Denyse Betts shares her insight, tips and advice for running a chambres d’hôtes or maison d’hôtes, the French alternative to a British or American-style bed and breakfast.
“Elegant and poised, focused and aware. Each step precise, keen eyes watchful. No matter what surprises the day brings, these feathers remain unruffled.” Those words do not belong to me, but they ring quite true, to the point that they can easily apply to any undertaking.
In France, the bed and breakfast business still remains a widely popular formula. Just remember, there is more to owning a maison d’hôtes than just renting “guest bedrooms”, chambres d’hôtes in French. Whether a rural cottage, a maison de maîtres, or a grand manor house, the maison d’hôtes is a private home where paying guests are welcomed as friends. These establishments are the quintessential Bed and Breakfast à la française.
Once the welcome mat is laid at your doorstep, you are joining the hundreds of owners who choose to be in this unique type of hospitality business, i.e., the people business. From the moment paying guests cross your threshold to the moment they depart, you are responsible for their well-being. You are in the position of making them feel unique and making their stay with you unique as well. Quite a responsibility, quite a challenge, but what an exhilarating experience if you have the mettle, and an opportunity to get acquainted with people you would never meet otherwise. Lasting friendships can ensue with lovely memories to share for years to come. But before you can boast of having an interesting coterie of friends, there are steps to take to ensure the success of your enterprise.
Buying a Chambre d’hôtes or Maison d’hôtes in France
Location, location, location; that is the first and foremost issue. Since France attracts millions of tourists every year, one would think everyone has a fair go in the hospitality business. The reality is more nuanced. In order to make a success out of your maison d’hôtes, it is wise to do some research before choosing an area that you consider worthwhile. Every region has its own particular charm. Ask yourself why you intend to live in a specific area. Is it to find a way of life that will make you feel safe and comfortable and where you think your guests will want to share your experience, or is it because it is a popular destination? You have to make the right choice. France is a treasure chest of picturesque villages, serene lakes, impressive mountain peaks, prestigious vineyards, famous spas, and endless coastlines. Alsace, Brittany, Normandy, the Limousin, the Charentes, the Loire, the Alps, Aquitaine, and Provence all have an enviable reputation and their drawbacks. Nevertheless, the choice remains mind-boggling.
Keep in mind that selecting a good location is the first step to take whether you purchase an up-and-running business or a property that you intend to transform. It is important to note that not every property is suitable. Before making any commitment, try to visit as a guest yourself, a few chambres d’hôtes. Bring a notepad with you and grade them; write down your likes and dislikes. Finding the right house in a perfect setting is not that easy. It has to do with your instincts, your own feelings, your aspirations, and perhaps luck. Being close to an airport or a major highway is helpful, but there are many other things to consider. Ask yourself if your property is in the vicinity of a village or small town, where one can find a doctor, a pharmacy, a grocery store, restaurants, or a bank. A definite plus. Beyond that, you need a draw card, an attraction that will be interesting enough to warrant bookings throughout the season and beyond. Not everyone can view Mont-Blanc from a bedroom window, but think about landmarks such as famous caves, châteaux, lakes, beaches, sporting facilities, or theme parks. Making the right choice is the challenge. Ask yourself what you like the most about the property in that specific region, and you can bet you will get the kind of traveller you seek to welcome into your corner of La Belle France.
In order to make your guests feel at home, look for quiet surroundings where they can relax. Before actually purchasing that property on your wish list, try and get acquainted with the neighbourhood. Check out the region, know it by heart, and discover all it has to offer. Is there a view? Something that will single you out? Are there noisy barking dogs, busy roads, farming equipment or train tracks that could disturb the quiet surroundings? Most guests are there to discover the region and will count on you to steer them to an interesting place. Look for nearby outdoor activities such as beautiful gardens to visit, mountain trails and bicycle paths to discover, or something out of the usual such as renting a donkey for a day`s outing. If you have time on your hands, you might even offer your services as a guide for the day.
