There are thousands of gîte businesses in this part of France so how do you stand out from the crowd? We look at how a gite was turned into a musical haven in SW France.
Having given herself a year to find a house with the potential to run a business, Fiona Page of La Balie in Salles, Lot et Garonne actually found the ideal property in just one weekend. Deciding what to do with it, in terms of something more than rentals, took slightly longer.
Fiona tells us “With the right ideas and by targeting a specific audience, you can not only create a niche market, you can also bring people from around the world, all year long.”
The idea takes root
When Fiona found the house she knew she wouldn’t find anything else that was so perfect or with so much potential. Set in a beautiful location it was already a gîte business with three converted cottages which were adequate but nothing special.
“I took a two month sabbatical from my financial services company in the UK and spent the summer learning how to run the rental business”, she explains. “I knew that I wanted to create a business but what exactly? The property is very rural and I was mindful that maybe there wasn’t enough to draw people here. Equally, I wanted to do something where people would come regardless of the weather or time of year, and which was more than a rental business. Then it came to me, why not combine my skills and love of music, cooking and keeping fit into a luxurious place to stay whilst offering high standard courses?”
With her ideas well and truly focussed on a musical haven in SW France she started the renovation. Every gîte was given an upgrade with new decoration and en suites in every bedroom (12 in all). The existing pool was closed and two new ones were built, one to suit the 16-guest capacity, and one for her home. A multi-purpose studio was then built before she gutted her own house. As incredible as it may seem, the work took just seven months using a team of local builders.
She then had to find at least 16 pianists (8 per course) for the first two piano courses led by a concert pianist she knew in the UK. She did, thanks to strategic marketing. Alongside her own piano, she hired a magnificent Steinway model D Concert Grand for the studio, a piano for each gîte and a couple of keyboards (8 in all).
Three years later, La Balie offers five weeks of piano courses with 40 pianists coming from as far afield as Barbados, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Utah and Germany, Sweden, Holland and the UK. There is a tremendous amount of repeat business and other courses on embroidery and yoga have also been added. Virtually full for the rest of the year, a new yoga course starts in September.
When asked about their success, she replies “All the courses are led by experts in their fields, leaving me to handle logistics, time-tabling and taking care of the guests. There are the gîte rental guests who tend to want their privacy whereas course guests need looking after 24-hours a day. As all meals are served from my house, guests often wander in and out, eat in the garden and sit around chatting creating an informal and friendly atmosphere. We are serious about the work we do on the course but, when work is done, we are relaxed and like to have fun.”
The Gîte Business
Running a gîte is a very tangible and rewarding business where you can see people enjoying themselves. Being interested in people, wanting to provide a service and being sensitive to their needs is as vital as differentiation.
Fiona adds, “There are thousands of gîtes out there so it is essential to be unique, to offer something out of the ordinary or to follow a theme that links to who you are as a person. You also need to be determined and competitive, with knowledge of how to run a business. The guests see this lovely environment and have no idea of the incredible amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. They don’t see you loading up the bins to take to the déchèterie or scrubbing the bathrooms, it really is never ending so don’t underestimate the amount of work involved. The bureaucracy was daunting at first but I soon found an English speaking accountant who was able to offer guidance on the infrastructure.”
Does she have any regrets? Interestingly, she couldn’t think of a single one.
First published in the July/August 2019 issue of The Local Buzz
Images: La Balie