Meet … Sara Dunham, travel and leisure chief at Midcounties

‘The pandemic made me think more about what was really important. It was an opportunity to work for an organisation that delivers for the greater good’

Midcounties Co-op appointed Sara Dunham chief officer for travel and leisure services in 2021, during one of the most challenging times the sector has ever faced. With over 20 years’ experience in the travel industry, she previously held a variety of senior roles at British Airways, across the airline and tour operating divisions. She led development of BA’s direct to consumer business with responsibility for, mobile, contact centres and BA Holidays – the UK’s fifth-largest tour operator. She is now responsible for further growing the Co-op Travel and Co-op Holidays tour operator business, comprising 74 branches and 165 personal travel agents as well as more than 140 members of the Co-operative Travel Consortium.

How did you get in involved in the co-op movement?

What interested me was the growth opportunity within the travel business and the fact that Midcounties had a purpose other than just delivering profit, with really strong values focused on members and doing the right thing. I found that a really interesting proposition – not just the bottom line of doing well as a business and the opportunity to grow it, but the broader purpose across the society. I had left BA and done some travelling and volunteering, planning to take time off before I started doing consultancy work. Then the whole pandemic situation made me think more about what was really important. It was an opportunity to work for an organisation that delivers for the greater good, building greater benefit for the people we deal with. It was a perfect storm and everything came together at once.

What does your average workday involve?

I am in the office three to four days a week in Warwick or Walsall. It is a combination of working from home or being out and about meeting agents and retail partners.

The first thing I do is look at what is going on in the external market. As we have seen, particularly in the last couple of years, anything can happen in the world, affecting people’s ability to travel. I look at things like yesterday’s sales, levels of member engagement and customer satisfaction. I check in with the team on strategic delivery projects, working through the programmes we have to support the strategy and what comes in the next six months. Then there are operational challenges, queries, talking to consortium agents or dealing with customer issues and supporting delivery, looking at the here and now, moving the business forward and looking at what comes next.

What was the impact of Covid-19 – and is Co-op Travel recovering?

People couldn’t go on holiday and while we did have many colleagues on furlough, unlike hospitality, we had to keep the business open as people had to be able to rebook holidays. As the lockdowns continued and restrictions kept changing, the demands on our people were actually greater, but we were not selling holidays, just rebooking the same ones maybe three or four times. It was really tough for people trying to keep focused and motivated. As we brought people back after furlough in September, demand still hadn’t picked up, but at least we were able to offer employment at a time when the travel business wasn’t sustainable; some colleagues worked in retail food stores until after Christmas. Now, coming out of Covid, we are seeing some very strong performances. Since the middle of January, when travel restrictions were lifted from the UK, we have been running at above 2019 booking levels – which has been a much stronger bounceback than we would have predicted.

How has the pandemic changed the travel landscape and the customer experience?

I think it has made people realise how much they value travel and holidays – whether that means spending more time with the family, travelling to more remote places, or doing bucket list holidays. There is a greater appreciation of travel agents because it has become more complicated to travel. Customers and members are looking for more reassurance when choosing where to go. We are now seeing a large segment having not had a holiday for two or three years and absolutely prioritising that, so there are lots of late bookings for this summer. We are starting to grow our own tour operator Co-op Holidays, which we are offering through consortium travel agents and retail branches. When it was launched it was more a city-break product – now we are introducing more options with a greater focus on sustainability.

What challenges will the travel business face in the next few years?

We made a commitment at our AGM that in five years’ time Co-op Holidays will represent 50% of the holidays we sell, so that is a real focus. We need to work out where that growth will come from, continuing to work with consortia, partners and travel agents, modernising our business and bringing new products to the market. There are still challenges around customers needing reassurance and advice – that presents an opportunity for us as travel agents to provide that. Sales are rebounding but the level of rebooking and administration is still significantly higher. There are still staff shortages, different levels of capacity, recruitment challenges and now of course cost of living concerns. There are segments of the population who after two years of Covid are determined to have a holiday – but also a growing number of people are concerned about the cost of living, so not taking or cancelling the holidays they have booked. That is going to have an impact on us and them.

Can you tell us about your partnership with the Go Beyond charity?

Go Beyond is our charity partner for Co-op Holidays and this year our donation will be £50,000. In the first three months of the year, the money we donated meant 165 children and young people between the ages of 8 and 15 could go on Go Beyond breaks in Cornwall and the Peak District. For every booking, we donate £1 to the charity and we collect unused currency which is also donated. We have had that partnership just coming up for a year, and it is a great thing to do.

What is the particular appeal of Co-op Travel? How are you improving the customer experience and keeping it in line with co-op values?

The particular appeal of Co-op Travel is in our branches, our colleagues and the service they give members and customers. We do regular customer surveys and have exceptionally high customer satisfaction levels. The appeal of the brand is it is well-known, trusted and in uncertain times customers look to brands they know. We work with a wide range of partners and are actively focusing on growing Co-op Holidays. It is a key way to represent brand values and have more of an influence on customer business. We can choose which hotels we work with and design holidays with our members in mind, making sure that we are more focused on things like sustainability and can deliver something different, such as holidays using rail transport as an alternative to air.