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Running a hotel in France: Abbaye Road

16 February 2006

It's the kind of dream that most hoteliers have at one time or another: finding an old property in a beautiful, rural part of France, turning it into a luxury hotel and relocating the entire family out there. But if it's the type of dream that appeals to you then you should be prepared for some challenges ahead.

For Clive and Tanith Cummings the challenges are still ongoing, but the dream is about to turn into a reality. At the start of next month they open the Abbaye de la Bussière in Burgundy's la Bussière-sur-Ouche as a de luxe 10-bedroom hotel. The launch marks the culmination of several years of looking for a suitable property in France, one abortive attempt, trading for several months as a spiritual retreat, and dealing with architects, contractors, and seemingly infinite amounts of red tape when you don't speak the language.

Clive is the son of Martin and Joy Cummings, the proprietors of Amberley Castle in Amberley, West Sussex. The family had long wanted a sister property to Amberley and preferably another château, but found that for the money they wanted to pay, the UK market just couldn't provide what they wanted.

Clive, who had considerable experience of running Amberley Castle, also needed a fresh challenge. So the Cummings decided to start looking in France, favouring Burgundy, an area renowned for its vineyards and gastronomic centres of Beaune and Dijon. A one hour 40 minute high-speed train ride from Paris, a two-hour drive to the ski resort of Val d'Isère and five hours to the Côte d'Azur, it was also deemed to be the perfect location.

A château five miles up the road from L'Abbaye de la Bussière seemed just the ticket, but it soon hit legal difficulties. In the meantime the Cummings discovered that the abbey, a 12th-century building trading as a spiritual retreat with a facility for seminars, could be available to the right purchaser.

There were about 50 bedrooms which were very simple and austere across two floors and one shared bathroom per floor. The restaurant had a refectory feel to it. It was hardly the stuff of luxury hotels, but as the abbey was set in its own 18-acre park with another eight buildings in its grounds, it had potential. It hadn't come on to the open market as the church authorities were afraid that it would be bought by developers and broken up, and that the eight staff members would lose their jobs.

For the Cummings it was the opportunity they'd been waiting for, but it wasn't to be an easy ride. The spiritual aspect combined with the fact that people used to come to the abbey just to stroll around the grounds with its lake and generally enjoy the tranquillity led to controversy. "The reaction we received was very mixed," says Clive. "A lot of local business people gave us a pat on the back, but inevitably there were some who didn't like the fact that the church was selling the property."

The opposition was so deep-rooted that an organisation with its own website called Sauver la Bussière was set up with the aim of legally trying to get the sale revoked. But despite numerous press articles, television and radio coverage and a petition of some 3,000 signatures, the €2.25m (£1.54m) sale went through last April. The sale was funded 100% by the Cummings and their bank, with no other partners. All staff were kept on, and as a gesture of goodwill, all bookings and engagements were honoured until the beginning of October, when the abbey was finally closed for renovation to take place.

Although Martin and Joy Cummings were in the background to help with decision-making, it was Clive who took the lead on Abbaye de la Bussière. He moved immediately to France to take over the running of the abbey - then still trading as a spiritual retreat. "With a dinner, bed and breakfast package of €50 (£34) including half a bottle of wine it was rather a shock after Amberley Castle," he recalls. "I wasn't exactly used to stumbling across people meditating in the grounds, either."

Getting to grips with the language was another challenge. Clive's wife Tanith, their four children - Bethany, 10, Lewis, nine, Georgia, five, and Max, three - moved to France last August so the children could start local schools at the beginning of a school year. Clive reports that they're making good progress with their French and that Lewis has joined a local football team. Clive and Tanith are also taking lessons, although Clive admits he's still reliant on his assistant to help him translate and get to grips with all the problems the renovation presented.

Fourteen different firms were on site during the renovation. Daily challenges included a total rewiring and replumbing of the existing building, choosing a hardware system along with software for reservations, and complying with building regulations. Builders downed tools for a two-hour lunch break with wine every day but did work extremely hard, Clive admits, often from 7am until 6pm.

Slowly but surely Clive believes he's winning round the locals who were so opposed to the project at first. Local artisans were employed to renovate the building and overseen by local architect Claude Correia. The result, some €1.8m (£1.23m) later, is the end of the first phase of the project. The abbey now has 10 bedrooms, all with views of the park and en suite bathrooms. There are also two private function rooms, as well as two new restaurants. One is a lunchtime bistro with a terrace overlooking the park, geared mostly towards the local market, and the other a gastronomic restaurant which will probably be favoured by foreigners. Chef Oliver Elzer joins the abbey from Les Elysées at the hotel Vernet, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. As at Amberley, the idea is to create cuisine with a local feel using the best, fresh ingredients. There are also three lounges.

