Working in France: Making a dream come true
This British writer and entrepreneur Teresa Dolan is a living example of what that means. Here are her top tips for launching your own tourist-sector business in France.
It was the summer of 2005. My husband I were somewhat disillusioned with England and wanting very much to do something different with our lives. We also still had a mortgage and were approaching the dreaded middle age.
All in all, it seemed a good time to junk the mortgage and buy a place for cash that could also serve as a business. So, we headed for France just like in all the 'French dream' television shows on the BBC.
When we started talking about this, some friends cautioned against it saying that they feared for what we might do to earn a crust. And what about the fact that we hardly spoke any French?
And they weren't wrong; getting from Point A in the UK to Point B in France involves a lot of decisions and plans and, yes, risks, and no two families will make the same choices.
But this is how we did it and what we learned along the way.
Why the first property you really like is not necessarily the one
By November 2005, the three of us, along with our cat William, left Tunbridge Wells in Kent en route for a Christmas in Brittany.
Over the next month we rented a friend's cottage in St. Jean de Villenard, using it as a base and travelling thousands of miles across France from Brittany to the Limousin to the Languedoc.
All of our property search had been carried out on the Internet before leaving England and we started with an itinerary of about 10 houses in various locations. We knew that we wanted something with character and with business potential. My dream was to run a small café cum arts centre and we all felt that to offer a B&B would be a good idea, but not by itself.
Some of the properties we viewed were truly appalling; those pictures you see on the Internet are a great testimony to the fact that the 'camera can lie'. After what seemed like viewing hundreds of unsuitable properties, we found a beautiful house in Casouls les Beziers that lived up to its picture. It was a very lovely spacious property well below our budget and 15 minutes either side from the sea and the mountains. It was also currently being used as a hairdressing salon and had great potential to make a fabulous café.
But we still wanted to see a couple more houses, one in the Limousin and one in the Loire Valley. The first one was so appalling that it is not worth describing except to say that everyone in the hamlet seemed to be related and the house literally untouched by time.
We arrived back at St. Jean de Villenard exhausted. We were scheduled to visit the Loire Valley property two days later and almost cancelled our trip.
Little clues however, were making us think that maybe the Casouls les Beziers property was not quite right for us. Clues such as the fact that the owner didn't want her clients to know she was selling her business so we had to view the property 'under cover of darkness'.
Also the village, though pretty, seemed not a little off the beaten track, certainly not ideal for a business dependent on tourists. After all, we needed to be making some sort of income from the very launch of our business. We are not here to make a fortune, but enough to pay the bills certainly.
And so we decided to visit number 6, Avenue Rochechouart, next to the ancient abbey of Fontevraud. It was a bitterly cold December afternoon when we drove the 15 kilometres from Saumur to Fontevraud and discovered the most amazing house. Built in 1865 of creamy Tuffeau stone with ornate carvings and arranged over four floors with an amazing spiral staircase, it had retained lots of original features including stone fire-places, oak beams and a splendid dining room.
It also had a salon that would be perfect for what we now describe as our Salon de Thé and where we now also sell arts and crafts, English groceries, health-foods, books, bric-a-brac and gifts. With enough accommodation to run a chambre d'hôtes and for us to live comfortably, it had the added bonus of a roof terrace with a panoramic view of Fontevraud Abbey.
We fell in love instantly with both the house and the abbey plus there even seemed to be tourists walking about on this cold winter's day. The house was a little pricier then we had budgeted for, but we put in an offer there and then and we have not regretted making the bigger investment.
We moved in March 2006. Most new acquisitions including some rather wonderful tapestries we bought on a budget from brocantes and the fantastic Emmaüs and Aspire projects —charities that earn money by running thrift stores— plus Conforama and But.
The house for its age was in surprisingly good order and the only thing we have really had to do is create an en-suite for the first-floor guest room. We had enormous difficulty finding a plumber to do the work; in fact, we never did find one who was available when we needed him so we 'took the plunge' and did the work ourselves. As none of our visitors has complained yet, we can only assume we've done a reasonable job.
