Reviewing 2010, running holiday rentals in Manche, Normandy

Tansy Forster spent sixteen years working in the hotel industry, and worked her way up to the position of general manager. After that she worked in sales started her own recruitment agency with a friend. Tansy moved to Normandy from Britain when her husband decided to take early retirement. She sold her business and they settled in Manche. She has been renting holiday homes in Manche, Normandy since 2002. She now has a house on Utah Beach, and also rents out a cottage and apartment within the grounds of the country house where she lives. We caught up with her to talk about her experiences this year.


Q: Has 2010 been more challenging than 2009 or previous years and have you felt the effects of the recession?

No, none what so ever. If anything we’ve been busier.

Q: Why do you think that is?

I think possibly people have realised holiday rentals are a cheaper option. Also where we’re located we’ve got good motorways, we’ve also got the ferries coming in and out of Cherbourg just up the road. So we’re not reliant on low cost airlines at all.

Q: So you think people are choosing to come to you rather than flying?

The only people that we get who come in by airline are Americans. And they come here for a specific reason, i.e. the Normandy beaches. But we’re not in the package holiday industry, where I think people have had their fingers burnt by so many airlines going upsy daisy. I also think Normandy attracts a different type of person anyway.

Q: And what did you aim to achieve in 2010?

When we first started doing holiday rentals 8 or 9 years ago we were told if we got twelve weeks booked up a year we should be happy. We are now running from mid April, through to – the season’s been extended – to the end of October, and we have been fully booked in all three units. I think I’ve got a week empty in the cottage, and that’s been it for the whole of that season. So it’s been quite exceptional. But I have to say that I do fill it every year.

Q: What period is your busiest season, and what did you do to prepare your holiday rental and holiday rentals business for the peak season this year?

We don’t really have a peak season. The only difference that we have is up at Utah beach we have large numbers. It’s usually families with loads of kids. We’re busy all year round. Basically every year we do something new to the properties. Like last year we redecorated completely throughout. We put in a new American fridge with crushed ice cubes and water.

Q: Is that because you get Americans coming to stay or did you just want to do it?

No, I think it’s because we get people who come who have got those in their own houses. So they’d want that in a holiday house. Certainly we’ve got one, and if I went on holiday I would love one too. So we do something every single year to upgrade.

Q: Is that because you feel you’ve got to be competitive with other houses in your area, or do you want to keep ahead of what’s current?

I think it’s to be competitive, to keep ahead and to offer value for money because I haven’t put my prices up.

Q: Did you make any changes this year to the way you market your property to get more bookings and enquiries and was that effective?

Well a while ago I bought an International Upgrade to HomeAway FeWo-direkt (through your site). And about 75% of our business for our two small units here is coming from Germany. But it’s nowhere near like that up at Utah Beach; we’re still predominantly English and American. We’ve already got eleven weeks for Utah beach next year. But August was so bad weather wise for everyone concerned; we haven’t had any bookings for August yet. But we’ve got them for June and July. And September I think.

Q: Why did you decide to start advertising with HomeAway FeWo-direkt? Was it because you were getting a lot of enquiries from Germany?

No we weren’t getting any bookings at all from Germany, but sitting here on the continent I thought that that was a bit strange. So I was looking for an actual site in Germany to advertise on, and then when the HomeAway group took over HomeAway FeWo-Direkt. I immediately went on there and it’s the best thing I’ve done. The Germans are just absolutely fabulous guests. We get boxes of chocolates bought for us, another couple sent us Schnapps through the post to say thank you the other day. We get all sorts of things from the Germans, they’re always beautifully mannered, they leave the house absolutely immaculate and they’re never any trouble when they’re here. So we love them.

Q: If someone else wanted to advertise to a foreign market how would they decide which countries to focus on?

It’s a difficult question, because I’ve also upgraded to HomeAway Spain and HomeAway Italy and I’ve not heard a dicky bird from either of them at all. Over the years we’ve had one set of Italians in and one set of Spanish in, in eight years. As soon as you announced these new sites I immediately went on there, but as I said not a dicky bird at all.