Room rates start at €220 (£151) per night. There will be special break rates such as stay for "four nights and get a night free" and events such as wine tasting breaks. The aim is to make €1m (£685,900) in the first year of opening, based on 11 months' trading as the abbey will be closed in January.

The predicted clientele is 30-40% local and 60-70% English and American. To cater for their predominantly Anglophone market, all staff have been on a three-week English language training course in Beaune. They have also all spent a night at Amberley Castle at the Cummings' expense to allow them to experience the other side of the operation.

Staffing will be one of the key challenges for Clive in running his new business. PAYE costs are very high, with up to 43% employer's contribution. There's also a rigid 39-hour working week in catering, with time sheets to prove that these are being adhered to. Work inspectors are likely to descend any time and can ask to see proof that workers aren't doing more than their statutory hours. From June this year there will be a minimum six weeks' paid holiday, plus 13 days' public holiday a year.

So how do you make money when you're running a business in France? "Ask me in a year's time," says Clive. There will be some savings: wages aren't as high as in the UK, wine is definitely cheaper, and so far the verdict is that food is "sensibly priced".

In any event, Clive has budgeted to make a loss for the first three years and says his main goal is then to be able to pay his own way. By then it should be time for phase two, which will include 10 more bedrooms. In recognition terms the Cummings hope the Abbaye will soon join sister property Amberley Castle as a member of Relais & Châteaux.

So what about the new lifestyle? "Despite the difficulties, life in France is quite fun now that we're settled in and the children are in school," says Clive. "I can see us being here for a good eight to 10 years."

Buying a property in France
Buying a property in France has become much easier with the arrival of lower interest rates and transfer duties and the introduction of the euro, according to experts Christie & Co. However, buyers need to be aware of the difference between property sales in France and the UK.

Purchasing a property in France is similar to buying in Scotland. Once agreement has been reached on price, an initial contract, the "promesse de vente", is signed, binding both parties for a certain period of time subject to certain conditions. Ten per cent of the sale price is typically taken as a deposit. This is the equivalent of exchanging contracts in the UK and effectively prevents gazumping. Searches are carried out by the notaries and legal certificates obtained.

This also allows the purchaser time to sort out his or her finance. Completion takes place about three months after the "promesse de vente" and finalises the legal transfer of the title.

Leases of 60 to 90 years are also common in France. These can be granted by individuals wishing to retain the leasehold interest, or local administrations that are not in a position to sell the land. Similarly, leases can be signed for nine-year periods, where the landlord is bound for the full period and then obliged to renew the lease (as the tenant acquires commercial rights), but where the tenant usually benefits from a break period every three years.

Source: Christie & Co www.christie.com

Setting up a business in France

Setting up a business in France is highly complex and expert advice should always be sought. Here are a few pointers to help you on your way.

Start by stepping back from the dream and doing your homework thoroughly. According to the French chamber of commerce, seven out of 10 businesses fail because entrepreneurs are too eager to start trading and don't take time to research their market.

If you decide to go ahead, then get expert advice in all areas. Boutique de Gestion (www.boutiques-de-gestion.com) is a good place to start. This organisation, which has offices all over France, provides advice and training to would-be entrepreneurs.

Take time to learn about the red tape you'll have to overcome if you want to trade in France. Falling foul of the many regulations could cost you dearly.

Be wary if you think that setting up holiday accommodation or gîtes is the way forward. This market has become saturated over the years, and making a living purely on renting out such accommodation is a risky strategy.

Don't mistake France for England. The French may be close neighbours geographically, but culturally they can be quite different.

Make sure you have enough capital behind you. A year's expenses allowing you to pay costs up front would be a sensible amount.

Remember the geographical differences too. France may be roughly the same as the UK in population terms, but geographically it's twice as big. This could mean long trips to buy supplies if you set up in a rural area.

Also ensure that you have enough people to be your customers if you're off the beaten track.

Abbaye de la Bussiere 21360 La Bussière-sur-Ouche, Côte d'Or, France
Proprietors Clive and Tanith Cummings
info@abbabyedelabussiere.fr
www.abbayedelabussiere.fr
Tel 00 33 3 80 49 02 29
Fax 00 33 3 80 49 05 23

Amberley Castle Amberley, West Sussex
Proprietors Martin and Joy Cummings
info@amberleycastle.co.uk
www.amberleycastle.co.uk
Tel 01798 831992
Fax 01798 831998

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