When Coretta Williams lost her job in travel last year following the impact of COVID-19, she upskilled and started her own travel agency.
Formerly a reservations consultant at Tourvest Destination Management (TDM), Williams was retrenched early last year. “We were prepared. They let us know that things didn’t look good, but I still didn’t know what I was going to do.”
However, it was her partner who gave her the idea of starting her own business based on her years of industry experience.
After studying tourism in high school, Williams has spent her whole career in travel and tourism. In her first job she worked part-time for Greyhound as an inbound and outbound agent before studying tourism and hospitality at the University of Johannesburg. During her studies, she worked for Wilderness Safaris but before completing her degree was offered a full-time position at Gautrain.
“I worked mostly with the bus dispatch system and not the actual trains, and it was very different from the travel I was used to.” Williams used her time at Gautrain to further her studies in logistics but it was a Facebook advertisement that brought her back to tourism.
“My friend saw that TDM was advertising for a reservations agent on Facebook and she sent it to me saying I should apply.” Williams said after a break from tourism she was nervous about not having enough experience for the position.
“I got the position and it was really scary at first because you either have to get the reservations right, or not do them at all,” but said she got used to the high pressure.
Williams faced an even bigger challenge when starting her new business, COCOTOURS (PTY) Ltd. “I had the travel experience but I needed to build on my knowledge of business and entrepreneurship.”
She took online courses to upskill herself, registered her business and decided to start building a foundation in South Africa’s domestic market. “I do want to expand to the international market one day and, for that, I have been talking to a lot of online agents and doing more research about how they operate.”
Williams aims to focus on working with tourism businesses that operate responsibly and are fair trade certified and said her previous position at TDM had helped her to recognise reputable businesses.
She recognised that starting a tourism business in a pandemic might sound strange, but insisted that adapting was the only way to survive. “There’s a quote I love by Alan Watts: ‘You are under no obligation to be the person you were five minutes ago’. I think in this environment you’ve got to take risks and you have to keep moving.”
Williams is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, through which she aims to become a mentor, specifically for young women. “I think there’s a lot of value in mentorship, especially in terms of the finances of starting a business and building resilience. There’s such high unemployment in this country and people need to be empowered.”