Our Mixed Bag….
What we are aiming for at Chez Teresa/A Taste d'Angleterre is a synthesis of English and French culture.
Rather than relying on one revenue stream to carry the whole, we have put in place several different, complementary businesses based on this theme. The trick we hope is to juggle all the balls at once.
First, we showcase both local artists' work as well as English pottery etcetera. Although our salon/shop space is relatively small, we have to date sold a number of pieces including some drawings of Fontevraud Abbey that local artist Crystelle Aveline sketched on our roof terrace.
Second, our rooms feature Internet access and in addition to regular guests, we will in the near future be opening the house in order to run creative-writing workshops, both non-residential and residential. The plan is to create an on-line anthology of work and to use the blog as a tool for creative expression and dialogue.
On the cuisine front, we also offer visitors the possibility, by reservation only, to enjoy an evening meal and can accommodate up to eight people in our dining room. To date, we have served a French family with a 'traditional' veggie version of an English Roast dinner (which they described as 'superb'); another with a traditional English Tea of sandwiches, scones and a Victoria Sandwich; and several other families from a range of nationalities with Italian, Mexican and Indian cuisine.
During lunchtimes, we serve fresh salads, both house salads and an extensive salad bar. Private tea-parties can also be arranged by reservation.
Fontevraud is a small village that, thanks to the abbey, attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world and to date we have met visitors from South America, the States, Canada, England, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic and of course France. One of this season's customers from the Czech Republic described his experience at Chez Teresa as 'a taste of English heaven'.
My 'Hot' Tips for Starting a Business in France
—Try to not to be too fixed on one location, unless of course you know that location really well before arriving.
—Have some kind of plan before you arrive, including writing a draft business plan. It will help keep you focused as you look at properties.
—On the other hand, unless you are a plumber, builder, electrician or satellite engineer where clearly you will have a marketable trade, try to have an open mind as to what you might do. We, for example, had no notion that we would run an English shop as such, but we now sell many English food products as tourists often want them and even the French enjoy our English Jams, Chutneys and Marmalades. Cadbury's chocolate is our best seller with French customers.
—Try to make contact with people who are doing something similar to what you want to do: we communicated with a couple in the Charentes before we came and they were able to give us some useful tips and contacts. Plus they have since become our friends; your business will ultimately bear the mark of your own personality but sharing notes is essential.
—If you don't speak French, take some lessons and buy some tapes before you come over. Once you get here, get a private tutor. They not only help improve your skills, but offer good insight into the community and local culture.
—If you are running a B&B (unless it will be rural retreat) and/or shop, select somewhere that is on the tourist route with a number of close-by tourist attractions. Fontevraud, for example, is renowned not only for the Abbey, but also for its proximity to châteaux, vineyards, scenic walks and many sports facilities including golf, fishing, swimming and riding.
—Try and identify you unique selling point.
—Invest in a website and use your email contacts. (Like writing an Expat Tale for Expatica!)
—Produce some good quality publicity materials.
—Make sure that you do all the necessary paperwork and register with the relevant organizations, such as the Chambre de Commerce.
—Be prepared to diversify; unless you have a full-proof way of making a living think of pooling your respective skills (do a skills audit) and have some fun thinking about ways in which you might make a living.
—Be prepared to build bridges with other businesses; for example the local hotel, La Croix Blanche, in the the centre of Fontevraud, sends guests over to use our Internet facility or if they are full.
—Try to network and integrate with the local community. For example, we recently attended a village picnic and made several new friends, plus I am going to join the local gospel choir as a direct result of meeting villagers at the event. We also have plans to collaborate with a new cross-art form project that should be up and running in 2007. All this from attending one picnic! You just never know who you might meet at such events that can make all the difference to your quality of life and your business prospects.
—Finally, don't be put off by friends and family who mean well, but might try to put you off. Go by your gut instinct. If you're not sure, come and stay three months in the region that interests you and see how you feel at the end.
We refused to be deterred and now, although we do miss friends and family, England is only a drive and a ferry away…..
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