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The hotel ‘Le Macassar’ is a unique boutique hotel located in Corbie, Somme. Ian Nelmes, the owner, joins us for an interview about his property for sale. We delve into his perceptions of the industry, his love of France and the French hotel he has put onto the market.
Tell us a little about yourself: Your background and why you chose to own a boutique hotel in France?
Ian: “We moved here from London with the intention of starting a business like this…in 2001, just after the millennium. At that time, everyone seemed to be soul-searching about their futures, ‘what should we do with the rest of our lives’ that sort of thing. Unlike the vast majority of people that we know, we actually ended up doing something about it. We were in jobs that paid well, but they were missing something.
We owned another property north of here that we had bought several years prior that we used as a weekend place from London. At the time, we found it was getting harder and harder on our weekend breaks to go back! So, we thought, ‘why are we going back? Let’s see if there is a way we can find something to do that will allow us to stay.’ We hadn’t had any experience in the hotel industry, but it struck us as something we could do.
Before the millennium we went to California and stayed in several places that crystallised the idea for us. So, when we got back we started looking. It was at a time when the London property prices had gone up substantially and we had thought about moving in London but to make that step to a property that was bigger and better was just beyond our grasp… Effectively we cashed out of the London market and came to France.”
How was your property search?
I: “Initially we thought, for the scale of what we had in mind, we needed to have a chateau. We didn’t appreciate that the kind of property we are in now even existed. We looked at piles of properties we could afford and eventually lost one after several months of protracted negotiating when it all fell through. So, we had to start looking again, and we came across this property quite by chance. On a weekend away in our other house, we went to Amiens, which is the biggest town that we’re near and a town that we were familiar with and loved. We registered with a couple of local agents to see if they could find something and sure enough, they came back to us fairly quickly and told us they had found a building they felt would meet our requirements. It was described as a small French chateau for sale, which is what we told them we wanted, but they provided no pictures, a sketchy description, and no mention of the inside (which was quite spectacular!). We didn’t hold out much hope but thought the least we could do was get in the car and come over to have a look.”
Tell us a little bit about the building:
I: “We arrived into the large courtyard, which is quite beautiful, and realised that we had actually seen a very obscure photograph of the place some months before in a property magazine, but we hadn’t really taken it on board. So, we came in blind really – figuratively and literally! The shutters on all the windows… were down, so when we came in…it was quite dark but then they flicked on the switches and lifted all the shutters and suddenly the interiors were revealed.
We had been collecting art deco for [several] years, so had the listing mentioned that the property had original 1920s, art deco interiors we would have come just out of curiosity! It was a total surprise to find ourselves in an art deco mansion.”
Ian added: “It has an interesting history, it effectively started off as two buildings that were combined before the First World War by a local textile industrialist with the intention of creating a large family home and office for his company… . He had married a younger woman from Amiens, which today is only 15 minutes down the road, at the time that was like dragging her from urban glamour to the middle of nowhere! Apparently, to keep her smiling, they lavished a fortune on the interior of the building and the things in it. What they did would have been really avant-garde in its day. The spaces are quite contemporary really, even though they were done 100 years ago. They are open plan, they used the best materials and commissioned famous, cabinet makers and artists of the day to fit out the inside. There are examples of craftsmen’s work here that are on display in places like the Musea d’Orsay in Paris. They owned the building until the 1970s, so everything they did when they were younger, they looked after and preserved for their whole lives.
We are only the third owners since that time. We have loved this property and consider ourselves as its current custodians so have spent a lot of time improving and restoring things and putting features back to the way they should have been. These sorts of houses don’t belong to anyone forever; you take them on board and love them, you leave them better than when you found them and then pass them onto the next owner that you hope will be equally passionate about it. We have been fortunate to be here.”
Why have you decided to sell your boutique hotel?
I: “The thing is it’s in our nature, we said before we even moved here…that it wouldn’t be forever, that was never the intention. We never had a timescale in mind, we’re quite fatalistic and; when something feels right we go for it. We have been here sixteen years now – operating for nearly thirteen of those -, and we’re starting to think we have another project in us and maybe now is the time to start thinking about doing it. On a more personal level, I’m from Canada, and my parents are there; they are getting older… and I want to be closer to them to enjoy their company.
We love this business, and we’re going to do exactly the same thing again in a place called Prince Edward County in Canada. We’ve bought a piece of land on Lake Ontario… and we’re going to build something very modern which will be, totally different for us! This is the type of business that gets under your skin. It becomes a lifestyle and we feel very fortunate in the process to have met some remarkable people;, the type of people that we would otherwise have never crossed paths with and many of them have become friends. I can’t imagine doing anything else!”
What are you going to miss most when you move?
I: “Europe! We’re in a fantastic location. We specifically wanted to be in this part of France because we wanted to be able to get to a lot of places quite easily. I guess that is what I will miss. We can jump on the train locally – we have a TGV station 20 minutes from us and we can be in Provence for lunch. In an hour we can be in the centre of Paris. I can catch a local train to Lille, hop onto the Eurostar and – ‘door to door’ – be in central London in four hours! When we have a day off from guests, we will often drive up to Belgium because there are some restaurants we like there.
Nothing is terribly far, if you drew a circle around us of a 2-hour distance, you can get to most places you would want to go to in northern Europe… Paris Beauvais airport is 40 minutes away and we will often go away for a weekend to Lisbon or to Spain to see friends.”
Who are your clients and why do they love staying at Le Macassar?
I: “We get clients from around the world. Most of our guest are from Australia, probably around 65%, and then it is a mixture of nationalities. English would be next, northern Europeans, Canadians and Americans; they come primarily, at least in the first instance, because of our proximity to the First World War sites. A lot of our business is repeat or referred.
