Live and let live

Glynis Shaw looks at the options for renting out your property to holidaymakers

Anyone who owns and runs a holiday let in France is in the hospitality business. This essentially means accommodating strangers in your property and doing all you can to ensure that they are comfortable, relaxed and have an enjoyable break. If some extra factor exists – some magic perhaps – that makes holidaymakers feel really considered and wanted then both parties truly win. We’ve all stayed or eaten somewhere that feels special because of the warmth, friendliness and excellent service of the owner or staff.So, successful letting involves genuinely liking and empathising with people. But, as an owner, what is it like to share your place with strangers, how hands on would you need or want to be and how do you make the experience special? When it comes to closeness to guests, there are three main options: living offsite – perhaps in the UK while your guests are in France; living onsite but in a separate property; and finally, running a B&B with guests in your house.

Living offsiteSome offsite owners may need their property to help earn its keep but are apprehensive about strangers using a beloved holiday home. Simple action you can take is to keep separate bed linen for your exclusive use, put away your most precious ornaments and cooking bowls and have someone else clean the house after guests. It’s also wise to accept the reality by deciding that it’s fine for other people to be in your home at certain times. If you love your property then gain satisfaction from the idea of sharing that enjoyment with others and they will pick up on the feeling of enthusiasm.Other offsite owners find it easy to be detached in viewing their property as a business, especially if they have bought the property with this in mind from the outset. In either case, it’s important to show your consideration for the practical needs of your guests – whether families, couples or groups – by providing good facilities and local information along with thoughtful extra touches. You’ll find that they will respond by showing respect for your home and giving you good feedback.The main contact you’ll have with guests is by email or phone when they initially plan their visit. It’s good to have a chat to establish a rapport, answer queries and be available for further questions about any aspect of the holiday. This will give your customer a sense that all will be well. Living onsiteLiving onsite in a separate property to the house or g�tes you let out offers a varied balance between meeting guests and enjoying their company and maintaining your own privacy. As an owner, you have some control over this in terms of the site layout and the extent to which you make separate provisions. It can also be reflected in the style of furnishing – whether you choose to give the g�tes a personal, homely feel with knick-knacks, a more impersonal hotel style or a happy medium.How much should you expect to mix with guests? Well, you certainly need to like people and be willing to welcome and settle them in. Beyond that, it’s essential to use your sensitivity and judgement about the amount of privacy your guests desire and respect their choices. If you have several g�tes, you might bring people together for sport and games or offer an evening meal once a week, perhaps with music and an impromptu singsong under the stars. Families in particular often like the chance for their children to mix with other youngsters.If you are sociable, living onsite gives you the chance to meet a wealth of different people – but remember too that you are running a business and they are on holiday, so be tolerant and friendly but don’t be tempted to burden them with your problems or involve them in local politics!

Running a B&B By far the most hands on’ accommodation option for owners – literally having strangers in your house – is running a B&B. To do so successfully, you need to enjoy meeting new people with an open, relaxed approach and also to be hospitable, tolerant, well organised and flexible.This really is a full-time job and demanding work, especially if you offer the true table d’h�te experience, with an evening meal, as this will be taken communally and you will probably sit with your guests. The work can be demanding and you’ll need to be swan-like – serene on the surface while paddling like mad underwater – but there is great satisfaction in the art of hospitality. While the vast majority of guests will be charming and polite, be prepared for the very occasional difficult customer whose company you don’t enjoy. There is no option but to smile, do your best to please and breathe a sigh of relief when they leave. The compensation lies in the many interesting people you do meet and the fact that some, who started out as strangers, later return as friends. Living offsite: letting a family houseMelanie Lowndes bought her Dordogne villa, Les Vignes du Bac, jointly with friend Stuart Johnson to run as a holiday let. Stuart now lives abroad and Melanie manages the property at Jumilhac-le-Grand from her home in England, marketing it through French Connections.I always go out in spring and autumn to set up and close down for the season’, explains Melanie. Letting in summer doesn’t feel as though I’m sharing the house because I’m not there – and I like visitors to enjoy it.’Les Vignes du Bac sleeps up to eight and, although Melanie doesn’t have children, she has set up the house and garden with all that a family needs and responds to guest requests, such as making the garden completely secure and even buying a second fridge. All the bedding and accessories are the high quality I would expect and there’s never been any damage.’Her contact with guests is by both phone and email. She usually has a chat at the booking enquiry stage to talk through any questions. Then we talk again just before they leave and I take their mobile number and encourage them to phone me if they have a query en route or even while at the house. If necessary, I’ll call in the local couple who do maintenance and cleaning, but sometimes it’s just about how to restore a signal on the television!’

Living onsite letting three holiday villas Catherine Mermilliod’s property at St-Hilaire-d’Ozilhan, near Avignon in Gard, consists of her own house plus two holiday villas and a cottage. The Plaqueminier Villas sleep seven or eight people and each has its own pool and garden, offering guests as much privacy or sociability as they need.I always greet guests personally,’ explains Catherine, and spend about an hour and a half settling them in. I also arrange drinks at my house every Sunday evening for all the guests. They could be French, British or a mix, but it always goes very well. Even if the adults don’t mix afterwards, the children will often go from one pool to another as they make friends – and their parents like this.’Catherine quickly gets a feel for whether guests enjoy company or would prefer not to see her too much – and she respects their preference. People don’t knock on my door unless they have a specific problem. Sometimes I hardly see them but often they will chat when they spot me or invite me in for a drink. It’s fun meeting people and I enjoy this way of life.’

Running a B&B with table d’h�tesIn 2002 Helen and Richard Cheesman moved to France, bought La Metairie Basse, a beautiful old farmhouse in Sauliac-sur-C�l� near Cahors, and started offering B&B with absolutely no previous experience. We had no idea whether it would work but we wanted to live in France and we like people so we decided to share our house and offer an authentic country experience.’Now, not only do they successfully run five busy rooms offering breakfast and dinner, but the majority of their customers are French and the Cheesmans’ language skills have developed to cope. Many guests are walking the Chemin de Compostela, others arrive on motorbikes and the average stay is short, so the business is demanding and very hard work. Nevertheless, the Cheesmans always like to be welcoming, friendly and willing to talk, making guests feel at home.Our guests know the chambres d’h�tes routine and want company, so we enjoy mixing. They come from all over France and ask about us and the local way of life. The conversation can range through almost any topic and we learn a lot. We like the peace of winter but still look forward to meeting new visitors every spring.’

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Glynis Shaw is joint MD of French Connections holiday rentals and property sales online. www.frenchconnections.co.uk

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