The pretty village of Coulon in the Marais Poitevin was the ideal place to set up a B&B and gîte business for expat couple Anthony and Marylyn Kusmirek
For Anthony and Marylyn Kusmirek, moving to France to start a B&B and gîte business was the perfect alternative to retiring. The couple had been living in East Yorkshire where they ran their own design business for more than 20 years. “A lot of our friends were moving away and we were looking for a new adventure. We didn’t want to retire; we were looking for something to keep us active, give us a nice property, and be somewhere we could meet people and be in the swing of things,” says Marylyn, who had long dreamed of running a B&B.
But the couple were not about to jump the gun; quite the opposite. Having decided to move to France, they spent the next five years taking their holidays in different regions where they might want to live, as Anthony explains: “Marylyn decided she wanted to be near the sea, so we started looking at places within one hour’s drive of the coast. We started in Normandy, then Brittany, and all the way down to Aquitaine, near Bordeaux. Over five years we must have looked at thousands of properties on the internet, practically every property you could imagine in our price bracket. Every time we saw something interesting, we would have a look.”
Marylyn and Anthony decided to whittle down their search area, as they wanted a location with a good amount of sunshine without being too hot in the summer, so they outlined an area south of the Loire down to Bordeaux.
It was the pretty villages of the Marais Poitevin that really caught their eye, a lush green area of waterways inland from Niort to La Rochelle. “Tourists love coming to the area, so we came down and had a look at half a dozen properties and chose the one we’re living in now,” explains Anthony. The property is a 19th-century lodge with outbuildings, a five-minute walk from the pretty village of Coulon in Deux-Sèvres. “The people selling it were very charming. They had about an acre and a half with trees, which were 150 years old, in the garden. We were absolutely mesmerised by this lovely park, and the huge property with amazing outbuildings. It was all in very good condition, but obviously not suitable for B&B and gîtes, but we thought we could make the conversion ourselves,” he adds.
Marylyn and Anthony were able to move to France in February 2008, having sold their house and design business. Adjusting to the new language and culture did not present any challenges as Anthony had spent much of his childhood in northern France, growing up with his French aunt and other relatives, and spoke French fluently. Marylyn, on the other hand, grew up in Jersey and having learnt French at school, improved her conversation skills when she spent time with Anthony’s family in France. “When I came here, I had a good grounding in grammar and I already had overcome the threshold of having to speak in French,” says Marylyn.
Having bought the property, the couple met with the local mayor, who introduced them to various people in the local tourism industry, and many of these links have played a vital role. “Mixing with people like you, makes you feel part of it and it doesn’t feel daunting at all,” says Marylyn. One key contact the couple met early on was the local president of Clévacances, an association of gîtes and B&Bs, which was set up by the French government 20 years ago to run alongside the departmental tourism agencies. “She told us all the criteria that we would need to meet to for a three-star rating. For example, we had to have air extractors fitted in the toilets and kitchens; the bedrooms had to have light switches on either side of the bed; there were lots of little things that we would never have dreamed of that were essential to get the three-star rating,” says Anthony.
Having worked in design, Anthony drew up the plans for the B&B and gîte accommodation himself, and then spent time finding the right artisans for the job. The plan was to convert the outbuildings into two luxury two-bedroom gîtes, and adapt the main property to a chambres d’hôtes with a three-bedroom family suite.
The couple were keen to find the right artisans to do the work. “They key thing we felt was to get a good job done at a good price, so we had five or six quotations for everything. By talking to locals and looking at Yellow Pages, we invited dozens of people to come and see the job, giving them plans for electricity, plumbing and so forth. Eventually we chose people we wanted to work with and people who had a good price,” explains Anthony. “But we never succumbed to the idea of paying upfront. They all demand that in their quotes, but we said ‘if our money’s good enough, it’ll have to be on trust’ and they agreed. Eventually we had a great satisfaction in all the work that was done.”
It’s clear that forward planning and thorough research were important to the couple when planning their move to France and setting up the business. “We think if you’re thorough and you plan well ahead, you minimise your problems,” says Anthony. The couple did have some minor problems along the way – namely leaking shower cubicles and a problem with the heated hand rails – but fortunately nothing major.
Anthony and Marylyn finished the conversion and Le Logis de Bellevue opened for business in April 2009. Working with Clévacances has been a key part of getting up and running, as Anthony explains: “You get all the advice you need in terms of producing your contracts in French and in English, general advice as well as marketing: they have a national website, a catalogue/brochure. They get all the Deux-Sèvres B&B and gîte owners together several times a year to exchange information.”
At first, the majority of Le Logis de Bellevue’s business was mainly French, and came via Clévacances, as well as through links with the tourist board. The property is also listed on the Alastair Sawday’s website, as well as with Owners Direct, which Anthony says has brought more British guests. “Over seven years, the French market was replaced by an English market. Now, almost 95% of guests are English – not by choice; it just happened that way.”
Initially, the couple thought they might be open for business all year round, but in reality most of their guests visit during the period from Easter to September. Since many are families, the majority of bookings are within the school holidays. The area is popular with those who come to enjoy the nearby beaches, as well as activities such as boating and cycling in the Marais Poitevin. There are also two big tourist attractions within an hour’s drive – Futuroscope and Puy du Fou.
The area boasts a busy calendar of events and festivals, which has been an important factor in attracting guests. “The French are very keen on street art, markets, celebrating food and wine, so we do a lot of research to know where our clients can visit at different times of the year so they can enjoy themselves. We’ve become excellent ambassadors for the region,” enthuses Anthony.
Setting up and running the business has been rewarding for the couple, but they do find it hard work in the warm summer months. “We have a six-hour window in which we have to clean four bedrooms, four bathrooms, two kitchens, two lounges, plus two to three rooms in the B&B. Finding adequate staff is not always very easy so we share the duties. And then we have the swimming pool to clean – all within a short space of time. We don’t stop for lunch. We finish exhausted because it’s a race against time; but it’s good fun – it keeps us active,” says Anthony. “Suddenly we have to welcome our customers with a big smile, and offer them a big welcome drink and act as if nothing happened in between!” he laughs. “When people come and they enjoy it and they appreciate what you’ve done, you get the recompense for it,” adds Marylyn.
There are plenty of ways for the couple to amuse themselves if they feel they need a break from running the business, as Anthony reveals: “We’re lucky that we live in a village with seven restaurants, so if ever we fancy a change of scene we just walk down to the village. The skies are so blue here and the stone is so white; it’s scintillating. There is a very pleasant walk to a riverside restaurant where we meet friends and dine outside. We call it the ‘Green Paradise’ – that’s the name the locals give it. Not many people are familiar with this area, but it’s one of the hidden treasures of France.”
As for the future, the couple have no intention of leaving their green haven in Deux-Sèvres. “We’ve been here for seven years now and it just seems to have flown past,” says Marylyn. “We’ve integrated ourselves into the local community by joining various associations – the tourist board, twin town associations, and Marylyn is in the local choir,” adds Anthony, who says that they also enjoy getting involved in local events and festivities.
For Anthony, enjoying the warm sunshine has been a highlight. “Although we escaped England to try to get away from the wet and cold, we get the same pattern here, but less of it,” he says. “But as soon as the sun comes out here, you feel as if you’re back in springtime or summer. Two years ago we had lunch on Boxing Day in La Rochelle outside in the sunshine. Now that is a highlight for me!