When we first moved here, we thought we would be leveraging the architecture and the interiors of the building to generate interest in people staying, and we do get a lot of people that come here for that reason but, whilst we knew we were in the First World War area, we didn’t really appreciate that it generated the volume of tourism that it does.”
Ian expanded: “For the Australians, we are moments away from the memorial which is their key focus for this area. For them, it has almost become a site of pilgrimage, year-on-year, since we have been open, we see more and more Australian guests. They describe it as something, which for them as a nation, has become even more important than national days such as Australia Day. So, even if they have no family connection, they feel compelled to come and spend time here if they are in Europe.
As I said, this is a big part of why people come here in the first instance… but once they start to explore they realise that actually it’s not just about the First World War sites, it’s also a very attractive area with some lovely countryside, wonderful gothic architecture and places like Amiens and the Baie de Somme that are very appealing, so they come back for other reasons.”
Is it a full-time or part-time business, and what key advice do you have for anyone looking to get into the hotel industry?
I: “This is our home and we share it with our paying guests. We live in all of the building – we don’t hide away in separate quarters (although there are large parts of the building that we don’t use very much as well as another large building to the back of the property which I suppose could be configured as a separate house or indeed more rooms). If we are here then I guess we are always open. So, on that basis it is full-time. We moved here for a lifestyle. We could have a dozen rooms but we stopped at six because we do everything ourselves and that is a number, that we can easily manage. The business provides us with a very comfortable living, but the way we choose to run it also means we can sit down and have a glass of wine with our guests and get to know them. We work hard at what we do but don’t have other careers and this provides us with a comfortable livelihood. We still travel; when we’re not here we have friends that look after the place but, we close, we don’t have managers that come in. Most recently, in the last two years, we bought a property in Lisbon, so in the winters we go away for a few months. Our hotel is very secure, and off we go.”
When is your main season trade?
I: “Our season starts towards the end of March/early April and goes through to the end of October, and that’s when we plan our retreat to Lisbon for a few months.”
What is your favourite pastime in this part of France?
I: “We’re avid collectors of fine and decorative arts, and we go to a lot of auctions and antique fairs, as well as the antique shops around the area. We love restaurants and wine, and obviously being in France, we can indulge in it. We are classic car enthusiasts, the network of small country roads here are a dream for exploring in an old car. We have two dogs that we are devoted to and we spend a lot of time out walking along the canals and rivers which is pleasant.”
What is your favourite restaurant close by?
I: “There is a very nice restaurant in the next village called Bonnay which is literally three or four minutes away by car. It’s run by a lovely husband and wife team, who took over the place around eight or nine years ago, and turned something that was a nice restaurant into a great restaurant. We go there quite a bit, as do our guests.
In Amiens, there are some great restaurants, some with Michelin stars and some that are more down-to-earth, so we are well-served.”
Do you have a local market nearby?
I: “We have a market right out front, twice a week. On Wednesdays, it’s quite tiny, and features organic local produce and on Friday mornings there’s the big market, so the whole square is occupied by traders and it’s probably the biggest market in the area. There’s lots of fresh produce; fish from the coast and Baie de Somme, vegetables from the Hortillonages (a network of river locked allotments near Amiens), meats and cheeses, in addition to the obligatory plastic buckets and polyester brasieres that feature in most markets! It is a place where everyone comes for a social gathering.
A lot of people come from outside the surrounding villages and congregate here on market days , it’s the only time they can bump into people that they have known since they were kids and have a gossip. Everyone is welcome, locals and tourists alike.”
Do you have any quirky shops close by that you would recommend?
I: “There is still a tradition in France that the high street is not dominated by the mainstream chain shops, they still seem to value independent retailers and traders.
Here in Corbie, everything that the locals need; grocery stores, butchers, bakeries, bars and restaurants, endless hair dressers and multiple opticians …. we’ve never really understood the preponderance of the latter two in most French towns! There’s even a micro-brewery making interesting craft beers.
For shopping ’til you drop’ people head to Amiens, 15 minutes away where there is a wealth of big name as well as interesting independent retailers. We enjoy checking out a place called Wanderlust on the Rue de Beauvais which does indeed specialise in the quirky! While in Amiens we always encourage people to pay a visit to the indoor food market – it’s like having our own little version of the Harrod’s food hall and is incomparable in the region!”
What is your favourite thing about French culture?
I: “The sense of family. There is a genuine sense that parents, grandparents, cousins and children actively make the effort to spend time together. Things like Sunday lunches are still sacrosanct, with large tables of family gatherings at restaurants. They seem to relish their family and the time they get to spend together, and you see that in the way they shop and entertain, and this is something that doesn’t seem to exist in a lot of places anymore.”
What is your advice for anyone looking for luxury real estate abroad for the first time?
I: “I think it probably relates to our own experience, you need to be very open-minded about what you want. It is very easy saying ‘I know exactly what I want’ but by doing that you close yourself off from other opportunities that might be out there. It’s about being a bit lateral, about letting your imagination help, being curious about alternatives and hopefully finding an agent that doesn’t just give you listings of things that you’ve told them you wanted, but actually takes a bit of time to understand what you are trying to do and what you love and propose things you may not even consider would have been appropriate. Be open to it and go see! If we hadn’t have done that we wouldn’t be here and that would have been a huge missed opportunity. In retrospect missing out on our chateau proved to be a blessing – we wouldn’t have had nearly as comfortable and flexible a life and, having started in a city, moving to the middle of nowhere would have been a step too far for us. Sometimes the customer is not always right; they don’t always know what they want, so you need to be open to other people helping you to figure out what’s important.”
Whether you’re looking for a French chateau for sale, a quaint villa or want to find out more about Le Macassar for your boutique hotel venture, Prestige Property Group have an extensive range of properties that are suitable for your vision. Contact us today for our expert advice.