The new travel boss at The Midcounties Co-operative has a remit to focus on customer data to improve services across all sales channels.

Sara Dunham joined the group last month as chief officer of travel and leisure services, replacing Alistair Rowland, former chief retail officer for specialist business.

Rowland had been responsible for other sectors alongside travel at Midcounties, such as childcare, health care and funeral services, before leaving to become chief executive of Blue Bay Travel – a member of Co-operative Travel Consortium.

Dunham has responsibility for the Co-operative Travel business including 78 branches and websites, the Co-op Holidays tour operation, 165 Personal Travel Agents and more than 140 members of the Co-operative Travel Consortium.

Phil Ponsonby, group chief executive at The Midcounties Co-operative, told a Travel Weekly webcast: “Replacing Alistair was always going to be a challenge in terms of big shoes to fill.

“The best thing to do – and this also reflects on our ambition for travel – rather than bring someone on a general basis, was actually to focus on the travel area and think more strategically.

“We really wanted to use this opportunity to think much longer term and to decide how we provide products and services to our members for the longer term.

“I wanted to find someone that had industry expertise, that understood the importance of customer…but that could think strategically and understood the importance of data.”

Furthermore, she has experience outside travel in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sectors, with companies such as Allied Bakeries and toys and games company Hasbro.

“It brought a broader perspective,” he said. “Our execs are all involved in the running of the wider business. They’re not siloed into their respective areas.”

He also said it was important that Dunham shared the group’s values – although Covid-19 restrictions mean that she has not had the chance to meet Ponsonby and her team, four weeks after joining the group.

She told the webcast: “I’ve met the whole team virtually.

“The thing that is really standing out is the people. The team at Midcounties are incredibly focused and passionate about helping their customers, helping members and supporting each other.”

Dunham has almost 20 years of experience in the travel industry, with 15 years at British Airways, working with its airline and tour operating divisions.

“The theme that has run throughout my whole career has been really focused on what the customer needs,” she said.

“What are the commercial drivers and what role do the people play and how can we engage our teams in order to deliver? Whether it’s contact centres, the direct business, marketing, bread, toys, my previous lives, it’s always using those things to identify the growth opportunity, what is right for the customer, how do we deliver value and transforming that.

“One of the big pieces of work I led at BA was the growth of BA Holidays as a tour operator.

“We have Co-op Holidays, our own internal tour op, as well, so there’s direct synergy there.”

She said her omnichannel remit will look at how the different sales channels link together and work in the interests of the customer.

“A big part of what I did at BA was bring together contact centres, digital, mobile, and service – the same would apply in terms of this,” she said.

“We’ve got branches as well, which is a fantastic asset.”

More: Midcounties appoints ex-BA executive to head travel division