We speak to Velma Corcoran about empowering women, driving change in leadership and surviving tourism’s biggest crisis to date.
With years of industry experience behind her, Velma Corcoran has become a leading female figure in the tourism industry. Now the Middle East Africa Regional Lead at Airbnb, her focus is on business growth, strategy and policies. Take a look at the insightful Q&A below where we discuss empowering women, driving change in leadership and Velma shares her thoughts on how Covid-19 has changed the way we travel.
What inspired you to get into the travel and tourism industry?
My career wasn’t initially in tourism. I started working in advertising and then moved into brand consulting and strategy.
That said, I’ve always been passionate about travel and loved the connection that it brings. I even spent a year by myself in South America, travelling from one side to the other. Working in advertising, I found myself looking for more purpose. I saw a role at Cape Town Tourism as head of marketing, which started my love affair with this industry.
At its core, I love the product and what travelling is able to do in terms of opening up people’s minds and building connections. It’s a really interesting space to be in because you really develop an understanding of the complexities of a destination and the economic impact that the tourism sector brings. Tourism isn’t just fun and lounging by the pool. There’s a hard impact: supporting individuals, communities and businesses. What we’ve really seen through this pandemic is how much the industry is needed for people’s livelihoods.
While I was at Cape Town Tourism, I travelled on Airbnb and became a host. I became very familiar with the platform and loved what it was about. When I saw Airbnb was looking for a person on the ground locally, I thought, ‘That's my job!’
I feel connected to the company’s mission and values. It’s super exciting to be at this intersection of travel and technology. There’s this real sense of being at the forefront of how the tourism industry is changing.
How has this pandemic changed the way we live in Airbnb’s and hotels?
We have new cleaning protocols, of course, to ensure guests’ safety and boost confidence. Hosts are receiving advice and training in the new protocols, thanks to partnerships with SweepSouth and Propaclean. We have to make sure that people feel as safe as possible if we want to boost travel for the immediate future.
The benefit of booking through Airbnb is that you can book an entire home so that you don’t have to share a space with strangers. We know that people want to get out. People desperately want a change of scenery, but they don’t want to be too far out of their comfort zone. This means being a little closer to home than it might have been before. They want to be a bit closer to home, but also a bit more remote from other people. The Airbnb platform offers a variety of options that, ideally, cater to everyone’s needs to give them a bit of a break from worrying about the pandemic.
Which woman positively impacted you in your career? What is the most important lesson she taught you?
My mom, Wilna Botha, has always worked and has been the CEO of a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). She is now in her seventies and still works harder than I’ve ever worked.
She is also a role model to me in that she has always been passionate about her career and her children. My whole life, she has shown me that you can be successful in your work and you can raise good kids. My mom always worked really hard but she was also really present with her kids. I don’t think I have a lot of the guilt that many working mothers have, for this reason. I love my work, but I try my best to be present with my children.
I have also known and worked with a number of amazing women in my career. Mariette Du Toit-Helmbold, for example, was CEO of Cape Town Tourism when I started there. She’s just so fearless, and I learnt a lot from that. I’m a little shy if I go into a place where I don’t know people. I do sometimes slink in the back of the room. She’d go sit in the front row and greet everyone and ask questions. Her presence is always felt in a room. If you’re not engaged, what are you doing there? My tendency is to step back, but Mariette taught me to lean in.
In your industry or in general, have you seen any more movement to gender equality in the workplace?
The way in which Airbnb has approached this has been pretty commendable. The company recognises that there are challenges in terms of gender equality. They have called them out and, as a result, changed recruitment and hiring processes to remove gender bias. There are now many more women in top jobs and across the board, there have been big changes in senior leadership.
This hasn’t just happened organically. What people need to recognise is that you need to make a consistent, considered and conscious effort. Companies that do embrace diversity really benefit from it. The more diverse your senior leadership is, the more likely you are to get to better decisions.
In tourism generally, there are more women in mid-management than men. As soon as you get to senior management, however, the boardroom is mostly men. Women bow out of senior roles for various reasons, including a lack of flexibility to support working mothers.
Hosting is also empowering women and creating micro-entrepreneurs. In fact, 65% of hosts in South Africa are women. This benefits not just these female hosts, but countless families, businesses and communities across the country.
What was the biggest career-related obstacle you had to overcome?
Honestly, this year has been the toughest in my career to date. We have seen our industry suffer so much through the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting everyone working at every level in tourism.
It has had a massive impact on the team I work with and the industry in general, but also countless Airbnb hosts who rely on the platform to earn an income. We have really needed to pivot and figure out how to support hosts.
We suddenly had a completely new way of working, with children at home and no help. We had to ensure the safety of our teams and hosts and create a campaign around masks and being COVID-19 conscious. We have had to re-evaluate and set new industry-leading cleaning standards for hosts
There has been such uncertainty about the world and work, and this crazy collision of home and work. I have been sharing an office with my husband at home, so home, work, parenting and your relationship are all colliding while at the same time being stuck in the house in the middle of a pandemic. In the middle of all this, I tore my calf muscle and was on crutches. It’s the closest I have come to being completely and utterly burnt out, and I’m sure a lot of people have felt similar this year.
