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Slow Europe shows you how to find vacation rentals in Europe - villas, houses, cottages or apartments that you rent by the week.

What are Vacation Rentals?

Riviera Pebbles & Nice Pebbles, vacation rentals in southern France

by Valerie Schneider and Pauline Kenny, March 2009

For this month's profile we talked to Gayle Roberts, owner of Riviera Pebbles and Nice Pebbles. She and her husband Matt relocated from England to the famed French Riviera where they established a rapidly-growing boutique vacation rental agency which places high emphasis on customer service and quality accommodations. They provide a range of well-priced vacation rentals.

I have not met Gayle but I worked with her looking at vacation rentals for an upcoming trip and I recommend her agencies. This is one vacation rental secret that we are stealing from the Brits - it is time to get more Americans exploring Nice and the French Riviera!

Pebbles on the Beaches

Matthew & Gayle Roberts, Riviera Pebbles

Matthew & Gayle Roberts

Gayle Roberts' enthusiasm for the resort city of Nice emanates through her emails and from her websites, Riviera Pebbles and Nice Pebbles. She confesses that she fell head-long in love with the place, but says that it was Nice itself that made the amorous overtures. "Nice chose us rather than us choosing Nice. We loved it as visitors and it was just a natural transition. If it wasn't for falling in love with Nice, we would still be in the UK in our old careers."

Luckily for travelers, Gayle and Matt made the transition. They started Nice Pebbles in June 2006 and have already grown into a premier agency with quality listings around the Riviera and a staff of five. They arrived with a vision to raise the bar for vacation rentals in the area. "We thought that it was a shame that apartments were regarded merely as a cheaper alternative to a hotel. It was often the case that you brought your own linen and either cleaned for the next guests or paid for cleaning as an "extra". We also found there were no amenities for guests to make their stay special and no uniformity to the huge and chaotic selection on large rental sites where standards were so different across the board."

In 2007 they decided to expand their offerings and set up Riviera Pebbles which has all the Nice Pebbles apartments plus more in other parts of the French Riviera. The Nice Pebbles staff look after the Nice apartments and the Riviera Pebbles agents look after the rentals on other parts of the Riviera. The Riviera Pebbles website shows all their properties.

A New Concept - Boutique Apartments

The Market in Nice

The Market in Nice

Gayle said they wanted to create a "boutique apartment" concept. They formulated standards and scoured the city for apartments that would fit the bill. "We look at the location first, then the general state of the apartment and quality of the furniture, and the amenities. We are looking for apartments where there is a sense of style. The apartments should look like a hotel suite," says Gayle. All their listings reflect these standards.

Every Nice property is located within a 20 minute walk to the beach. All are non-smoking. They are each well-equipped with quality furnishings, ample cookware and dishware, and the "standard" electronics, such as TVs, DVDs, and, in many cases, wireless internet. They make sure that everything is ready and waiting for the visitor: spotlessly clean surroundings, beds made up with freshly pressed Egyptian cotton linen and towels, a welcome basket of goodies, a "hygiene pack" for the dishwasher and washing machine, along with toilet paper rolls, and soaps and miniature toiletries as little extras to welcome guests. They provide maps, a booklet about the apartment and the fabulous Nice Pebbles Guide to Nice.

The Nice Pebbles guidebook is a 28-page color booklet showing, in words and photos, the areas of Nice, things to do on a first visit, entertainment options, museums, shopping areas, things to do with kids, restaurant recommendations, some helpful French phrases, possible day trips, transportation information - in short, everything to need to know to have a fabulous vacation in Nice.

"We have turned down over 40 apartments on the basis that they are not suitable," Gayle said, adding that sometimes they make stipulations that if an owner improves or updates certain aspects of the apartment, they will represent them in the future. Another key to quality is that every property is represented exclusively by Nice Pebbles.

"It's very important to us to have a good relationship with the owners and that they trust us to do our job. If we meet a potential apartment owner and the chemistry isn't there, we walk away. We need owners to contract with us to hand over full management of their properties and that involves an element of trust. We work together; if there is any negative feedback on an apartment, or if there are problems that need fixing, the owners are told and we then fix it with their consent. They must allow us to act in the best interest of them, our guests, and our company. We've not had any problems with this arrangement to date."

Gayle and Matt currently represent 70 properties. "We have a few properties in Cannes and Antibes and we hope to grow in these areas over the next two years. We would like to eventually offer 50 apartments across the Riviera (other than Nice) by the summer of 2010. We don't want to rush this; we need to find the right properties to add to our portfolio, and we need the right staff to manage the properties for us. There is also the possibility of us taking on properties in Provence shortly."

The Customer Always Comes First

Beach in Nice

Beach in Nice

Nice Pebbles and its sister, Riviera Pebbles, are so-named for the pebbled beaches that stretch along the coastline. While much of Nice focuses on the pebble beaches, everything about Nice Pebbles seems aimed toward their clients.

