How to know if you’re really up to it

Image not found.In the first of a short series, a former owner of a gîte complex writes about the day-to-day complexities and realities of running a holiday rental business in France…

Twelve years ago, my husband and I bought an abandoned nightclub in the heart of the French countryside. In fact, it was a 17th-century farmhouse which had been changed into a nightclub ten years before that. Not surprisingly, the nightclub business had lasted just six months before the owner went bust. So when we bought it, we inherited a deserted disco downstairs and a wrecked restaurant upstairs – complete with working pizza oven.

We spent a year transforming the farmhouse into three gîtes plus accommodation for ourselves, and welcomed our first gîtes clients in May 1995. I won’t scare you with the details of how close we came to not being ready, but the situation wasn’t helped by two of the three parties turning up over an hour early.

As we greeted our first clients with exhausted smiles of welcome, they first complained about the smell of fresh paint and then about not being able to receive Classic FM in such a remote place. Straight away, my husband and I knew that we were in the wrong business. We were willing to stick it out because we obviously needed an income to stay in France, but we realised we definitely wouldn’t be running gîtes forever. We smiled our way through six long, hot seasons and are still in touch with many of our gîte clients, but it just wasn’t our métier!

So now you know that we weren’t perfect textbook gîte owners, here’s a completely objective look at some of the challenging issues you might consider if you’re thinking about setting up and running a gîte complex…

Preparing

You’ve watched the television programmes, you’ve put your UK house on the market, you’ve trawled the internet for properties, you’ve done the gîte course, you’ve read all the scare stories about French paperwork, you’ve prepared your business plan, composed your mission statement, evaluated your strategic alternatives, stated your long-term & short-term objectives and even made a start on Linguaphone and now it’s off to France. What can possibly go wrong?

Of course, plenty can go wrong before you open for business, but it’s often the silliest things, such as Bank Holidays, that cause the biggest delays. You can spend a year meticulously planning for the Big Day as we did, but if you don’t know that a late Easter followed by May adds up to a lot of Bank Holidays – and artisans like to faire le pont which uses up yet more valuable working days – time will start to run out.

Luckily for us, the workmen took pity on us and worked a few extra weekends (and thank goodness we had already agreed a price for the job), but we couldn’t actually get into the gîtes to furnish and equip them until the last minute because they were still tiling floors and painting walls – and we had to be around to help. With less than 24 hours to go – and having been up 48 hours already with just fish finger sandwiches to keep us going – we still had ten large wardrobes to construct from flat-packs, 31 kitchen cupboard doors to screw on, three large dining room tables to put legs on and eleven beds to make (literally).

My advice – if you don’t like dealing with the unexpected, setting up and running a gîte complex might not suit you.

Sharing

Are you realistic about what it really might be like to share your beautiful home and pool with other people? We thought we’d enjoy this side of things because we enjoyed socialising a great deal in the UK, but it’s different if those people aren’t actually your friends.

Our first big sharing shock was the arrival of our first clients simply because we’d spent a whole year by ourselves with just our French maçon for company. Suddenly, we were surrounded by les anglais – the very people we’d left England to get away from. On top of this, our clients were on holiday and we weren’t – they wanted to spend hours chatting to us, but we had a million and one things to get on with.

Sharing was the most stressful part of the job for us, so we decided to reduce our season to just four months of the year and developed some survival strategies. One strategy was to swim in the pool at midnight when everybody else had gone to bed. This cuts out all chances of being cornered for a chat, but your pool has to have underwater lights! Never, however, underestimate a client’s capacity to pounce – I once waited until 10pm to hang out some washing thinking that the coast was clear… but he was just around the corner and an hour later he was still chatting and I hadn’t managed to get anywhere near the washing line. Or there was the time I got up at 6am to do some weeding and was greeted with a “Good morning” from the very clients I was trying to avoid…

My advice – if you’re not very good at small talk, the gîte business is definitely not for you.

Emma Ellis.

Emma now designs websites for people who own gîtes, chambres d’hôtes and hotels in France.

Next month Emma highlights more esoteric aspects of running a gîte business.

June 2006

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