Midcounties Co-operative is looking to recruit a new chief retail officer for travel following the announcement that Alistair Rowland will leave at the end of the month to join Blue Bay Travel.

Speaking exclusively to Travel Weekly, the society’s chief executive Phil Ponsonby said it was unlikely that Rowland’s replacement would have as many divisions in their remit, and given the scale of the society’s travel business, he confirmed he would be looking for someone with travel and leisure experience.

He said: “We will be looking to replace Alistair at an executive level but it’s unlikely the new appointee will have the range of responsibilities that he had. We will be briefing agencies early next week and with the travel business encompassing shops, PTAs, the consortium and Co-op Holidays, we will be looking for someone with a real travel and leisure focus.”

The new appointee is likely to have some other responsibilities other than travel, but not as many as Rowland who had healthcare, childcare and funerals in his portfolio.

Travel’s chief operating officer Rad Sofronijevic will report directly to Ponsonby while a new chief retail officer is sought.

The news coincided with the appointment of Midcounties’ first-ever chief marketing officer, Alison Bain, and first head of omni-channel development, Neil Hardy, to help drive a new ‘member first’ strategy, according to Ponsonby.

He said the plan was to increase the proportion of members that trade with the society’s own brands, as well as launch of a new members’ reward programme.

Ponsonby said: “We are looking to become more member-first. We have 700,000 members. They own us. That puts us in the unique position where our customers and our owners are one and the same.”

But he said currently, only a third of members trade with the society.

“The vast majority of our members don’t use our travel services, for example. So Alison’s remit is to bring our services together better under one brand and increase the proportion of members that trade with us.

“We have ambitions that by 2025, the majority of our business will be with our membership base,” he said.

Ponsonby said this would be done in two key ways – either by converting more of Midcounties’ existing customers to become members, and to get existing members to trade with the society’s services.

“People who use us for food and utilities for example, don’t use us for travel,” he said.

Ponsonby thought this may have been due to “bricks and mortar restrictions”.

“We have branches in certain locations that may not have worked for all our members,” said Ponsonby, adding that was why improving travel’s omni-channel capability was so “crucial”.

“We need to have a relationship with our members whether they are trading with us in a branch, online, through a PTA. The modern consumer wants a seamless approach from brands that is consistent in any channel,” he said.

Ponsonby said the launch next year of a new rewards programme should help.

The app-based ‘Your Co-op Rewards’ is being piloted currently in the Cotswolds and Walsall involving 16,000 members, and should be rolled across the society next year.

“This is a new programme which is targeted using a sophisticated CRM database which allows us to understand members in a much better way and make their lives more rewarding. So when people shop in our food stores or use our utilities, they can redeem points earned in other areas such as travel and leisure,” said Ponsonby.

“Travel and leisure is a really important part of people’s lives and we feel we should play a role for members in helping them make these choices.

“Essentially, we are looking at ways by which we can improving cross-trading from business to business within Midcounties, and get members more digitally-minded.”

Commenting on Rowland’s departure, Ponsonby said: “Alistair had an unbelievable ability to understand all the complexities of all his divisions and look after people. His industry knowledge was second to none, so he’s going to leave a big gap and I’m going to really miss him. But travel is in his heart and that’s where his destiny lies.

“Getting the chance take the helm of a great company and grow it, is a great opportunity for Alistair, and it’s fantastic that he’s going to maintain a relationship with us, both with Blue Bay Travel being a consortium member and working with me and my team in a non-exec role,” he said.