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Bergerac Airport- the big take off

Passenger numbers have risen nearly twenty times in six years and 95% of fliers are British.

By Lucy Stubbs
PASSENGER numbers at Bergerac Airport have risen nearly twenty times over in just six years thanks to the vision of a local businessman who wanted to attract more low cost flights.

His successor Olivier Gribelin, the director of Bergerac Airport is overseeing its latest transformation - a €3.4million plan to incorporate the corrugated arrivals and departures lounges together into a more permanent glass and metal framed building better suited to coping with almost 300,000 travellers per year - 95% of whom are British.

The new building will include eight check-in desks, a seating area for over 300 passengers, two shops and a state of the art baggage scanning machine.

The airport, which employs 60 people, has also been renamed; 'Bergerac Roumanières ' becoming 'Aéroport Bergerac Dordogne Périgord', a name reflecting its growing importance to the region. “The project is a few months behind schedule," said Mr Gribelin. “But the buildings should be complete by the spring, before the summer season starts anyway.”

Visitors to the airport in previous years will have been struck by its small size, welcomed by many - especially those who find airports daunting - but frustrating for others who have found it cramped and lacking in facilities, especially during the summer when the airport hosts 12 flights a day.

“It's the end of an era,” Mr Gribelin admits. “But I like to think I'm like many of my British passengers - pragmatic. In 2002 we had 16,000 passengers, in 2008 we had 292,000. We need to update our facilities.

“I want a modern airport but I'm keen to maintain an atmosphere of tranquillity; busy airports can be stressful, I don't want our airport to be a stressful place.”

The airport currently has three low cost airlines: Ryanair, who, in addition to their many UK destinations have recently started flights to Charleroi in Belgium, Flybe with destinations throughout the UK including Edinburgh and Belfast (via Exeter or Southampton) and relatively new arrivals (they came to the airport in 2008) Transavia, who fly to Amsterdam.

It is easy to get the impression that the airport only begun life when the low cost carriers arrived in 2002 - Buzz was the first but was subsequently taken over by Ryanair - but in fact, an airport of sorts has existed on the site for many years.

“It was used by the German military during the Second World War,” said Mr Gribelin.
“Commercial domestic flights started in 1970 but the numbers using the airport were very small, less than 16,000. It was Jean Pierre Conte, the president of the Dordogne Chamber of Commerce who changed all that. Without him, none of what we see today would be happening.”

Gribelin describes Conte as a self made man. “He started out as a man with a van,” he said. “But he went on to create the Jardiland chain of garden centres.” Jardiland opened its first shop in 1982 and now has over 80 stores throughout France, five in Spain and one in Portugal.

In 2001, Conte, in his role as president of the chamber of commerce, decided he wanted to attract international low cost flights to Bergerac. To do so, he needed money to upgrade the airport facilities.

“He talked to his bank,” Mr Gribelin said. “He explained he needed money to start a new business but they refused - until Jean Pierre threatened to move his account elsewhere, then they agreed to help him. It was a huge risk but he knew it would pay off.”
He was right; a study carried out by the Dordogne Chamber of Commerce in 2007 revealed that the visitors to the airport, 95% of whom are British, bring in over 150 million euros per year to the Dordogne region.

Today, the airport is run by the 'Syndicat mixte Air Dordogne' which comprises the town councils of Bergerac and Périgueux, the Dordogne Chamber of Commerce and the Conseil Général.

The chamber of commerce study also revealed that many British passengers are permanent residents in France and a significant number use the airport to commute to jobs in the UK with many more having found work in France.

Project manager for Périgord Développement Alexandra Thevenet said: “Before the low cost carriers came to Bergerac, most of the Britons living in the region were over 50; retirees with lump sums to invest and pensions to live on.
“They simply bought property and renovated it.”

“Since 2002, the profiles of people moving to the Dordogne have changed," she added.

“Britons who couldn't afford the property they wanted in the UK or were fed up with long working hours decided to relocate. Suddenly we saw lots of Britons in their thirties coming over, all desperate to make a living; many wanted to start businesses.

“They faced two barriers; the language and knowledge of the French system.”

Business

To address the problem, Périgord Développement was set up in 2004. Situated in the Chamber of Commerce in Périgueux, their aim is to help British people to set up and run businesses in the Dordogne.

“We offer support and advice (in English) and if we don't know the answers we can point people in the right direction,” said Ms Thevenet.

“Between 2001 and 2005, the overall number of British people registering businesses multiplied by five and the numbers are still going up,” she added.

A graph covering the period shows that the number of people from other nations registering businesses in the department has not increased significantly, so surely the huge rise in British businesses is explained by the presence of the airport?