But I think in actual fact Germany is that little bit stronger, and the Germans, up until recently, in fact the 60th anniversary where Helmut Kohl came across, and that was the first time that a German Chancellor was welcomed into Normandy. And that handshake in front of the world made a huge difference, because before when we first came here, we didn’t see hardly any German number plates at all, and now they come in their droves. And it seems to be since that 60th anniversary. It’s quite remarkable because in this area it is very much “war, war, war”, but we’re finding that the young ones are interested in what their grandfathers did during the war. They are still a little bit put off, because the war is an industry around here. But when they do get here they actually start enjoying it. We have an advantage of course because Germans speak English but they don’t speak French. So we’re quite a good link between the two. We’ve also had a lot of Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian people as well. So for me the continental market is possibly more important than the British market.

Q: How many weeks did you aim to book this year, did you meet these targets, and how did you get these results?

From the second week of April to the last week of October. How many weeks is that? … (Does some quick mental arithmetic), I’ve had a minimum of 26 weeks in each unit.

Q: And how would you say you get these results?

It’s all through The thing that you have to do as a holiday home owners, is you’ve got to identify your Unique Selling Point, your USP, and you’ve got to really work on that. We’re lucky because we’ve got the Utah Beach house, which is actually on an invasion beach, with sea views, so that sells itself in a way. And here we’re only ten minutes away from Utah beach. We’ve identified the sort of people who come to our two units, come here to be in the environment of a country house. they like their independence, their own front door, secure parking. We speak English as well, so we’re a good link through for them. And also all the animals. Because a lot of these couples that come, are quite young, and newly married, that sort of thing, so they haven’t got an awful lot of disposable income. They come from small apartments in large cities and things like that. So to have space is here is quite nice, and also they like the idea of all the animals. You can see them in my pictures and its all on my Facebook page as well.

Q: This sort of individuality is what makes the holiday rentals industry really unique. It’s nice for travellers to have the option to stay in all these different sorts of properties that have all these unique features to offer as well.

Yes. We’re certainly dealing with two different markets, because the one up at Utah beach, they call in, collect the key, and I give them a bit of a run down about the house and I’ll leave them to it. So we don’t really interact with them at all. But here if they want to interact with us they’re welcome to, and if they don’t it’s not a problem. So we take the lead from them. But it’s very much that people up at Utah don’t actually want to interact somehow.

Q: How do booking patterns this year compare to previous years? Have you had more people looking for discounts, deals or shorter breaks?

No I haven’t actually. It’s seems to have gone the same pattern as normal. Just before the school break up, you get people in absolute desperation. Usually the husbands are in trouble because they haven’t booked anywhere. So they’re trying to get in anywhere. Whether you’re showing as fully booked or not, you’re still getting the email on the chance. But I’ve had enquiries for 2012 already. It tends to be quite a thorough pattern, people want to make a decision and you can tell as soon as the enquiry comes through, whether they’re serious or not.

Q: How would you be able to tell if an enquiry is serious?

Just their tone, and also the speed of response. I do answer within half an hour to an hour of an enquiry coming in. And if I get an answer straight back from them, I can quite honestly say I’ll book.

Q: Would you definitely recommend other owners to be as fast and efficient as possible when responding to enquiries and things?

Definitely, because I myself, when we were trying to book somewhere, when we actually had time to go on holiday, it drove me demented. It took days for people to reply. There was a house that I really really liked, and there was somebody dealing with me, but in the end I didn’t book because it was just too complicated. It turned out the owner was away, and it was a temp secretary that was trying to deal with it and she hadn’t got a clue. And I’m a classic example, I walked away. So you have to be on the ball and on the case.

Q: There was an article on a well known blog a few weeks ago, a travel journalist writing the same thing, that there are some lovely places out there, but often owners would take such a long time getting back to her, that she would lose her patience and walk away. It’s a real shame.

Absolutely, I myself when I’m making enquiries for places; I’m sending them out en mass, because I know 75% won’t answer. In fact there have been quite a few comments about this on a few owners’ forums. That it’s just absolutely ridiculous that these people advertise their property, and then they don’t answer. A lot of the ones who don’t answer are the big agencies.

There’s a large agency in France who advertise with, and they’re notorious for not getting back to customers. So a lot of these agencies in my opinion give holiday rental owners a bad name.

Q: In our opinion, even if you're booked up for the dates a traveller has requested, we think it is good business practise to get back them with a quick reply saying you're not available those dates, because they might want to book for another time. They’re probably not going to enquire again if they feel they have been ignored. So I’d agree with you there.

