Big Interview: Chair-elect of MPI’s International Board, Fiona Pelham

Fiona Pelham is the nominated Chair-elect of the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) International Board of Directors. She is set to take up the role in July 2015.

“For now I will be supporting Kevin Kirby, but obviously am very proud that during my leadership year, sustainability will be a more commonly discussed topic.”

She is also a successful small business owner and has built a meetings industry career focussed on sustainability, with key work to her credit on BSI and ISO standards, as well as the Olympics.
Pelham went to study Art History at St Andrews University (before Prince William followed in her footsteps) but soon transferred to Management. She obtained a First in the Entrepreneurship module, “clearly a sign for my future”, she says.

After university she taught English in Japan for a year. Having also spent a summer studying in the US, it was clear to the young graduate that she wanted to spend her life adventuring around the world learning and sharing cultures. “My first career instinct was to have a global career,” she admits.

Her first (and last) paid employment was on a graduate scheme as a Marks & Sparks merchandiser on ‘womens blouses’.

“My worst memory of that was the daily maths of trying to work out how much would be sold and where.

“Luckily, I quickly found my way into the marketing department where I got to practise my passion for events, including instore cookery demonstrations and store visits from Spencer Bear.”

Pelham traces her event planning gift back to school where she organised all the charity/social events. “At university it was the same. My natural way of being is to ‘lovingly’ organise (some may describe that as bossy but it’s actually great leadership skills!).”

So, when did the passion for the sustainable meetings agenda arise?

“For years I was a Brownie leader (Snowy Owl) and I saw the amazing difference that events involving the local community made. I then spent some time living in Austin in Texas where the culture is very much about environmental innovation. I was inspired by the difference events having a social and environmental positive impact could have. I didn’t know the academic definition of sustainability then, I just knew it made business sense to think of your profit, community and environment and I wanted the work I did to make a difference.”
 
Shift in understanding

Pelham started working in sustainability in 2004 and says that in the last 10 years there has been a massive shift in the understanding and interest in the subject.

“In 2004 people may have been thinking about their carbon impact; one great change is that people are now understanding exactly what sustainability means and that it is more than environmental impact.

“My biggest satisfaction is seeing small businesses sharing their learnings from the steps they are taking. They don’t have a big team or budget but they understand the difference they can make and they are in action. Any action being taken to create a world that is better for the business, environment and society inspires me.”

She says her greatest personal satisfaction was chairing ISO 20121 (and being the youngest female ISO chair) and seeing that standard being implemented worldwide.

Pelham is one of the driving forces behind the Sustainability Summit, created in partnership with the Smyle agency. “It was launched,” Pelham says, “to provide an opportunity for the global events industry to gather and discuss their social, economic and environmental impact. Over the last few years we have built significant industry support and I am especially proud and inspired by the number of corporates who share their sustainability journey through the summit.

“In the near future we have a goal to grow the global presence of this event because sustainability is a global conversation.” Her company, Sustainable Events Ltd, has been praised for its consultancy by, among others, Melville, after the event services company won the Sustainability Award at the Exhibition News Awards 2012.
 
MPI reaching out

The MPI connection began in 2004 when Pelham was living in Austin, setting up her first business. “I went to an MPI event knowing no one and nothing about the association. I loved that there was a global community of people passionate about events, learning and collaborating together,” she says.

She went on to serve on the UK Board for a number of years, including being UK and Ireland Chapter President 2010-2011 and visited chapters across Europe to share education on sustainability.

MPI is now the largest association of meeting professionals worldwide and Pelham is a keen evangelist for the cause. “The MPI ‘family’ empowers each other in every action and the success stories are very common, even in relatively new chapters like Brazil and Japan,” she says.

“It’s no secret that education in the industry is scattered and varies in quality, but MPI is committed to providing high quality education across several topics and levels,” she says, adding: “MPI  provides education, for example the CMM and the CMP, which the UK & Ireland Chapter is currently focussed on providing access to.”

MPI members, Pelham notes, represent two-thirds of her 1,500-plus LinkedIn connections. “If you want to make sure your future career has inspiration, education and business opportunities, then MPI is the place for you,” she says.

 The association’s activity in Europe has, however, been seen as an Americanisation of native business culture. Can this DNA really be grafted successfully in the UK and Europe?

Pelham answers in the affirmative: “My favourite quote that really applies in the UK, is that we are separated by a common language. The truth is that MPI works quite differently in Europe, while you may not get a large number of Europeans travelling to the US for MPI’s flagship World Education Congress.

“Next March MPI will be heading to Krakow, in Poland, for its European Meetings and Events Conference and the conference will take place in a brand new venue.

“We are all eager to witness EMEC 2015 with all its Polish flair and international collaboration.”
Pelham is adamant MPI no longer has North American DNA. “MPI is Meetings Professionals International. It is an international association. The fact that a significant number of members are based in North America is an opportunity to Europe to learn, share best practice and develop global collaborations.”

 What would she like to achieve in the new post as Chair of the MPI IBOD?

“I am very proud to be the first European female in this role. I hope to inspire people across the event industry to take action on ways they want to make a difference in the industry. We are an industry of passionate people so the power we have to make a difference should not be underestimated.”

Away from the meetings profession, Linkedin, sustainability agenda and MPI, how does Fiona Pelham like to relax?

“I love volunteering selling programmes at FC United on Saturdays (when MPI board members were in Manchester they visited FC United to hear from them how they collaborated with their members from around the world). I was born into a Manchester United family (my Mum travelled the world supporting them since she was 16) but the idea of FC United appealed and I went to the first meeting in Manchester where hundreds of fans gathered to collaborate on an alternative to football where money is the focus. Being a member of a club run by volunteers, which makes a difference in the local community is fantastic.”

Back on the business pitch, what two single big issues facing the UK and international meetings industries would she pick out?

“The issues I am going to share are not specific to 2014 but the negative (environmental, social and economic) impact of the event industry is a significant risk that I’m not sure we think enough about; then the increasing importance of our industry having a strategic voice and the ability to advocate for what we want and believe is important.”

As well as meetings food for thought, Pelham also thinks a lot about food and the way the industry wastes it.

“I’m sure there is an easy solution to create a change so all waste food is donated. It will just take the creation of a campaign (like shareapositiveimpact.com) and government and industry support.”
Watch that campaign space for further action and initiatives from the wise young owl in green (and yellow) and her united and sustainable teams.

This was first published in the June issue of CN. Any comments? Email Paul Colston

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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