“It's clear from the graph that the airport has had an impact,” said Ms Thevenet.

“But when we conducted a survey of British business owners in 2005, to find out why they'd chosen to set up a business in the region, many said they'd just fallen in love with the area. They thought 'we like this area, now what can we do to make a living'?"

Other reasons cited in the survey included having family already living in the area and wanting to be close to a potential customer base.

Many expressed a desire to start a tourism-based business. One business that was created on the back of the airport's success is Buggs Car Hire (see below).

It is not just British businesses that have benefited from the airport's growth.

The chamber of commerce study found many French businesses had also experienced benefits since the low cost airlines started operating.

A survey of French builders found that half of them had British customers while Bergerac wine producers also claimed to have benefited from the influx of Britons with 40% boasting regular British customers.

“Our local Renault garage (in Villeréal) services and repairs all our cars," said Buggs Car Hire’s Simon Parr.

“But we're not his only British customers. I'd say about 40% of his customers are British. He's been there 25 years but before the low cost airlines came he had hardly any British customers at all.”

In the nearby town of Monflanquin, 20 kilometres from Bergerac in the Lot et Garonne, insurance brokers Cabinet Mautord, has felt the effects of the airport in bringing business to the area. “20% of our clients are British" said Nicole Mautord.
“Which is significant - around 240 customers.

Encouraging

“We think that the airport is great for encouraging our clients to visit their holiday homes - for long holidays but also just for the weekend.
“It's also used by our Belgian and Dutch clients.”
Many people in the area are wondering how the credit crunch will affect the airport.
“So far, we haven't seen much effect," said Olivier Gribelin. "But during 2009, who knows? I think it will be a year of consolidation for the airport. I'll keep looking out for new destinations though - we'd like to offer flights to Spain and other European countries but it is a difficult time for airlines.

“We're having to think of other ways to get planes to fly to new destinations. One area we're considering is doing more chartered flights (the airport did one to Morocco in 2008 which was fully booked). I'd like to set up some more but it's a risk.

“At the moment, I just act as facilitator - I provide the airport staff and facilities but the airline sells the tickets and pays the flight costs, they take the risk. If I charter a flight and can't sell the tickets the airport loses out.”

Would he like to attract more French passengers?
“I find British passengers are easier to please, more relaxed. I really admire their entrepreneurial spirit as well.

“We employ British staff and also provide lots of information in English but, yes, I'd really like to encourage more French passengers too; hopefully, by offering a range of destinations, we'll manage that. It'll be good for everybody."

The airport recently renewed it's agreement with Ryanair - who account for 68% of the airport traffic- for another five years. Meanwhile Niall Duffy, speaking on behalf of Flybe who make up a further 25% of the traffic, offered further reassurance: "Bergerac has been a good destination for us," he says. "And I wouldn't expect that to change for years to come."

Buggs
The brainchild of Simon Parr and Karl Ayling, Buggs was set up after they observed a need for an alternative to the bigger car hire companies.

“We provide a more personalised service. We try to keep things simple and make it easy,” said Mr Ayling: “Car hire gets a bit of a bad press but I hope we're changing that.”

“I moved to France 13 years ago with my wife Sandra and my young children," he added. “I was commuting from our house near Villeréal (20km from Bergerac) to the UK where I ran a printing business.

“I had to travel from the airports in Bordeaux or Toulouse. I'd stay in the UK for a couple of weeks then return to France for a week. When Buzz started flying from Bergerac, it made life a lot easier.

“Back then, there were only a handful of people commuting to the UK. Now we know lots of people who do it.”

It was when Mr Ayling started commuting from Bergerac that he spotted the gap in the market. “Apart from one big firm, there wasn't anyone doing car hire,” he said.

“People with gites were being asked by their visitors where they could get a car from.

“People have a funny relationship with low-cost airlines; they like to take advantage of cheap flights but many resent being sold car hire through them. We also noticed that people with holiday homes were choosing to fly rather than drive so we wanted to provide cars to Britons with holiday homes as well.”

“Karl and I first discussed the idea in 2002," said Mr Parr. “My wife, Karen and I were living in the UK at the time with our two children. I had been running a business selling audio-visual equipment for years and was really fed up so we thought we'd move out here and work on Buggs together.

“The hardest thing was finding someone to insure us. It took three years to find a company who didn't just look at their list and say that car hire wasn't on it. Now we're up and running, insurers are falling over themselves to get our business.”

Buggs started in the spring of 2005 with four cars. They now have 25 and struggle to keep up with demand - especially in the summer months.

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