Do you dream of running your own holiday business in France? Maybe running a gite, or a chambre d’hotes (B&B) in the sun are what you long for. Lyn Peek has been there and done that. She and her husband Graham run a successful, gorgeous B&B and luxury cottage holiday rental business in Charente Maritime, south west France. Lyn shares her top tips and experiences in 6 lessons in a guide to starting a gite business in France…
LESSON 1: IDENTIFY YOUR SKILLS AND GO FOR IT!
After 32 years working in the NHS as a Capital/Service Planner and latterly a Health Commissioner I decided to take early retirement. My pension took a hit, but I wanted a new challenge.
My husband Graham had already retired and we had finished renovating our Edwardian House in the South East of England. It had taken us 12 years, and we loved that house but it wasn’t a tranquil area and the roads were congested. Taking our beloved Morgan out for a spin – entailed tailbacks and traffic jams
We loved France and had spent many years exploring it in our classic car so It took just 30 minutes to decide to go with our heart and change our life forever. Too young to do nothing but relax by a swimming pool, we decided to combine our love of France with Classic Cars and organise holidays for classic car enthusiasts.
We were serial DIYers. Both experienced project planners. We knew exactly what travelling in a 2-seater sports car with limited luggage space entailed. I had also spent the past 14 years organising trips to France for up to 20 Morgans, in my role as a Centre Secretary of the Morgan Sports Car Club.
My French language skills only covered hotel reservations, organising visits and deciphering a menu, my husband had none at all! We decided it would be an adventure. If it all went wrong, we would sell up and return to a sleepy village in the English countryside.
LESSON 2: THE PROPERTY SEARCH
You need to research the area you are thinking of living in really well to make sure it’s appropriate for the business you want to run.
Having explored the whole of France over many years, we decided that the Charente Maritime/Charente departments would be ideal. It’s the second sunniest region in France. And there’s plenty for visitors to see and do. La Rochellle, Poitiers and Bordeaux airports are close by. The fast train service TGV stops at Angouleme. St Malo ferry port is just 4.5 hrs drive away and the motorway links are excellent.
Know what you want
Our dream was of glugging a glass of Pineau or Cognac with the neighbours. Dancing at the local fete. Sitting in the garden and hearing nothing but birds and the occasional tractor. Eating a croissant still warm from the boulangerie. That meant searching for a home in a small village, and not being isolated in the countryside. We craved peace and quiet and a property which would give us, and our guests privacy and space.
With high summer temperatures we knew we wanted a swimming pool (or space for one) for guests. We didn’t like leaving our classic car in unsecured parking in France, so why would our guests? A gated property, with lots of parking space and outbuildings to store our classic car(s) was essential
We set our budget including renovation any costs. The immobilier who found us our house completely understood what we wanted and took us to view a property in La Tacherie. It’s a little hamlet surrounded by vineyards, but just 5 minutes from the bustling market town of Matha and 20 minutes from historic Cognac.
We walked down the drive on a grey October day in the rain – and fell in love.
LESSON 3: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE WORK INVOLVED!
La Rose des Vents is a former 19th century Cognac Domaine, set in 2.5 acres, surrounded by vineyards it once owned. To describe it as “tired and in need of some redecoration” was an understatement.
In the Manor House the kitchen consisted solely of an old butler sink and a tiled worktop made out of a pine door. The walls of the downstairs loo were papered with old newspapers and all the sanitaryware in the house was circa 1920. The bedrooms had floral wallpaper from the 50s, and the boiler screened by an old garden fence was in a back kitchen complete with earth floor. But the spacious rooms, original tomettes and wooden floors, sweeping walnut staircase, south facing windows, and gorgeous fireplaces charmed us. The walled gardens had 3 sets of monumental iron gates and the missing slate roof on the stone pigeonnier was covered in a tarpaulin. Being a former Cognac domaine it had outbuildings galore, used to store the huge barrels of amber liquid.
As for the two gites – I wouldn’t wish my worst enemies to stay in them as they were.
Look for the potential
The former estate managers house comprised a kitchen, downstairs bathroom, sitting room and ground floor bedroom. Access to the first floor with its window openings and shutters (but no windows) was via the adjacent workshop. But, it had a walled courtyard with a pigeonnier and secret door leading into the old orchard where a new pool had been installed.
The large stable had been converted some years previously into a Brocante shop selling antiques and collectables, and part of the building had been converted into a gite. Well, it had a sitting room which housed the fridge, as the kitchen was only 2 metres square and only had space for the sink, cooker and a shelf. You had to squeeze through the door into the bathroom with a sit-up tub. However the sitting room had two sets of French windows, one of which overlooked a lily pond and the other a sizeable walled garden. An open plan staircase led to an enormous mezzanine bedroom, which in turn opened into a large twin bedroom. And there was plenty of room to extend
All our friends thought we were mad.
LESSON 4: DON’T TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE BALL (NOT FOR A SECOND)
I drew up plans on how we wanted to extend the gites. We met the mayor, confirmed our planning approval, sourced a local builder and placed an advert. We were determined to open Rose Cottage and Manor Cottage within 6 months. It would keep us focused!
It wasn’t all smooth going with a builder who set a slow pace and we had to work round the clock to be ready in time for the first guests arrival. Graham was screwing the last toilet roll holder on the wall as they turned into the drive. We had been so busy with getting the accommodation ready, we forgot about the swimming pool. In 30 degrees heat, with the summer cover on, the water had turned a luminous shade of green. I am surprised our marriage survived.
LESSON 5: FORMS, FORMS AND MORE FORMS
Keep your cool, there are enough forms issued by different government departments to sink a battleship. Inspections must be arranged to achieve the valued 4 stars from the Tourist Office.
Top tip: Make sure you have a good filing cabinet. Keep every bill, document and letter forever. You can seriously loose the will to live dealing with French bureaucracy.
LESSON 6: IDENTIFY YOUR “UNIQUE SELLING POINT”
There are masses of beautiful gites, villas and holiday cottages in France – the competition is fierce. You have to be organised, like people, be practical and creative. And you must keep the accommodation/pool/gardens in tip top condition – all the time.
It’s good to have a niche. Our passion is classic cars, and we target this market. We organise bespoke tours for small groups, overnight B & B stays and 5 day mini-breaks as well as self-catering cottages. But we also welcome families who come on holiday to relax and explore the area.
Think about what you really enjoy doing. If you can, build your business around it.
We have now been happily settled in France for 15 years. Life here is marvellous, the area is beautiful whatever the season, events are held throughout the year and after all these years we are still excited to discover new places to visit and gorgeous restaurants. We have welcomed people from all over the world to La Rose des Vents and have made good friends here. Along the way I have learned to speak French, paint water colours, dance “Le Roc”, cook with a TV chef and adopted various stray cats.
Would we do it again? YES without a doubt. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.
By Lyn Peek: www.cottagesandclassics.com