Running a chambres d’hôtes, when your husband works away all week in London, is a challenge. Stephanie Sheldrake discovers how Franca Porter has made Au Bellefleur so successful
Name: Franca Porter From: The Netherlands Lives: Sigogne, Charente Occupation: Runs Au Bellefleur B&B with her husband Darren, who also juggles a weekly commute to London where he works in IT. What line of work were you in before you moved to France? Before we moved to France in 2007, we lived in London where my husband Darren worked for himself as an IT Project Manager and I was a full-time mum to my daughter. Previously we had lived in the Netherlands where Darren was also an IT Manager (and yes he speaks Dutch too!). I have done several jobs, but the longest one was for Texaco Oil Company in Rotterdam and Brussels where I worked as a marketing assistant.
What inspired you to set up and run a chambres d’hôtes? Before I met Darren, my dream was to marry an Englishman and own a hotel. Also, we both decided that we didn’t want to work for a ‘boss’ again. My wishes have come true.
Our chambres d’hôtes is located in the heart of vineyard country renowned for making world-famous wine. The hotel is open all year round and our guests can enjoy the local weekend summer flea markets and the many cycle routes. We managed to find a property in a relaxed area that makes for the perfect holiday.
What attracted you to Charente? We had looked for properties in Devon and Cornwall first but at that time properties were either too expensive or affordable but in an area that didn’t suit us. Darren suggested that
Opposite, clockwise from top: we had a look in France, in Charente, because he knew Saintes and its surroundings from former holidays with his friends.
We spent a month in Poitou-Charentes to see if we liked the area and then we looked for a house. I would recommend that others look closely at the area before searching for properties and not vice versa. It took us two long years to find the right house, but that is a distant memory now after seven happy years.
How did you find the property? Our search started on the internet and once we found properties of interest, we contacted the estate agents. Making appointments wasn’t easy as it involved flying or driving from the UK. Within our two-year search, we had visited about 30 properties. For a property to be considered, it had to have good local schools, not be too rural and be either an existing B&B or a big enough house to be transformed into one. One thing was for certain, we did not want a ruin.
Did the property need much work to convert to a chambres d’hôtes? We decided to buy a big house that had not been run as a hotel before. The problem with buying a property that has been a hotel in the past is that you inherit their reputation – good or bad.
There were seven bedrooms and only one bathroom when we bought the house. It definitely needed a lot of work as the interior was very dated as it had been untouched for quite a while. Luckily, the former French owners still live in the village so we were able to invite them to see the progress. We learnt from them that our property used to be at the heart of a sheep farm and was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War.
The former glory of the property has been restored with the walls having been stripped back to reveal the original stonework. Now that the work is complete, we have a huge family room for ourselves and three large guest rooms, all of which are en-suite.
After a few ups and downs with builders, we found (through a Dutch forum for Dutch-speaking people who are living in France) a French artisan and he has done all the major work for us. We still make use of him from time to time.
Once the property was operational, how did you start the business? We knew what we wanted to call the business before we found the property. Au Bellefleur is named after our daughter Fleur and Bellefleur is an ancient type of a Dutch apple.
Once the major building work was done, the reception rooms were transformed to become breakfast and sitting areas for guests. Just before we opened, we had friends to stay so we could practise cooking evening meals ( table d’hôte) before we opened to the paying guests.
How have you spread the word about your business to customers? We have been using Twitter and Facebook and a few non-paying booking sites and have worked closely with estate agents. We have been in the Charente Libre, local newspapers as well and, of course, the people in the village are aware of our B&B. Word of mouth is very effective.
What have been the main challenges? Since starting the business seven years ago, the challenges have changed. Every year we have learnt from our mistakes. It is important to both of us that we are happy in our work and if we aren’t happy with something we change it. If you are not happy, it is hard to make guests happy.
If you know the area well you can then easily recommend activities and places of interest to guests – until you have this knowledge it can be a challenge.