Diversifying holiday businesses to survive and thrive
In an ever-changing tourism market, how can a holiday business survive in France? One answer is to diversify, as Annaliza Davis found when she asked five businesses how they have developed and what advice they would give others thinking of following in their footsteps
Did you cross the Channel with a clear idea of how you would earn a living?
For many of the estimated 300,000 or so Britons living in France, the opportunity to buy extensive land and property in France suggested an obvious option of running a holiday business.
However, the reality of running a successful business here is very different from the happy notion of “let’s just run a gîte” and, often, the only route to stability is to change.
Besides the abundant paperwork and plentiful competition, tourism-related businesses must withstand events such as transport strikes, capricious weather and fluctuating exchange rates.
Over the last decade alone, for example, they have contended with the 2008 financial crisis and pressure from new firms like Airbnb (which now boasts more than 150 million users), plus last-minute bookings, and demanding guests wanting discounts. Not to mention uncertainty after the Brexit referendum, terrorist attacks, and, more recently, French and UK elections.
Every event destabilises bookings and therefore your income, so how do you respond?
Brexit result caused us to rethink
- Business: Manoir de Kerlédan
- Owners: Penny and Peter Dinwiddie
- Location: Brittany
- Website: kerledan.com
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, it didn’t affect us too much, as our business was still in its early years, although we did look after other properties to make ends meet.
It helped being part of networks like Sawday’s Special Places and Bienvenue au Chateau, but these only bring good results if their customer profile matches your business. We continued to grow, adding a fourth B&B room, developing the gardens and evening meals.
Last year’s Brexit referendum certainly affected us: we dropped from a usual 33% British bookings to 21%, and income overall fell by 20%, not helped by exchange rate changes. We had to look ahead.
In 2013, we’d turned two of our outbuildings into a large barn space, requiring a bank loan but improving the experience for our guests and creating new opportunities for functions. An artist friend suggested running workshops here, too, which appealed not only as a way to supplement our income but as the prospect of a new, creative venture.
It required investment, of course, renewing our website to function across all social media, installing practicalities like toilets and taps, plus aquiring a licence to host meetings and courses.
Above all, you have to consider how diversifying could affect your existing business status.
A B&B micro-entreprise has simple accounting, but if your turnover goes above €82,800 you’re expected to swap to a far more complex system requiring an accountant.”
Thankfully, our plans are helped by contacts with established, well-known artists. Annie Sloane is holding a course here this October, then Julie Arkell, Liz Clay and Jane Callender are booked for next year, so we’ll be hosting everything from paper mâché to felt couture and indigo shibori. A lot of organisation and planning but exciting, too!”
Trust in yourself, and always remember to have fun
- Business: The Frogs’ House
- Owners: Corinne and Benoît Couvreur
- Location: Saint-Jeannet, near Nice
- Website: thefrogshouse.fr/en
Corinne and I met on university exchanges in Australia and within six months of careers in Paris realised that corporate life wasn’t for us so we left to tour the world. Our travels gave us the idea for The Frogs’ House.
We always wanted to run themed holidays and activities, but recognised that being the hosts as well would be even better, so we bought an eight-bed hotel in the village where I’d spent my childhood. For us, the accommodation was to facilitate the activities rather than the other way around.
We were a couple when we began 12 years ago, but separated in 2013 but we are still work partners and friends.
“Regular activities include coastal tours, visits to a small farm producing goats’ cheese, or learning French cookery in small groups, plus outdoor sports like white-water rafting, abseiling or rock-climbing.
Some guests come for the hotel, others for activities and many for the whole package. At one point, financial pressures made us feel we had to focus on boosting occupancy, which I think was a mistake as pure accommodation was never our goal. After more than 10 years’ experience, we want to return to our original concept of activity packages.
Listen to your feelings, and keep the fun in what you’re doing... that’s probably easier said than done! Continue to ask, ‘What do I really want? What’s most important?’. Stay as open as possible and trust your instincts; be guided by what moves and inspires you.”
Wise to invest steadily as business develops
- Business: Praana Wellness
- Owner: Amanda Graham
- Location: near Jonzac, Charente-Maritime
- Website: praanawellness.com
We had travelled extensively as a family before 2012, falling in love with this beautiful, neglected property surrounded by miles of Cognac vineyards.
From the start, I planned guest accommodation plus retreats in yoga therapy, counselling, massage and reflexology, using my 30 years in clinical psychology and yoga-teaching experience.
My initial goal was boosted by people contacting me offering creative writing retreats, fitness groups and even singing workshops.
One of the greatest difficulties in expanding is the practical challenge of finding the right tradespeople, particularly those you can call on if a problem arises, but our relationships with people and businesses developed organically through living and working here.
Really, you need to invest steadily as you develop. For us this required other work alongside Praana Wellness.
It’s easy to underestimate that investment, not only for structural and administrative work, but also for marketing: even if you create something truly wonderful, nobody will know if you don’t manage to get the word out.
Now, I’d say around 80% of our business comes through our retreat packages.
Most of our guests want the whole experience, including counselling, yoga, massage and reflexology, which we’re more than happy to provide.
We’re also developing therapeutic retreats for teenagers, business coaching and even informal weddings under wide, blue skies.
My first advice to others is to network, network, network: build up those contacts and keep at it! Secondly, don’t panic if it doesn’t work immediately.
I see lots of different people changing their business ideas too frequently – but you should stick to what you truly want your brand to be about, and focus on excelling.”
Yes, location matters, but passion is everything
- Business: Bastide Avellanne
- Owner: Linn Vislie
- Location: Besse-sur-Issole, Provence
- Website: bastideavellanne.eu
I am originally from Sweden and a hotelier, and I bought this property in 2016.
It’s full of character and everything was in place to simply continue as a bed and breakfast.
However, there’s a growing interest in holidays as a health and life experience, and Bastide Avellanne is in such a calm, natural setting that it felt perfect to share with like-minded people seeking to reconnect, recharge and travel.
Now, we hold classes every morning – and nine international yoga teachers are bringing students this summer to enjoy our space and tranquillity.
An artist is hosting a creative week, and we also work with two masseuses who provide a variety of treatments for our guests.
Partnering with other professionals means we can offer a complete service without over-investment upfront.
Statistically, we currently have around 35% of this year’s business coming from retreat weeks, 8% from conferences and the remainder from pure accommodation.
For 2018, we’re aiming for 60% from retreats.
Choosing activities to suit your location is a good start, but it makes a big difference if you are personally interested in the service you’re offering. That passion communicates automatically.
Caravan sales boosted campsite
- Business: Pors Peron Leisure Homes
- Owners: Colin and Adèle Abel
- Location: Beuzec-cap-Sizun, Brittany
- Website: porsperon-leisurehomes-brittany.co.uk
The 2008 crisis was the best thing to happen as it forced us to diversify our mobile-home rental business five years in. Being bilingual meant we could also attract French families, so we started advertising more aggressively in France and thankfully the strategy worked, creating a new, mixed customer base.
Around the same time, we decided to try selling mobile homes, too. At first, we tested the water by purchasing a show home, knowing we could always rent it out, but we were amazed by the demand.
It’s a fabulous part of France, we’re right by the beach, and the buying process is far simpler than for houses so it’s hardly a tough sell! Through trial and error, we identified the most effective forms of advertising and have built up great working relationships with our UK suppliers.
There’s no doubt that if we hadn’t moved beyond our original model of rental-only and English-Irish customers, the last nine years would have been difficult.
Mobile-home sales provide a parallel yearly income, and diversifying has helped to fund further developments such as our covered pool, which in turn attracts more customers.
You have to develop if you want your business to survive.