Setting up your Chambre d’hôtes business
Now, once you have purchased the property of your dreams, what does it take to get established? Your greatest asset will be your charm and your willingness to greet people with an open mind, showing them how much you appreciate the fact they travelled from some far distant place to come to your establishment. With an equal dose of initiative, commitment, and imagination, a warm welcome will go a long way. Remember, you never have a second chance to make a good first impression. This entails maintaining a certain standard, delivering what you describe on the Internet, and creating an atmosphere that your guests will not find elsewhere. Yes, it is a demanding task. Do not expect miracles; the first two years are usually unrewarding, but as you move on, your reputation will grow as well as your guest list. Patience will be an important asset, and believing in yourself and your endeavours will be essential. You have chosen a home that you have to turn in part into a business. It is up to you to decide how large an enterprise you wish to have.
Make a business plan
Do you have a plan? How many chambres d’hôtes do you want to rent? How many do you think you can handle? Is it wiser to have two, three or more or just one? Do you want to attract young families with children, or do you want to welcome older, more sedate people who crave quiet surroundings, good food and quaint villages? Or both of the above?
Spend some time doing the math: ask yourself if it is worth renting a room for only one night, just like in any hotel. If you wish to greet and make friends with your guests, it is advisable to aim for a two-night stay. It not only gives your guests a chance to unwind and settle, but it means you will find time to get acquainted. If you give it some thought, you will soon realize that the work involved is basically the same whether you rent for one night or more. There is always a room to clean in the morning, but the work is less intensive for a two-night stay, as you do not have to change the sheets, etc.
Once you have purchased the property of your dreams, what does it take now to get established? Will it be a full-time occupation or simply a sideline?
Running a Chambre d’hôtes : the keys to a successful partnership
That is where the second most important rule comes in. You cannot run a maison d’hôtes successfully on your own. The vast majority of establishments are owned by couples. That should come as no surprise. The tasks and the responsibilities are huge. You will both share the burden in order to reap the benefits together. You have to be two to equally divide the responsibility and the chores. You might share the housekeeping but bear in mind that not everybody is good at everything, and while you are both invested in greeting your guests, ask yourself what you are best at and where your natural talents will be of use. In other words, why not let your partner do the bookkeeping while you do the cooking? You might want to grow your own vegetables; you might have a pool, a tennis court, or extensive grounds with trees, bushes and flower beds to tend to. All of that takes time and energy, and unless you can afford professional help, you will have to pace yourself and share the workload.
Making yourself known is the next most important factor. Owners today can rely on several forms of advertising. Nowadays, you have the possibility of getting known worldwide through your own website, a bevvy of renting platforms, and social media. But keep in mind, before getting the world to know you, get known by the locals. The French love to meet the new family in town. You should introduce yourself to your community and make contact with your local authorities, such as the mayor and the local bank manager, and your local tourism board. If you need advice or have a problem down the road, they will be glad to help you if they already know who you are. If you open an account at your local bank, you can ask for a découvert, a running overdraft, and a credit card machine that will be very helpful, if not a must. When booking, you may take the first night, as in any hotel, with the understanding that that first night is not reimbursed in case of a no-show unless there is a valid reason to cancel.
Pay a visit to the local restaurants, post office, and bakery. Have on hand the names of a doctor, hairdresser, and tradesmen whose services you might need down the road. Also, if you decide to be totally integrated, a visit to the local chamber of commerce, chambre de commerce, can be of great help. Should you decide to register with them, you can form a small company, a micro enterprise, and obtain a siret number (a business registration number) which in turn will allow you to subscribe to the health care system. This is a quick and easy way to get established without the expense of a solicitor. To be on the safe side, it is a good idea to have a French accountant do your taxes. Not to worry, you will not be making millions. If you do not take a salary, you will have no personal income tax to pay; you will be, in some cases, non-imposable. As for the business, expenses will be deducted, and you will have very little or even might have nothing to pay for the taxe professionelle.
Investment and profit
Speaking of money, what are you willing to invest in order to get the return you wish to have? A guest bedroom has to be attractive in order to command a certain price. Again, the choice is as wide as it is personal. Just remember, no matter the price, the chores remain the same. Ask yourself. Are you better off with four cheap rooms or two luxurious suites? Are you willing to invest for today’s guests who expect much more when it comes to amenities? No one wants to share a bathroom anymore. Beds, mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, and towels have to be up to certain standards, as they will have to stand the test of time. If you intend to have two rooms, think of having a double bed in one and two twin beds in the other, thus allowing yourself to have flexibility. You will have to invest in a good water heater. Look up and compare existing chambres d’hôtes and then try to define your own style. The décor can be luxurious and lavish or simple yet sophisticated. Just avoid the mundane, the no surprises, the run-of-the-mill type of accommodation.
