Still a good option?
It is over 18 months since I wrote the first “Real Life story” about starting a B&B here in France. (See previous article) Now we have three seasons under our belt and we are about to embark on a new business adventure outside the hospitality sector. Our new business is located in Gourdon and we are looking to relocate near Sarlat in the Dordogne. We have had three great years and met some very interesting people from across the globe. Here are just some of our experiences over these past three years to give an insight to anyone else thinking of running a B&B here in France.
“Location, Location, Location…” – we hear it all the time, yet it is very important. All I would say is that you will be very lucky to find the perfect property. In our case La Maison Rose ticked all our most important boxes: situated in the countryside, in a quiet area, but near to a village with shops and restaurants, close to a river and places of interest. Besides it had four good size bedrooms each with its own en-suite, a separate annex, a huge barn, a large swimming pool and lots of land.
Two other very important points to remember:
1) Make sure people can find you! If they arrive late at night with no GPS and you are down a remote track in the back of beyond, relations will not get off to a good start.
2) Be within easy reach of an Airport. If guests need to travel much over an hour it will hurt your bookings.
Once we had found our ideal property our next port of call was the local Mayor. It’s very important to get to meet the mayor and explain what you have planned. It’s partly a matter of common courtesy but it’s also surprising how much the Mayor can do to guide you in the right direction and help “oil the wheels”. As a rule the Mayor will be very welcoming as you will be bringing in visitors who in turn will spend their money in local shops and businesses. The second stop was the Chamber of Commerce (in Cahors in our case). Here we registered as a Micro Enterprise which means no need for certified accounts and if you keep your turnover under 82,000 euro you also avoid TVA and higher Insurance costs. It also meant we short cut our way to getting our Carte Vitale and Medical top up without too much running around.
Next was to register with the local tourist office and pay their statutory 50 euros for being on their website. It may surprise people to know that you require a licence to serve Orange juice at breakfast! But the good news is that it is free and can be obtained at your local Douane office.
Now a bit on the practical side of running a B&B. Most people think that a B&B is a doddle….well it’s not. True there are quiet times but when you have guests and especially when you are full it can be manic at times. Before I go through with some details some points we had to undertake before we started. First the electricity supply was only 6kW so that had to be changed to 12kW. Hair dryers and washing machines use a lot of power. We installed a water softener – the local water is hard and heavy with calcium. New lighting and lot more electrical sockets needed installing. There was no kitchen before we arrived so that needed to be fitted. New shower cubicles installed, wc’s and hand wash basins. Externally we built a summer kitchen for guests to use with fridge, sink and hob. While we’re on DIY, it’s a very good idea to make yourself a sign outside the property. We have had several guests stay with us just by seeing our sign.
We do have a swimming pool, but the jury is still out on whether they are needed to run a successful B&B. We do have some guests using ours but the majority don’t. I doubt if we would have lost many bookings had we not had our swimming pool – and it would have saved a lot of time and money on pool maintenance! What is very important is a shaded, quiet area where people can relax on a hammock or lounger to read a book and have a glass of wine.
I should also mention insurance. We are covered not just for the buildings and contents but also against food poisoning and third party claims. It is very important to make sure you are covered when you have paying guests.
Advertising. Perhaps the next most important element of a successful B&B is to make sure people know you are out there and, more importantly, why they should choose you over the competition. Of course the most important aspect in running a B&B is you!! You need to be helpful, considerate, relaxed and with a sense of humour. Be there when needed but don’t get too close that you become annoying. When we were looking for our property we stayed at a B&B not far from where we are now and the guy always seemed to be listening in on our conversation and had an abrupt attitude…not good.
Back to the advertising. A well designed and user-friendly website will pay for itself many times over. I cannot over emphasise the importance of a well prepared and attractive website. Remember your website is your first contact with people looking to stay with you. It needs to be informative, plenty of nice pictures and cover the main attractions both of your B&B and the area where you are based. Remember “white ” space sells so keep the content short and to the point. Check that your prices are realistic compared to others in your area. That’s unless you have something very special! Remember to use two or three USP’s (unique selling points) to make sure you stand out from the crowd. Finally include a map and directions on how to find you. Contact telephone number and email address.
The guests – no guests equals no B&B. Guests are the life blood of a successful business. We have guests from May through to October with July and August our busiest months. These days we choose to be closed on the remaining months unless its family or friends. Some B&Bs stay open throughout the year but we prefer to focus on the main tourist season. Guests can arrive anytime after 15.00hrs and as a rule depart at or around 10.00am. We only provide Continental breakfast but some B&Bs do the full English breakfast bit. Breakfast is served between 9.00 to 10.00 unless guests advise they need to leave early. We can and do provide meals for guest arriving late or on Mondays when many restaurants are closed. Generally we check guest bedrooms each day to tidy beds and check the bathrooms. Tip: keep plenty of toilet rolls as there never seem to be enough! We have a laminated welcome letter in each room which gives guest some information. We also have tea/coffee facilities in all rooms but not all B&B’s provide this service. Each room has its own key. Outside we have a large yard for guest parking and a dry barn for motorcycles.
Income – How much can I earn from running a B&B? How long is a piece of string? The income you can generate will depend on many factors. The price you charge can be based on individuals or per room, per night. How many rooms do you have? How much of the year will you be open? What is the minimum length of stay? We don’t as a rule accept one night stays especially during July and August. How good is your website? How many Holiday advertisers are you register with? Do you provide evening meals or B&B only? The list is endless and will affect the level of income generated.
From whatever income you generate you will need to pay taxes, social charges, insurance, local tax de sejour, plus the usual heating and lighting costs. If you need a mortgage or loans then forget the B&B idea – you won’t get French banks to loan money for this type of business. If you have some other income, such as a pension or investments then you will be fine.
We hope that you have found this article informative and that it has answered some of your questions about running a B&B in France. As we are moving on to start a new business venture, our own B&B is now for sale. We will be pleased to provide more details on the financial aspects to potential serious buyers. We have enjoyed our time running La Maison Rose and will miss those barmy summer evening sitting outside making new friends and sharing stories. The opportunity to start a new life in France is here and waiting for you!
UPDATE: This property has now been sold
©Mark and Fiona Vallance 2008