[Alumni Story] Sophie RIGOLLE-DEVRED: in search of meaning, she opened ‘La Grange du Héron’

Have you ever thought of giving up everything to open your own gîte or guest house? While this idea might cross the minds of thousands of French people every year, few actually take the plunge. Sophie RIGOLLE-DEVRED (who graduated the Grande École Program in 1995) and her husband Édouard decided to embrace their dream: in July 2020, between two lockdowns, they brought ‘La Grange du Héron‘ – a village of 11 gîtes in the Lot and Célé valley – back to life. It’s a peaceful, rural place where families and business groups can go to disconnect, indulge in slow tourism and enjoy being together. Three years after opening, the couple give an honest account of their experience, which is a far cry from the idealised version you might see on TV shows.

After 25 years working for an employer, you left your jobs and moved to a different region. what was the trigger?
A number of factors came into play: there was the feeling that we’d done all we could in our respective professions, a lack of alignment between our own values and the sense of meaning we got from our work, daily commuting times (two hours in traffic jams every day!) and the fact that we were approaching the age of 50. We felt a deep need to work for ourselves in the latter part of our working lives. Lastly, it was the fact of having spent more than ten years on holiday with our families in self-catering villages that also influenced this change of direction.

How did you get from having the idea to the opening of ‘La Grange du Héron’?
We already had a good understanding of this kind of business as customers and had drawn up a list of five criteria for finding the ideal site. Everything happened very quickly, as it took us just one year, compared with a usual average of three years for taking over a business. In fact, we almost made the wrong choice by trying to move too quickly! We visited the site in October 2019, in pouring rain. It was derelict, but we managed to get a feel for it and see its potential. The main hurdle was convincing a bank, despite putting in a substantial amount of money ourselves. Some of them didn’t even bother to meet with us. But we kept persevering until one of them took us seriously and there’s no doubt that my IÉSEG training and 25 years of business experience tipped the balance: drawing up a budget, knowing how to read a balance sheet and profit and loss account and drawing up a business plan poses no problem for me at all.

You’ve decided to work together as a couple in a new business. What have you done to ensure the partnership goes as smoothly as possible?
The tasks divided up naturally according to our areas of expertise. Edouard manages the works, communication and project management. I look after maintenance, accounts, administration, organising seminars and welcoming groups. We share the responsibility for welcoming visitors, organising events and making strategic decisions. The biggest risk is that this is all we talk about from morning to night. We knew that the first three years would require some sacrifices, but now we have learned to disconnect. We’re getting more and more involved in groups in our village to have a change of scene!

Do you remember your first client and how it made you feel?
Of course! The first online booking we received was an emotional moment! For our first week of business in July 2020, we welcomed two families, which got us off to a flying start – helping us get our bearings and quickly sort out any unforeseen problems: breakdowns, leaks, the swimming pool filter. In this kind of business, you can’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty. The following week, the village was full and we felt like we were in charge of a great adventure.

Apart from the beauty of the setting and the quality of the facilities, how do you set yourselves apart from other self-catering villages?
We have adopted an eco-tourism approach, with the installation of a compost bin, a charging point for electric cars, drinks in returnable glasses, the sale of our own local products (oils, jams, etc.) and a photovoltaic panel project. The French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) has also helped us to purchase a solar cover for the swimming pool, energy-efficient household appliances and waste sorting bins. We believe these actions sow seeds of inspiration in our holidaymakers’ minds. With our ‘slow tourism’ approach, they are encouraged to discover places off the beaten track, meet local producers or simply slow down the often hectic pace of their daily lives.

How would you sum up your first three years in business?
We’re proud of the fact that we’ve managed to revive a business that was virtually abandoned when we took it over, that we’ve become part of the village, that we’ve received excellent feedback from review sites and that we’ve met our sales targets! Seeing families again for the fourth time this year and hearing them say that this is their favourite holiday destination is the greatest reward of all. It makes us forget the sacrifice and the sometimes difficult moments. You have to realise that it’s a lot of work and investment for very little pay. I’ve gone from a very specific job, with welldefined responsibilities, to a multi-tasking job in a very small organisation. We have to be available seven days a week, eight months a year and 15 hours a day. Despite this intense schedule, we feel free to set our own timetable and, above all, that we are masters of our own destiny!

What advice would you give to all those who would like to walk in your footsteps? What are the pitfalls to look out for?
First and foremost, it’s important to ask yourself the right questions and be honest with yourself: are you ready to change your lifestyle and the way you consume? Are you prepared to give up personal comfort for greater professional fulfilment? Are you prepared to move away from friends and family? Do you have the right skills? Once you’ve made the decision, you need to be aware of the financial burden, which can easily be underestimated when taking over a business that needs to be reinvigorated. Think about working with a good accountancy and legal firm, and talk to groups or people in the business. Finally, don’t think that opening a business will automatically fulfil you: you need to be able to communicate, regularly question yourself and adapt both to the economic climate and to your customers’ wishes. Finally, accept that you won’t have everything under control and don’t wait for all the planets to be aligned before you launch. I like to quote the adventurer Mike Horn to illustrate this point: “To get going, you only need 5% of the answers to your questions. You will find the other 95% on the way. Those who want 100% before they set off never leave.”

This article was written by Luna Créations for IÉSEG Network’s magazine, IÉS #17.

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