Q: Following on from that, what is your relationship like with your holiday rental guests? What are they looking for in your property, and what do you do to ensure they have an unforgettable stay?

As I was explaining, Utah beach people tend to keep themselves to themselves on a general basis, so it’s very difficult to know what exactly the guests are looking for because you just can’t tell with people. The best way I can do it is to give two examples. We’ve got one guest who comes to our house every year, and has been coming for seven years, every week in June. And then you’ve got people like this young German couple who just left this morning. They didn’t confirm. I was about to cancel his reservation when I had another enquiry but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and said, “I’ll have to cancel this reservation if I don’t hear from you within 24 hours”, and he came straight back saying, “Oh yes, oh yes I want the week, I want the week.” I said, “OK then I’ll keep it for you.” Anyway, they said they were going to arrive from 3 o’clock in the afternoon; they eventually turned up at 10.30 at night. They’d gone via Brittany, to us that is incredibly late. Especially when you’ve had two changeovers. We’re early to bed and early risers you see. So it was a real drama for us. They spent the afternoon driving around Normandy, the next day they announced they didn’t like the beaches here; they liked Brittany, so they took to driving to Brittany. They were booked in till Saturday, but they left this morning.

Q: Did they still pay you?

He did pay yes, but it was sort of like, "What can you say?" how can you answer that because there’s nothing queer as folk? Its one thing you have to learn to deal with in this business. You just don’t know what people actually want. I’ve had another guy, a BT Engineer from Stockport who stayed in the cottage. Was it last year or the year before I can’t remember? Anyway he wanted to mix with us. We did do, we had him in one night, he had a meal with us, and we had some beers. You know all the best of it, it was all very jolly jolly and he said it was wonderful. He said he loved the dogs and he loved the chickens, and they loved this and they loved that and they loved everything. And then when they went away they and wrote a Traveller Review, they only gave me four out of five, because there wasn’t a microwave in the kitchen. (Laughs) So you tell me?

Q: People can be strange can't they?

Very strange, and then you get the people who don’t say anything to you at all, keep themselves to themselves, go away and give you the most amazing review where they say how wonderful everything is. The only advice that I can give owners when they ask, “What do you think you’re guests are looking for?” is that if you describe something, it’s there. If you say you’ve got Wi-Fi, you’ve got to have Wi-Fi. Trade descriptions basically, if someone asks for a Coca-Cola and you’ve only got Pepsi you’ve got to tell them. You’ve got to supply what you describe, and if you don’t do that you’ve got a problem on your hands. So if an owner says they’ve got a swimming pool, the traveller gets there and it’s a plunge pool you’ve got a problem.

Q: Is there anything extra thing you do for your guests, that makes their stay more special and unforgettable?

I when I equipped my holiday rental units I was as thoughtful as I could possibly be. Everything you could possibly think of is in these two smaller units. Up at Utah Beach, now it’s the end of the season, I’ve got to say we don’t charge damage deposits, but the grill pan’s gone missing out of the oven, and a couple of roasting tins, things like that, have been chipped, and all the rest of it. Because when you’re not on site, people don’t actually care. At the beginning of the season we go and stay in the house. We check everything, and put everything in it that we would want. And then people come along and they don’t necessarily like it. It’s a tricky one. You just have to do the best you can. You have got to supply what you say is there.

Q: Following on from that, do you think being on the same site as your two smaller rental units means much more respectful because they realise the property is your home as well?

Definitely, without a shadow of a doubt.

Q: Do you think that owners have to be competitive in your area to get bookings, and what did you do this year to set yourself apart from the rest?

I think you’ve got to be very competitive now. But what each individual has to do, they have to look at what they’ve got to offer. I know a young couple who set up their business recently, and they’ve gone on through me. They’ve got three young children and a huge walled garden, so I suggested to them that they promote their property as a place for children’s holidays and put in loads of adventure toys and things like that in the garden. And that’s what they’ve done. Their USP is looking after families. We don’t actually want children at our house, because we haven’t got children ourselves, so we’ve gone down the route of “couples only”. We’re attracting a completely different market, and we find it absolutely fascinating. We’re getting teachers, couples who’ve come away for the first time, without their children that have grown up or gone to university, so we’re getting a totally different type of market. And we also get quite a few gay guys; we’ve had quite a few gay girls as well actually. And we’ve had some fabulous people through here. So you’ve got to be able to identify your market, and market effectively to them.

