-Ridgeway, Hearst’s luxury-group brand director, has long been a proponent of solo travel, treating it as a rare personal-development opportunity that forces her out of her comfort zone. ‘That moment I step off a plane or cross a land border into a new country and realise I don’t know anyone, I’m all alone and I’ve got to get myself around for the next week… that gives me such a buzz,’ she says.

Davies-Ridgeway, who hopes to follow in Smith’s footsteps by visiting every country in the world (her tally currently stands at 114), says that although her trips are not conventionally relaxing, she finds a sense of release in setting aside the strictures of the working day. ‘I’m extremely disciplined and focused on timelines in my job – it’s the nature of our business – so for me, the break comes not so much from resting as from being free of that routine,’ she explains. ‘I’m not constrained by the realities of everyday life. I can just absorb what’s around me.’ While she doesn’t cut off all contact with the office, she limits herself to checking emails once a day, and responds only in urgent cases. For those of us who are planning a holiday but feel nervous about the prospect of switching off, she has a strong message. ‘The days of measuring how diligent employees are by how many hours they spend in the office are long gone. Most reasonable employers understand that they get the best out of their people by encouraging them to strike a balance between life and work.’

Moreover, having an adventurous spirit – and the courage of one’s own convictions – can be as beneficial in the boardroom as it is in the wilderness. ‘Travelling has made me very brave,’ says Davies-Ridgeway, who has just returned from Ethiopia and has already booked a trip to Sierra Leone. Smith, meanwhile, has found herself in some extraordinary situations – being held at gunpoint in Colombia, paying bribes to get across the border from Benin into Nigeria, getting detained at the airport in Libya ‘because they thought I was a spy’ – but says that these encounters have only served to heighten her faith in humanity. ‘When things have gone wrong, I’ve relied on the kindness of strangers, from people sharing their food with me on long train journeys to the time a woman gave me a ride in her car when my taxi didn’t show up at Juba airport in South Sudan. I’ve always been surprised and delighted about how wonderful other people are.’ And there can surely be no better lesson to take back to the workplace than that.


Travel bag, £425 Hermès
£180 Vilebrequin
£285 Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello
Water bottle, £690 Dior
Jacket, £1,250 Celine by Hedi Slimane
£750 Church’s