Besides the exacting standards they place on every property and the amenities they insist upon, Gayle and Matt have taken the concept of "boutique" to the max, making sure every part of the experience is easy and standardized. Their websites are equipped with a booking engine so apartments can be reserved and paid for online. Each property listing provides plentiful photos and information, including detailed area maps pinpointing the apartment's exact location, and descriptions of every room of the apartment, as well as the neighborhood in which it is located. "We also promise to answer all enquiries within 24 hours and we are open on the weekend," Gayle pointed out.

The websites are full of helpful information, from restaurant recommendations to shopping and museum pointers, along with suggestions for fun activities and local tour guides. You can find winery tours, cooking classes and boat trips in just a couple of clicks. Three-day packages have been pre-arranged, structured around themes such as Gourmet Holidays, Wellness Programs, and Kids Activities.

Flexibility is offered, even encouraged; if you don't want to stay an entire week, no problem. Can't arrive or depart on a Saturday? That's okay, too. They will also work around evening arrivals, for a small extra fee.

Instead of navigating unknown, narrow streets alone to find the apartments, guests are directed to easy-to-locate meeting points and are personally guided to the apartments. They are given a 24-hour emergency phone number, in case of problems.

The centrally-located Nice Pebbles office is available for guests to drop in and ask questions, receive deliveries or mail, and they can store luggage for early check-ins or late departures. Gayle said they are happy to make reservations for restaurants and taxis, too.

Another perk for Nice Pebbles clients comes in the form of negotiated discounts. "All guests are given branded key-rings. We have spent time building up relationships with shops, restaurants and bars, so that when our guests show them the key-ring, they receive a discount or a free aperitif. The booklets in the apartments list the participating establishments. We think it helps make the guests feel a part of the community while they are here."

For those wanting even more extras, Gayle said they offer special occasion baskets for purchase, for guests who are celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or just wanting an extra touch of romance. The birthday package, for example, includes a decorated cake, chilled champagne, and festive balloons for €75. Gayle also boasted about their newest initiative: "By the end of April guests will also be able to collect loyalty points to trade in for champagne or other goodies on arrival."

They Get Rave Reviews

So far, 20% of their clients are repeat customers, with the number growing steadily, and another 20% of their customers booked on the recommendations of past guests.

Gayle proudly pointed out their latest fame, "We are rated number 1 out of 21 specialty listings on Trip Advisor. We have been notified that we will be recommended in the new Fodor's guide to Provence and the French Riviera, we understand we will be the only rental agency listed. The same is true for the Time Out guide, which is to be on the shelves in April."

About 30% of their clients are Americans, and the area seems to be a hit because many of them have already returned for a second stay.

Nice is Nice for Everyone

Cafe in Nice

Cafe in Nice

We asked Gayle if the reputation of Nice as a posh place for the jet-set meant the average traveler would feel a little out of place. She said there are certainly areas that are glitzy, around the Carre D'Or area or the upscale parts of the Old Town like Rue St Francois de Paule and Rue de Ponchettes, but "those who stay in the Old Town will find Nice charming, colourful and cute with a hint of 'je ne sais quoi' rather than glitzy. Move over to newer areas like Liberation and Nice is more of a Provencal town with a market and the kind of shops you might expect from any small village. We want to help people experience the Nice that suits them, whether they are culture vultures, beach lovers or foodies, or just causal wanderers. My parents are 'average Joes' and their eyes were wide in disbelief the first time they came to Nice with us."

She added that the best thing about Nice is that there really is something for everyone, be it museums, the opera, and theatre, or water sports. "If you like shopping, head to Jean Medicin, Rue Liberte and (if you can afford it) Rue Paradis. For people watching there are pavement cafes everywhere. For children, there are parks, the beach, and the funfair at Place Massena. And if you like food - well, you have over 500 restaurants to choose from. There are also bars and clubs to dance the night away."

Gayle also dispels the myth that the French are rude, especially regarding their language. "I've been here for almost three years and my French is still very bad (I'm embarrassed to say!) Most people speak good English here and as soon as they see you are struggling, they change languages for you."

She added that learning a few simple phrases puts you in good standing. "If you learn and are prepared to have a go at the basic phrases, you will be well received in Nice and shouldn't have a problem on buses, trains, restaurants or general sight seeing places where guides and directions are often in English as well as French. Nice relies heavily on its tourist trade and the Nicois people love to practice their English."

The Last Word

When we asked Gayle what final thought she would like to tell Slow Europe readers, she wanted to set aside one more misconception. "Nice is safe. It makes me sad when guests are frightened because of what they have read in a guidebook. I have lived here for almost three years and I am never frightened to walk by myself at any time up to 1am. Of course, usual precautions apply, but it's far safer than any English city center and many other European centers, such as Barcelona or Milan. The authorities know that Nice is a thriving city thanks to the tourists that flock here each year, so a lot of effort is made to make sure tourists feel safe. Out of 3,000 guests, we have had only four reports of a stolen bag or camera. Nothing more, I think that's quite good odds."

Thank you Gayle for taking the time to tell us about Nice Pebbles and Riviera Pebbles!

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