Q: Would you get generations of families staying together by the beach? For example grandparents telling the kids about the war?

We do get that; they’re the sort of families that sometimes rebook that are interested in that. But then if you get a family in who think it’s just a beach they’ve come to the wrong location. We find we get problems with them. We had a family from Essex in and it was an absolute disaster. It was the worst I’d had the house left for a very long time.

Q: Really what happened?

I wouldn’t say they trashed my house but it wasn’t far off it. It was just dreadful. The grandparents booked it, to bring the two siblings, their wives and children over, and it was plainly obvious it was the wrong location for them. You find this now and again, like the couple who’s just left; they hadn’t done their research properly. This part of Normandy is a specific market. You’ve got to be interested in everything. There’s too much to do here, with all the museums and all the rest of it. It’s not a bucket and spade holiday. It’s not like a beach in Spain. You’ve got to be interested in France, you’ve got to be interested in history, and you’ve got to be interested in the war as well. At the same time you have to like rural countryside. It’s like being back in the 1950s here. There are still manners and things like that. You can’t go stomping around.

Q: Oh dear, it looks like they should have done their research a bit better. And what has been the biggest challenge of this year?

I think the challenge is to fill, and just keep at it. It’s constant tweaking your advertisement, its constant updating, I’m on Facebook all the time, I do a blog, just getting your awareness out there all the time. So you’ve just got to keep pushing all the time.

Q: And what sort of people would follow you on Facebook and on your blog? Would they be people looking for to book their holidays with you?

It’s a difficult one to answer that one. I’ve got about 300 friends. I think about 50% of those are all other owners, people who run condos, in America and all over. You just link up with all these people, and you just keep chattering out there. You never know, somebody might just be looking to send somebody to France at one stage.

Q: Would you say it’s more a community thing with other owners, or more a thing you do to attract travellers?

I do it to keep awareness of what is here. There’s one friend on Facebook who’s saying that they’re going to come and stay. There’s another who is an author, and I had a little lamb dumped on me back in January, it was 24 hours old, and I reared it. I put its photograph up on Facebook, and asked, “Anyone got any ideas for a name?” she’s the one who asked, “Can I name it Carry?” she’s writing a book, it’s just been published. So Jenny reckons when she’s next in Normandy she’s going to come and see it and all the rest of it. So that’s all quite lively on Facebook as well. I use it in different ways if you see what I’m saying.

Q: So it’s very useful for you as a tool?

Very much so. And through it I’ve met another owner in the Champagne region. We’re going to go down and see him soon, and we’re setting up a two stop stay because his property is right beside the First World War sites. So we’re going to do Champagne and the First World War sites, then come to Normandy, Second World War sites.

Q: Brilliant. I imagine your American guests would like that. If this is their one big chance to see these parts of Europe, that’s probably really attractive.

Interestingly enough it won’t necessarily be the Americans. It may be the Australians, as more Australians were over in the trenches.

Q: Ah I see. You’ll have to find an Australian website then.

It’s opening up two different markets. So Grant and I are going to put our heads together and see what we can come up with next year. Especially for off season, it’s a shoulder season type thing. We want to go and see the trenches anyway when we have time, to try to trace where my grandfather was, and at the same time we’d like to go and see him and get something started up.

Q: If you could go back in time to when you first started doing renting out holiday homes, what advice would you give yourself?

Well basically I trained in hotel and catering. Sixteen years in hotel and catering. I started on junior reception and worked my way up to being general manger. I was in the hotel trade so I worked all around the country. And then when I left that I did sales, then I had a recruitment company off Brompton Road for quite a few years with my best friend. So I’ve got the all round ability of marketing, sales, hotel and catering, so I understand the whole kit and caboodle as it were. So I had a good understanding of what I was doing when we started off. But it’s come back down to the same old adage, "There’s nowt as queer as folk." (Laughs).

Q: I'd definitely agree with that one.

You just have to roll with it. It’s very difficult for owners, especially if they’re out there on their own. And things like Facebook and forums, things like that are very important to people, so they can keep up to speed as to what the paying public want, and also so you don’t feel lonely, because sometimes you feel you’re out there on your own. You can feel like an alien. So that’s one thing I’ve learned, how lonely it is, especially in a foreign country.

