Life after The Hotel Inspector couldn’t be better for guest house in France
- Credit: Archant
When Mike and Joss Tucker and their two sons moved to Ariège to start a new life in France, they didn’t expect to be welcoming straight-talking hotelier Alex Polizzi to their home a few years later
On a typical episode of Channel 5's long-running series, The Hotel Inspector, award-winning hotelier Alex Polizzi checks into a bed and breakfast or hotel in a popular British location, is startlingly frank with the owners and comes up with a drastic action plan to help attract new custom.
In the latest series, however, Alex left the UK's holiday resorts behind, setting her sights on a bed and breakfast in picturesque rural south-west France instead.
"This is a beautiful retreat in the Pyrénées," she said at the start of the show. "There's a lovely swimming pool and it's all in the most immaculate taste. It sounds right up my street."
Owners Mike and Joss Tucker, both 44, moved to Gaudiès in Ariège in 2014 after visiting the area with friends.
"There and then we started window shopping," Joss says. "We met an agent who showed us a few properties and we carried on looking on their website when we got home. Within a week we had spotted the house."
They put in an offer on the beautiful 200-year-old stone farmhouse straight away, moving in just a few months later.
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"We didn't realise just how spectacular the view of the mountains was until we walked through masses of brambles and overgrown trees and shrubs," Mike says. "That was a really lovely surprise and it has since become a major selling point for us."
Although the house was habitable when they arrived, there was a large amount of work to be undertaken from tackling the garden to the rendering of the property and repairing the shutters.
"With these houses you're never really finished," Mike admits, "but the main house was completed to what we wanted, the garden and the swimming pool, in two years from start to finish.
"Since then we've also finished our on site café-bar; that's been our most recent project."
Joss, a keen seamstress, created many of the unique soft furnishings herself, including striking appliqué cushions. She loves searching French brocantes and flea markets for beautiful vintage linens and antique furniture which she brings back to life through waxing and painting.
"It's just fantastic the bargains you get here," she says. "There's always a flea market going on every weekend; always an opportunity!"
In just a few years Mike and Joss have established an innovative business in the heart of the Pyrénées, named Zero Neuf after the department of Ariège (09), where they offer year-round holiday accommodation at their stylish, renovated farmhouse and gîte, along with creative and wellbeing escapes and tailored cycling adventures, as Mike is a passionate cyclist himself.
So what, you may wonder, led them to appear on The Hotel Inspector?
Following costly renovations, a lack of paying guests at the outset and a finite amount of savings in the bank were putting the couple under pressure, the show summed up.
Mike and Joss meanwhile wanted to have the opportunity to learn from Alex's expertise and experience.
"We felt the narrative the show span was not entirely reflective of our situation, but it is true when we first opened discussions with them, we were in a tough spot," Mike says.
"But in terms of how they portrayed the house visually, they did a fabulous job and it was exposure that we could never have dreamt of before getting involved."
Their website crashed within minutes of the episode airing last year and for several days afterwards they were inundated with a flurry of enquiries.
"From that perspective it's been great and has led on to other interesting projects," adds Joss.
Now five years in and the couple are delighted their new family life is living up to expectations, as moving to France was something they had always dreamed of.
Joss's mother is French and she spent much of her childhood in France as her parents have a house in the Loire Valley.
Joss's sister is married to Living France columnist Ian Moore and they also run a bed and breakfast in the Loire.
Mike, originally from West Wales, met Joss at work in the UK and the couple married in France, near Le Mans.
He says: "I didn't know France particularly well, bar from skiing holidays in the French Alps, I didn't know the rest of France at all really, so Joss introduced it to me and we subsequently spent time in the Pyrénées and the Loire.
"The Pyrénées always held a strong interest for me, because I loved physical geography when I was at school and had studied the range extensively. Joss had also lived in Pau for two years."
However, with Mike earning a good wage in the recruitment industry in the UK, it never seemed like the right time to take the plunge, especially when their two boys were young.
But after 20 years of headhunting in a specialised area of finance, the long hours eventually started to take their toll.
"Towards the end of my time in it, I think I'd just been in the environment too long, stress levels were super high, it was making me unwell and I was suffering with depression, which was having an effect on the family," reflects Mike, who says they also considered moving back to Wales at one point.
"As much as we love Wales and my family is still there, France offered greater opportunities for our business ideas and it has the climate. We also wanted our boys to experience a different culture and learn a second language as well," he explains.
"Manny is 11 and Max is 13, they were eight and six when we moved over, so it's turned out to be a perfect age for them."
Once they decided to make the move, their house near Woking sold in just a day and Joss headed to France soon afterwards with the boys so they could start school in the September, with Mike following a couple of weeks later.
"The boys were straight into the local village school," says Joss. "They were amazing." Their sons now have a great group of friends, they play football for a local team and Manny rides for a cycling club. Max is even top of his year group in French.
"The boys have made it a lot easier for me and Joss to settle in France," Mike admits. "If anything, it was probably Joss and I that took the time to get our feet on the ground and run with the whole thing."
Even now when guests ask about the reality of moving to France, the Tuckers don't look back on the early days through rose-tinted glasses.
"It was a huge risk, a huge gamble, but it has paid off and we are very happy where the business is now, but it hasn't been without severe challenges, financially, emotionally and physically as well," Mike says.
Having been through so much makes them all the more sympathetic to the needs of their guests when they arrive on holiday, Mike believes.
"The main philosophy for us is 'escapism'; enabling people to get away from what we were experiencing," he explains.
"From talking to a lot of guests when they're here, they're under a lot of pressure at work and life generally, so we really wanted to create an environment where people can come and switch off, whether it's for a few days, a week or longer."
The family, which has grown to include three dogs, two cats and hens, is around to offer advice on places to visit and ride, to cook a delicious supper made from produce from their organic vegetable plot or have a chat over a drink at the bar, which is stocked with craft beer from local breweries, organic wines and fresh coffee.
"We're finding that's making for a really convivial environment." Mike says. "We enjoy spending time with people, talking and getting to know them. It's working particularly well for us."
Since filming of The Hotel Inspector last year, Mike says the business has really started to hit form and has flourished with plenty of bookings coming in, fabulous feedback and the couple working on a number of very exciting projects.
As well as offering tailored cycling adventures in the region, Zero Neuf also runs specialist retreats in yoga, Pilates and creative arts and recently became a stockist for Annie Sloan paints.
"A lot of furniture in the house and in the guest accommodation are pieces that I've upcycled," Joss explains. "From that, I've had lots of compliments and am planning to run Annie Sloan Chalk Paint workshop weekends whereby people come out for a few days, we browse the local flea markets, picking up furniture bargains to bring back to Zero Neuf to paint, distress, wax - generally breathe new life into neglected pieces. Larger items can then be shipped back for guests. It's an idea I've harboured for ages."
Along with all their new ideas, their redesigned website has been held up as a great example of how tourism businesses can thrive in the digital age and encourage more people to visit from all over Europe.
Mike says: "There are all sorts of things we're doing to hopefully encourage more people to come here, not just to stay with us, but to come to the region generally because it's a beautiful part of France that very few people have even heard of, let alone visited.
"Because it's close to Carcassonne and Toulouse airports, it's very accessible; more people should be coming here."
The couple are in talks with the mayor to open up Café Zero Neuf to the community one night a week and are considering taking on extra staff this summer to help manage the increasing workload.
"In the last six months we've really started to feel that this is working and it's what we envisaged life being like here," Mike says.
"Our initial plans right at the beginning are now really consolidating," Joss adds. "I was very keen to do crafts, wellbeing and art and that's all now really coming together. We're very excited."
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