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Not without my lipstick


Herbal entrepreneur Dee Atkinson shuns luxury on business trips and has even bedded down on a wooden platform with a tin roof. But she won't go anywhere without her lipstick. "I often travel to different parts of the world to look at new products," she says. "I went to Costa Rica to see whether indigenous plants had the potential to produce essential oils. I stayed with a family in the south and lived on a wooden platform with a tin roof. I also went to Peru to learn about botanical plants and stayed in a research project, but I took my lipstick. It's the little things that make you feel fantastic."

Atkinson, 43, is the co-owner of Napiers, which specialises in natural health treatments and herbal medicines. The company recently joined forces with Culpeper, which owns a chain of herbal shops, and the combined firm now has 14 retail outlets and eight natural health clinics throughout the UK. It employs around 150 staff and has an annual turnover of 4 million.

In addition to travelling to see new products, Edinburgh-based Atkinson also visits the company's UK stores and attends trade shows around the world.

Those trips must have been an eye-opener?

They certainly were - I had a marvellous time. You have to be a bit careful in San Jose (Costa Rica) though. I had a dodgy experience there when I got into a taxi and realised the driver was taking me in the wrong direction. I just had that horrible feeling that something awful was going to happen. I waited for the taxi to slow down in some traffic and then just jumped out and ran for it.

Any other strange experiences on trips?

I suppose I've been quite lucky, really. I was once stuck on a bus in India and it was very cramped. I needed to get off to go to the loo, but it was just impossible, so I'm afraid I had to hang my butt out of the window. When a girl's got to go, she's got to go.

Which other exotic destinations have you been to?

The place that really stands out is the Solomon Islands. I went there in 2001, to see if we could get some 'fair trade' coconut oil. We couldn't at the time, but it was an incredible place and I stayed with a local family, which made it all the more interesting.

Do you ever go on more conventional business trips?

Yes, I've been to New York, Washington and Canada on business. I went to New York because we had just signed a contract with Bath & Body Works, which was a massive deal for us. I flew on Indian Airways and the aircraft was decorated in 1980s laminate. There were no lights in our section. I also saw a fistfight between a group of young ladies who reclined in their chairs and a rather large woman, who was sitting behind them. It was all calmed down when the large woman was moved to another seat and the little princesses were allowed to carry on reclining.

How do you book your trips?

I usually do them myself and book over the internet, often with expedia.com. I'm always in the back of the plane because I go for the cheapest option. On short haul trips, I've been with easyJet quite a few times.

Do you relax on flights and enjoy the food and drink?

My flight regime is a bit odd. The night before I travel I get a bowl of muesli and soak it in orange juice. I usually leave the house at 5.30am, take the bowl with me and eat on the aircraft. Business people do look at me as if I'm mad. But I won't eat airline food. On long-haul flights I take nuts and oatcake and plenty of water and some herbal medicines to prevent jetlag. I also like cheeses; I came back from Germany once with a fantastic soft cheese, but it didn't go down too well among the other passengers. I don't drink alcohol on flights, because I find that it makes me very tired.

How do you pass the time on flights?

I like to read books about herbs and cooking. Consuming Passions by Philippa Puller, is a great story about the history of food and sex. I can also recommend Roy Strong's Feast, a history of grand eating and I loved reading all about the history of salt, and how it was used as a trading commodity and currency. After that, I decided to develop products using pink Himalayan salt.

Where do you stay on business?

Usually in bed and breakfast houses, or anywhere that's cheap. In London, I go to the Victory Services Club in Seymour Street. It's for ex-servicemen, but I can stay there because my parents were in the services. It's an interesting place; not all the rooms are en suite and you get a lot of old boys there who have some fantastic tales to tell. At 48 a night it's a bargain, though. In New York, I stayed in the Paramount hotel, which is quite a cheap option.

Do you do exercise to keep fit while you're away?

Eh, pardon? What's exercise? Seriously, I do try to keep fit and go to the gym a couple of times a week. I eat healthily and I think it's important to complement that with exercise, but I don't often do much while I'm away because I tend to stay in cheaper places without facilities.

How do you travel around the UK?

If I'm in Edinburgh, I like to go to meetings on my bicycle, unless it's pouring with rain. Although I fly down to different cities, I'm pretty low maintenance when I'm there and I'm very happy to get the bus. I never use a taxi. (She then breaks off the conversation to ask her colleague if a taxi is coming). Ok, you got me there, but that's because there's a strike today. Usually I never get taxis.

What's your dress code for travelling?

I'm always casual and particularly so if flying. What's the point of dressing up to go in economy? I don't own a suit and never have. The only time I had one was when I went to a meeting to take over Napiers and bought a suit from Marks and Spencer for 150. I took it back the next day, after the meeting, and got a refund. I prefer to wear boot-cut skinny jeans and casual tops. I also travel light, although when I went to Peru the trip took six weeks and I did have rather a lot of stuff. It literally took a man with a buffalo to shift my bags and I wasn't very popular.

Do you have any tips for travellers?

The best thing you can do is research a place before you go because you'll get so much more out of the trip. Of course, I always take some natural medicines and some vitamins with me. I also have lavender and tea tree essential oils, to help with colds. Does it sound as though I'm a walking medicine cabinet? It's not that bad, really, I just have a travel kit with all these things in.

Anything else?

Take your own food on aircraft!