Meet the movers:
Who? James and Olivia Alberti
From? Manchester and Perpignan
To? Linac, in the Lot
The Lot department in the Midi-Pyrénées region enjoys a unique combination of heritage and natural beauty, with verdant farmland blending into manicured vineyards and thick oak forests, dotted with scenic hilltop villages and châteaux.
Olivia is French, she is from Perpignan. As for me, I first came to the south of France in 2009, wanting to take a sabbatical from my fast-paced 11-year career in financial recruitment. Before that, I had helped run the family hotel and restaurant business in Manchester, ever since I can remember. I thought I would then go on to Spain, where I had studied for two years at university, and then maybe Italy. But I met Olivia and on the 23th of December I went back to the UK, told the CEO I wasn’t coming back, said to my family that I had met someone and would try to build a life here, sold everything, and on December 28, I was back in France.
What was your level of French back then?
Thank goodness for Olivia. I had no level of French at all, except from a few words mostly from the renovation trade, that’s what I was doing on the side in Manchester. I had bought a few properties and just slowly renovated them, rented them out and moved onto the next one. I am fully bilingual now.
So that was before your current property?
Yes, we chose to settle near Olivia’s family. I renovated a home, worked for a golf resort for a couple of years, then I realized that I wanted to do something on my own. So, I started a renovation and property management company, mostly for expats in this area, because what I was finding was that there were retired or elderly people that wanted to do renovations but didn’t dare, because they didn’t have a grasp of the French language. They were afraid start getting quotes and start letting people rip out their kitchens and bathrooms. I had a group of good artisans and took on projects for people with my team. That gave me an opportunity to really learn about starting a business and about the renovation industry.
Did that experience come in handy for this property?
I think La Ferme du Cayla is a sort of a mixture of everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve sort of come back to what my dad was doing. I grew up in kitchens, serving cappuccinos wearing a dicky bow from the age of 13. Also, my recruitment career –I had made director by the age of 26 with a team of 40 consultants– really opened my eyes to how to run a business, what you needed to do in terms of training, investment, etc. Then coming to France and having some experience renovating also came into play. Olivia’s career path is so complementary to mine. She trained in hotel management, then she moved to Paris working for 15 years in seminars and groups and hotels.
How did you find La Ferme du Cayla?
The property came to us. We knew somebody who had met with the owner initially but once they started to see the size of the project and realized it was not the right fit. But they said: we know somebody, he’s young and bilingual and he’s got experience. It wasn’t a case of just sort of rocking into an agency one day and saying, okay, we’re going to buy this. It was more that it came out of the conversations over the first couple of weeks with the owner –the property used to be his parents’ farm– who would end up becoming our silent partner.
What made you decide that this was the one?
Olivia and I came along to look and thought pretty much straight away that we could put in a very British concept, all-included cottage rentals in the summer season of June, July, and August with kids’ club, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus additional services like yoga and massages for the parents. We do activities onsite and offsite, we have animals, a private lake. And then having an internal pool and the jacuzzi, it became very clear that we could open the whole year round. When we looked at what was available in the area there was nothing of the sort in the market. The configuration of La Ferme du Cayla lends itself perfectly, with six modern and fully-equipped cottages ranging from two to five bedrooms, everything revolving around our central courtyard. Three of the cottages are in the old barn, then there’s the former farmhouse, and the others right off the courtyard, going up just 20 meters up the hill. Around the courtyard you also have our offices, the bar, the restaurant, the baby club, the spa, so it’s very intimate and family centric.
How do you find working together as a family?
One of the things that we chose as a business model is for Olivia and I to be present in the summer months, specifically in July and August. We help serve our clients in the evening. We eat in the restaurant, where we have a server and a head chef. We worked on the idea that if we didn’t do that, we’d never see our children. So we thought OK, we’re going to work 14 hours a day for the coming weeks, but, we’re going to enjoy ourselves with our clients and our children. The reason we complement each other so well is that we each have our area of expertise. Olivia looks after the French market, and focus on international. Most of the year Olivia works out of the office in our house in Toulouse and I go up to the farm Tuesday to Friday, depending on workload. If we were both doing the same thing, at some point we’d come to loggerheads. At first, I was apprehensive, but Olivia comes from a background where her parents worked together all their lives. Now after two years, I can say it’s fabulous because we have separate job specifications with our own objectives, budgets, marketing.
What was the most nerve-wracking day in the whole experience?
The day in March 2020 when we were told we had to shut down because of lockdown. We had just opened five months before!
What was the best day of the whole experience?
When we welcomed guests again. In the end there was a silver lining because once we reopened, with travel restrictions in place, we were forced to pivot to around 80% business from the French market, before it was just around 25%. In the long term this gives a stronger foundation to our business model to have a strong client base in both the UK and the French markets.
Do you have any tips for people looking to buy a property in France?
I always think the language not only is a necessity, but it gives you power. I’ve been in situations where you are in a room talking about lots of money and legal implications and you’re not in the mix because of the language. I had to ask, OK can someone please explain to me? For my personality it was really difficult to feel as if I was not in control of what was happening (and I probably ended up spending more money than I should have). I’d also say to be mindful that you’ll need authorizations for everything, even if you’re just changing the size of a window by 25cm. And have a clear idea of your objective, if where you want to go, if you’re going to want to let out part of the property, or expand, or just stay as it is. For any work, get three or four estimates, in the UK when you compare quotes they are more or less in the same range, but in France they vary enormously.
What’s your favourite corner of the property?
The terrace of La Pergola restaurant. It used to be a boules court, which we relocated. The minute I saw it for the first time I had the vision of the terrasse with tables, with a stunning view of the valley, there’s nothing nicer. And our private lake with a natural source, to which we added an ecosystem. There’s a wooden platform where you can relax, read, or do yoga, and a little rowboat, it’s such a peaceful place to be.
What are the plans for the future of La Ferme du Cayla?
First we want to be open for a whole continuous 12 months, after these bizarre start-and-stop two years. We have all data that tells us that everything’s going to be OK, bookings look great, we even have people for the New Year’s Eve gala three-day package. We have a lot of demand for seminars and groups, and just had our first two yoga retreats. Once we consolidate a whole year, we’ll keep growing from there.
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