WHEN Tony and Nelly Manuel decided to run a gîte business, they wanted to “combine work and leisure in a nice area of Europe”.
They set up in the Vendée three years ago and, like most British gîte-owners, had never run a hospitality business before. Tony said: “I was a kitchen and bathroom designer and Nelly, who is Belgian, was a hairdresser and waitress. We always enjoyed interacting with people, so the idea of a gîte just came to us.”
The Vendée was chosen as it is a popular French holiday destination, although the majority of guests are Dutch, Belgian, English and French, in that order. Their season runs May to September and they are almost fully booked. They do little in the off-season.
Using a combination of savings and a mortgage to renovate their property and develop the site, Tony said: “The rental covers our living expenses, but it’s not a good way to earn a living. Improvements to the house alone will show a healthy return on the capital costs.”
The Manuels are available to guests at all times, but have a separate house, with a garden.
“I cannot think of any real drawbacks. Running a gîte is a great life once you are fully established, which normally takes three or four years. It is a worthwhile job if you can find an area with a shortage of gîtes, but nowadays there is a lot of competition.”
Simon and Nadia Trelissick have owned a gîte complex in Normandy for 10 years; about 80 per cent of their guests are British.
Simon was a building site manager and Nadia was a freelance researcher. She said: “We thought gîtes would be an easy way to earn money, and in a way it is, but don’t expect to live off it. The French government says a person will make only e3,000 per gîte a year.”
They are well inland and feel the French prefer the coast. With business down 50 per cent in the past two years, they have had to supplement the gîte income with casual work.
The daily routine varies, but always involves a great deal of cleaning, laundry and mowing, all of which has to be done to guests’ standards, rather than their own. “It’s physical and you need to be fit,” says Nadia, “and changeover days are very hard work.” Nevertheless, she says, running gîtes isn’t a full-time job.
The couple are available almost 24/7. Nadia said: “We don’t manage to maintain any privacy really. Guests’ children are in and out of our house all day long.” However, their season runs only from April to October.
Simon said: “We don’t do much business off-season as the gîtes have electric heating and cost too much to run: British guests can’t ever seem to get warm enough. They never bring warm clothes and always leave doors open.”
Their advice to would-be owners is twofold: choose a tourist area and have another income stream.
Steve Lytton and Chriss Guy run a gîte in the Yonne in Burgundy. Most of their guests are French, but they also have a range of Europeans and some Americans. They have lived in France for four years.
Describing themselves as “very customer-focused”, they say they try to leave their guests free to do as they please. They live at the top of their house, which is separate from the gîte.
Chriss was an advertising manager while Steve was a French teacher. He said: “Really, we couldn’t see many other ways of earning a living in France. It wasn’t something we had always wanted to do, but it’s a good way to make a living – well, half a living. We didn’t realise just how much time it takes to earn a relatively small reward.”
The economic downturn resulted in fewer passing clients, but was compensated for by more weddings; they do a reasonable amount of business off-season, mainly via word of mouth, but off-season bookings consist mainly of single nights or a weekend.
“With all the renovation, I don’t think we will ever pay back the continuous capital outlay,” says Steve. Luckily, the couple undertook the project out of savings rather than a mortgage.
“The chief benefits are being our own bosses and getting to meet a wide range of friendly people from all over the world: but there is a lot of cleaning, washing and ironing.
“You also – obviously – need a strong relationship and agreement as to modus operandi.”
Steve advises buying in an area that generates income (for instance, they chose a village and have a high-class wedding venue nearby that often needs additional accommodation) and preferably be on a long-distance walking route.
“You should also integrate well with the local population to ensure you’re used by their families and guests, and ally with the tourist office to use their services for marketing and advertising. You also need to create a good website.
“The best advice is to think of how you like to be treated and perform accordingly.”