PRE­CIOUS WEEK­ENDS

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

Living France - - Destination -

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.

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