As a woman who looks to inspire young girls that look like you, what are some of the measures you think should be put in place to ensure young girls have an equal say in society?
I have a daughter, aged 6, and she is really fierce and feisty. She believes that she can be the president one day. One day it’s that and the next day she wants to be an artist or a singer, but she has no limiting beliefs. I think society, parents, educators, and people in the workplace have to be so careful not to inflict limiting beliefs on young girls. We don’t have limiting beliefs when we are children. It’s in the television we watch, the books we read, the people we meet that start to instil those preconceived notions within our kids.
We especially have to be so careful about how we talk to girls. No one talks to boys about being bossy, for example. We must encourage girls to be active and strong. We also have to think about the way we talk to girls about body image. Let’s not talk about fat or thin, rather about strong or healthy. Don’t talk to girls about being pretty, but rather smart, funny, sassy. We need to be aware of how we talk to girls, and indeed boys, so we don’t unintentionally create those limiting beliefs within them of what they can and should be.
With Black Lives Matter being at the forefront and black people calling out racism and transformation, what do you think we can teach the next generation about inclusion and representation?
I’ve done quite a lot of personal work on the basis of trying to understand and join diversity conversations. We have to think about how we talk about this to our children, especially in South Africa where race is such a big thing. We also need to make sure children are surrounded by diverse roles models and that they are in spaces that are inclusive. We especially need to see diversity in positions of power.
As individuals, we must also recognise our own privilege and responsibility. I read The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias by Dolly Chugh, a psychologist and professor at New York University. She talks about being a ‘good-ish’ person. It’s not about being good or bad, but rather just being on this journey to try and be better. We have to acknowledge our privilege and recognise prejudice where we see it. In situations where we are the perpetrator, we need to recognise that and make ourselves open to feedback.
It is on all of us to be aware of and to call out racism and any microaggressions when we see them.
What are some of the great possibilities about being a woman in the world right now, that may not be easy to see but you feel women should take full advantage of without being ashamed or afraid?
I think the collision of worlds ‒ home, work, kids, life all coming together at once ‒ could end up being quite liberating. Women previously felt the need to compartmentalise their lives and hide the messiness of it. We’ve all had to let all of that go.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been one of my icons through this. Right at the start of lockdown, she did a video talking to the nation right after she had put her kids to bed. It was amazing. She’s not pretending she doesn’t have a child that she has to put to bed in order to be a good leader. We have all become more comfortable with the messiness of our lives, and that’s great.
The imposter syndrome is something a lot of women confess to suffering from or have suffered from. Have you ever had to deal with it? What would you say to another woman reading this about not letting the syndrome run one’s life in any way?
Like most women, I think I deal with imposter syndrome every single day. There have definitely been times in my career where it’s been really bad. In some ways, at some times, I have felt like I lost my voice because of insecurity and feeling like I don’t deserve to be where I am.
To other women, I’d say ask yourself how a man would feel about this, I’d say try not to take yourself too seriously and I’d suggest trying as much as possible to surround yourself with really good people in your life. Be around people who will prop you up and be honest with you, but not just tell you you’re wonderful. Finally, I think anyone who has this syndrome is their own harshest critic and other people aren’t thinking the things you’re thinking.
How has self-care contributed to the woman you are in all facets of your life? Why is self-care important, particularly for women, as most of us are raised to believe we put everyone else first before ourselves?
One non-negotiable in my life is that I run ‒ a lot! It’s my time, and it helps me feel fit, strong and good about myself. That time without distractions or my phone is also really important for my mental wellbeing. I’ve been running regularly for about a decade now. When I spoke about basically burning out, it was when I tore my calf and I wasn’t able to run.
At the beginning of lockdown, my daughter and I started keeping a gratitude book. Every day we thought about and wrote down the things that we are grateful for. This got me into journaling. I’ve started waking up a little bit earlier to write in my journal, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
Self-care is about the little things that you do for yourself. If you’re not looking after yourself, then you can’t look after anyone else.
What are your post-covid travel and tourism predictions for sub-Saharan Africa?
It is going to be a long, tough recovery. In South Africa, we are very geared towards international travellers. But it’s likely that only domestic tourism will thrive for the near future. We are going to have to rethink the way that we do tourism in this country. We have to focus on local, domestic, getting people to see the benefit of getting outside their homes and travelling. We also can’t charge the same prices that we would for international tourists.
Even if locals do travel, however, many sectors will suffer. In the past, we’ve seen a lot of township tourism in informal settlements. This is going to take exceptionally long to recover. This sector will be very impacted until international visitors steadily return. So, we have to support small, local businesses and communities to help them through the pandemic.
We also have big challenges around safety in South Africa, and now we have the added layer of COVID-19 safety to think of. That’s something that everyone in the industry needs to have top of mind, especially as we are encouraging people to explore and travel.
Airbnb can be a real partner to South Africa as we think about recovery. We have a diverse range of accommodation offerings, offering more options for people and more value for money. Many people feel more comfortable escaping from their own home into another home.
A platform like Airbnb can also be an economic lifeline for people needing to earn an income through these trying times.