Clive Cummings and his wife, Tanith, run the 12th-century Abbaye de la Bussière in Burgundy. He tells Janet Harmer how, despite early opposition, he and his family have now been accepted into the local community.
Q Could you describe the style and setting of the Abbaye? The Abbaye is situated within a 14-acre parkland. We run the hotel as a classic English-style country house property, using a mixture of antiques and contemporary fabrics, while our food is modern French, using classic techniques.
Q What were the key challenges of getting the Abbaye de la Bussière open to guests? Our acquisition of the Abbaye created a huge fuss, with a 3,500-signature petition and three legal cases trying to null the purchase. Local expectations were high as I said that the Abbaye would be "OF" Relais & Châteaux/Michelin standard, so the press wrote that it would "BE" a Relais & Châteaux hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant.
Q What are the roles that you and Tanith undertake at the Abbaye today? Although we have very strong heads of departments, I control the gardens and restaurant/hotel operation, maintenance, marketing and finances, while Tanith looks after the rooms and administration for both book-keeping and reservations.
Q How did your earlier careers prepare you for running the Abbaye? I grew up living on top of pubs. My parents then bought Amberley Castle in West Sussex in 1987 and I worked in the restaurant, as well as helping my father move rubble when he was building new rooms. In 1998, Tanith and I took over as the general managers.
Q How many staff do you employ? We are a very seasonal business so I have two teams. My full-time team of 25 is topped up by 15 seasonal staff who are on six-month contracts. While most are French, we also have four English staff - all bilingual - as well as three Italians and one Portuguese.
Q What are the ongoing challenges of managing the Abbaye? Maintenance. When water drips down a 60ft barrel-vaulted ceiling you have to think and act quickly. Having a very international clientele - 15 different nationalities in a month on average - can be tricky as each guest has different cultural demands. The incredibly complex bureaucratic system here drives you mad and the Working Time Directive, which is strictly adhered to, is an ongoing challenge.
Q What have you enjoyed most about running the Abbaye as a hotel? Discovering the passion the French have for this industry from both staff and guests, watching the business mature with a 10% annual growth during the first five years, and learning a new culture, while seeing our four children grow up bilingually.
Q How well have you and your family settled into living in France? The beginning was hard, especially for the older two children, but we've now made some wonderful friends with both guests and locals. Georgia (12) now knows the difference between an 18-month and 24-month matured Comté, Max (10) loves his school's four-course freshly cooked lunch and Lewis (16) eats his steaks blue if steak tartar is not available. Bethany (17), came with me to a wine tasting at Romanée-Conti and loved the Montrachet Grand Cru 1995, the same year of her birth, and wanted me to take some home for her!
Q How well have the French accepted a British family running a luxury hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant in Burgundy? When we first arrived it was very mixed. Some people loved the idea of our plans and others not, but now that they have seen the success, all is well. Out of the local village population of 159, 40 of them work at the hotel.
Q What have been the greatest achievements at the Abbaye? The first one was getting open. Then joining Relais & Châteaux and receiving our first Michelin star in 2007, and since then retaining the star. Now it's the financials and occupancy.
Q What are your plans for the future? We have 18 rooms at the moment, but we have the capacity for another 16 rooms - taking us to 34 rooms - along with a cookery school and a spa. This is an iconic building and it is my goal is to create an iconic business within these walls. I'm now trying to raise the finance for the next phase, but it is proving very hard, even with good occupancy and revpar.