Q: So you feel it’s important to keep in contact with other owners, either online or in person?

When I was in hotel and catering, one thing we used to do, every single night is what we’d call “the ring round”. We used to ring up every hotel in the area to find out had they got any rooms, because we always used to be overbooked by at least 10% every night. And so you do a ring round to see who had got rooms and what have you. So if you were 100% occupied, you were to send people. But through that ring round you also built up a relationship, so if you ran out of beer or anything, you could always ring up a local pub or whatever down the road, and borrow a keg of beer. So all of that is my second nature. But what you find is people who have gites locally; they’re scurrying around like it’s all a big secret. They don’t want to speak to anybody. They’ve got a strange attitude about it all.

Q: Do you think they’re afraid to talk to and cooperate with other owners because they think everyone’s their competitor?


Q: Would you recommend that they work together?

Very much so, because you can learn so much from people and you can monitor what the paying public are actually looking for more clearly.

Q: Have you got any interesting stories to tell us about anything that’s happened this year?

Yes well as you can imagine, June 6th is probably our busiest time of year, being the anniversary of the D Day landings and what have you. Many years ago when we first moved into this village, we were asked by our mayor to take an American veteran, as we were English so there wouldn’t be a language problem. There was a big push on for the 60th anniversary. More veterans were flown over and put up in local villages.

We actually got Harry, who landed on Utah Beach on the 6th of June 1944 and his son. They came and stayed and they have been back seven more times since. Harry’s eighty-something now. Anyway Harry is a New York Jew, who lied about his age to come over and went through all the battles. He did marry a German lady, and they divorced many years later, so his son Mark who comes over with Harry is half German.

Harry is still quite bitter about the war, and when he first started to come over here, he was adamant he didn’t want to see any Germans and said he hated them. It was all quite embarrassing. This is when Helmut Kohl came as well.

Anyway Harry’s been back each year. Once upon a time we used to keep the whole place free for Harry, but now we just can’t afford to do that, so Harry stays in the main house, and we let out the cottage and the apartment as normal. This year by sheer co-incidence it was two German couples. It was all a bit like, “How’s Harry going to react?”

It turned out the one couple who were staying in The Boulangerie, Marcus and his wife, were really into the war, and had come over specifically for the 6th of June, to come and see it all for themselves. He wanted to see where his grandfather had been. He was really really into it, so there was no problem with that. We sometimes have to apologise to the Germans that it’s so over the top, because what you’ve got to understand here is that June 6th week, people come from all over the world. There are thousands of people dressed up in 1940s gear, going round, all having little mock battles and everything. It’s just incredible here. You have to see it to believe it. We can see the parachute jump from our back garden. And six hundred jumped this year, Americans, Germans, British, French and Canadians. It’s just incredible; I cannot tell you how busy and manic it is around here. It’s just mental.

Anyway the other couple that had come. He was actually a warden for a big natural park in Germany. The significance of the 6th of June hadn’t even crossed their minds; they just could not get their heads around it. They were quite upset by it. We sat them down and told them about it. Anyway, the couple, Michael and Julianne got into the swing of it, and they started to enjoy it too. One thing that we do on the 6th June is have a party for the veterans and for the people of the village. The mayor comes and all sorts of people. So we had fifty odd people for a big sit down dinner, we do a five course meal, I cook it! So we invited the two couples to come.

So we had Harry the veteran, a British naval veteran and three or four of his mates who were ex marines, plus another Royal Scots veteran who originally came through Normandy in a Churchill tank, and his vocation in life was to go back and apologise to people for blowing up their houses. So we had these three veterans and four Germans and it was one of the best parties that we ever ever had. You could just see Harry changing his attitude and Marcus, the German war enthusiast, has rebooked for next year, bringing his parents back.

We’ve also just heard back from Michael and Julianne, the German couple who were quite bemused by it all. It’s the 40th anniversary of the natural park in Bavaria, where Michael works, and he’s asked by husband, who’s a former Fleet Street photographer, to send some of his photos there, for their celebrations. So a load of my husband’s work is going to be published there now. So it was quite a week, that June 6th week.

Copyright, November 2010