Every summer, thousands of holidaymakers from all over the world flock to the south of France, and over the years even more have built or purchased their dream home in the beautiful countryside there.
And with thousands of French people and foreigners looking to spend their retirement or their ‘grandes vacances’ in the same sunny corner of France, the market for expat holiday homes, retirement villages, campsites or any other kind of lodgings has grown into a monster.
With established chains snapping up most of the business, it can become a tough market to penetrate, especially for expats.
Unless, that is, you have a bright idea.
For this week’s My French Career, The Local talks to two expats who had two simple but brilliant ideas and carved out a successful niche in this saturated market of holiday homes.
‘I honestly don’t know why, but I thought to myself – Gay.’
British property marketing consultant Danny Silver hit the headlines in France earlier this summer, when his company’s plan for a so-called ‘gay village’ near Narbonne caused controversy.
‘Le Village – Canale du Midi’ was described on the Villages Group's website as “a private oasis for the over-50’s Gay and Lesbian (LGBT) community who want an ‘active and healthy lifestyle’ in the warm, friendly and healthy climate of southern France.”
How did the plan for the ‘gay village’ first come about?
“First of all, let me emphasise that everyone is welcome at Canal du Midi,” Silver says of the development, which will start selling properties in September, and should open in February 2015.
“It will not be exclusively for gay people and in fact, quite a lot of the interest we’ve had has been from straight people who are intrigued by what they see as a community that looks exciting and different from the norm.”
“For about three years we had been trying to start up something in this for over-50s interested in active living, but when we advertised it in May, we didn’t get the response we had hoped for,” says Silver.
“I honestly don’t know why, but at that point I said to myself: ‘Gay.’ And without that new angle, the whole thing would undoubtedly have been dead in the water,” he says.
What problems had the original project been facing?
“Anywhere you go around the world, property developers will always tell you ‘Red tape is a nightmare,’ but honestly, I’ve never seen anything worse than the bureaucracy in France since Hollande’s government started a year ago.”
“Then there’s the planning permission process, which in France is completely backwards. You get the permits, and then the locals, especially the ‘green lobby,’ offer their complaints, when it’s too late to change your plan anyway.”
Silver’s stroke of genius in marketing Le Village Canal du Midi to the gay community, however, appears to be paying off.
“Since August we’ve had around 20,000 hits on the website, hundreds of messages of support, possible investment from the US, and at least two other mayors who have asked me to bring the gay-friendly village to their town.”
“And when I was visiting the area recently, I talked to restaurant-owners, for example, who told me their business was down 30 percent this summer. They’re delighted to hear they might finally be getting some more customers,” Silver adds.
‘None of this was planned.’
Diane Kirkwood, who runs off-grid, “off-beat holiday rentals” at Covert Cabin in the Dordogne region with her husband Bob, tells The Local it was a combination of chance, circumstances and clever marketing that allowed their unique holiday homes to stand out from the crowd.
“After we bought a house here in 2001, we found a cabin on a lake nearby, and bought that too. Bob has always worked in joinery, so we renovated it ourselves.”
“Because there aren’t many jobs around here, but there are plenty of holiday-makers, we decided we might as well start renting out the cabin. None of this was planned from the beginning,” she adds.
“We promoted the cabin as ‘off-grid’ partly because at first we weren’t able to run electricity to it from the house,” admits Kirkwood, who is from Essex in England.
“Secondly, it was a real niche – something that we knew wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but would help us stand out.”
“And at the time, there was a lot of buzz in the media about ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘eco-footprints’, so Bob and I thought we should promote the cabin to people who are interested in nature and the environment, and take advantage of how isolated the area is.”
“Since then, we were so inundated with interest that we added two more cabins, and have clients from everywhere who want an eco-friendly holiday, to go hiking and explore the woods and lakes, or just to get away from it all,” adds Kirkwood.