Profile: British ambassador, Sandie Dawe, director of strategy, communications and partnerships, VisitBritain

Cards of congratulations still litter the desk of VisitBritain comms chief Sandie Dawe, more than a month after she was named Public Sector Woman of the Year at the tourism industry's inaugural Shine Awards. 'How long is OK to keep them out?' she asks, worried about the self-congratulatory statement the display makes.

There is no doubt that Dawe, with two decades' experience in tourism PR, deserves the accolade. At VisitBritain she has tackled industry crises ranging from foot-and-mouth and 9/11 to Sars and the war in Iraq.

Her experience will be put to further good use when the Sri Lankan-born 49-year-old heads out to the countries affected by the Boxing Day tsunami to advise local tourist bodies on how they should be handling their recovery.

Dawe is intense and speaks passionately about the trials of tourism in recent years and the industry's importance to British life and the economy.

'Huge crises give you a real sense of purpose,' she says. 'If I've had a quiet day, I sometimes go home and complain to my husband that I feel like I haven't contributed. It's like when people in a war get energised and focused but when they return home they feel a bit flat.'

Fortunately, she adds, her husband's exasperated response usually puts things into perspective.

Dawe chairs the Tourism Industry Emergency Response Group and is unafraid of tackling big issues head on, alongside some of Britain's most powerful politicians and policy makers. She speaks with authority and confidence on the subject of tourism, but her body language hints at nervousness.

'People who know me would say I'm confident and poised,' she says, adding that when a colleague recently called her 'as tough as old boots' she was taken aback.

At several points Dawe blushes, not least when asked to explain the signed picture of Hugh Grant that is temporarily lost among her recently acquired cards. 'I'm thin-skinned and people don't know it,' she exclaims. 'There's a difference between shyness and insecurity. I think I sometimes have an insecure personality.' The confession explains the pride she openly takes in her Shine award.

Some of these insecurities, Dawe theorises, come from a feeling of abandonment that was born when her idyllic upbringing in Sri Lanka was interrupted at the age of ten. She was uprooted and sent 'thousands of miles from home' to boarding school in Scotland.

The experience, however, does not seem to have harmed her energy levels.

She's genuinely enthusiastic about the travel her job entails, whether it's staying in youth hostels or flying first class. 'There's nothing like catching a really early train, when you get your coffee and croissant and look out over frosty fields,' she enthuses.

While Dawe spends much of her time exploring London and Britain's hidden treasures, she nominates Mozambique as a recent favourite (and the next tourist hotspot) and professes a love for active holidays that feature yoga or cycling. Although she could view her travels as homework, Dawe insists she is very good at switching off, 'to the extent that when I come in on Monday I can struggle to remember what I did last week. I have to ratchet it back'.

This is an essential trait for someone so often bombarded by media requests: 'It's a slightly crazy world of connectivity - we'll scramble our brains. It's such a noisy world, but you do need time to think. You don't have to reply to the media at the point an enquiry is made.'

And don't expect Dawe's sensitivity to get in the way of her getting stuck into the next challenge that dares to rear its ugly head. Experience at the sharp end of media firestorms has given her the resources to deal with anything.

'There are times when you're scared and want to go home and have five gins,' she says. 'There are moments of panic, but experience counts and I know what to do.'

RESUME

1983: Publicity executive, Publishers' Association, Book Marketing

Council

1985: Press officer, British Tourist Authority

1986: PR manager, English Tourist Board

1988; Head of PR, London Tourist Board

1991: Head of PR, British Tourist Authority

1997: Press and PR director, English Tourist Board

1997: Communications director, VisitBritain

2004: Director of strategy, communications and partnerships,

VisitBritain

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