Serving food and entertainment
The same goes for breakfast. Fresh daily bread and croissants from the local bakery are a big plus. Homemade jams and jellies, creamy butter, a plate of fresh fruit, perhaps a small serving of local cheeses, good coffee and tea, and a beautifully set table are the secret to a perfect morning meal.
Entertaining at night is another plus. If you enjoy cooking and wish to offer dinner to your incoming guests, you will have an opportunity to dazzle them with local fare and some of your own recipes. After the apéro, the best way to get acquainted with your guests is to join them at mealtime. Guests should reserve dinner when they book their room. No one expects you to serve dinner every night, but incoming guests who have travelled all day do appreciate a home-cooked meal on that first night. Take the opportunity to ask if they are allergic to anything, and avoid nasty surprises. Create an ambience. Always decorate the table, and have an interesting centrepiece, be it fresh-picked flowers or fruit. Add sparkle to your table with fine China, matching silverware, and glassware. Have a beautiful tablecloth with napkins to match. Do not forget the candles. The wine is always included in the price of the meal. This allows you to apply for a basic liquor license, which is usually issued for free. Otherwise, if cooking is not your forte, make absolutely certain there is a choice of good restaurants nearby.
Another piece of advice. Control the business, do not allow the business to control you. You have to set the rules, and this can be done elegantly by leaving a handwritten note on the bed. You can, for example, tell your guests that breakfast is, for instance, at 9 am, dinner at 7 pm, and that after eleven at night, it is recommended they refrain from being noisy as other guests are trying to get some rest, or are perhaps already asleep. Bath towels should remain in the bathroom. Towels for the beach can be made available on demand. Upon departure, ask them to please make sure they do not forget anything in their room. Finally, from a hygiene standpoint, it is preferable not to accept pets, forbid smoking, and ask guests to refrain from eating in the room.
The chambres d’hôtes business is time-consuming and can draw out all of your energy. It is important to have your own private quarters where you can spend a little quiet time between lunch and the evening meal to rest and recuperate. Planning ahead will help. It takes time to clean the rooms, prepare meals, and do the shopping. Start a routine, have menus on hand that you are familiar with, and have staples always in good supply. If you cook, your partner must do the serving and the entertaining, and also help out with the cleaning afterwards. Furthermore, always prepare the breakfast table in the evening so as not to be in a rush come morning.
Marketing your chambres d’hôtes
As for advertising, the hospitality business has undergone serious changes in the past few years. Gone are the days when you could count on a guidebook to become known. Nowadays, future guests will find you online through your own website or on a listing from one of those dozens of platforms. It is a good idea to become known worldwide but beware. You will be on your own, and that type of publicity can have its drawbacks. If a problem arises, you cannot count on those platforms to help you. You will also have to make do with comments from clients.
On the other hand, before you open your house to guests, it is advisable to have a reputable organization pay you a visit. Gîtes de France is still the best option. By becoming a member, you will have an inspector come to your home to assess the premises and help you avoid costly mistakes. The Gîtes de France team will always be there to counsel you if need be, and while developing your establishment, you can always make an application for a grant. All in all, they will give you a star rating (from 1 to 5) as well as gaining the prestige it entails.
Alas, nothing is perfect. Although your maison d’hôtes will be featured on their website, do not anticipate having as many reservations from that site as you would like, since their clientele is mostly geared towards renting self-catering facilities. The Gîtes de France, nevertheless, will always be a great asset if anything nasty happens.
Is running a chambres d’hôtes the right choice for you?
Having a maison d’hôtes can be a hugely rewarding experience. However, it is up to you to make it work. It is a demanding endeavour. You will be there to please and cater to people’s needs and whims, while your guests expect value for the money they are spending.
Flexibility, how you handle yourself in any situation, and how to remain calm and attentive even when having to deal with the “bad apples” is the secret to your success. Stand firm, steadfast, never lose your patience or sense of humour, “keep those feathers unruffled” and things will always work out. Not to worry, be positive; the vast majority of guests are delightful people.
By Denyse Betts
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