Interview: Nancy McGee of Absolutely Southern France
Nancy McGee’s story is an inspiring example of renewal: in a foreign country she built a flourishing business from the ground up, and continues to be recognised for her expertise and quality service in the Southern France tourism industry.
A Canadian entrepreneur, Nancy initially settled in Marseille in the 1980s. She currently lives in Sète, where she founded her company ‘Absolutely Southern France’ five years ago. Sète is a picturesque port by the Mediterranean, and the hometown of poet Paul Valéry and singer Georges Brassens.
So how did Nancy McGee become such a respected member of the cultural and tourist scene in Sète? Jacqueline Dubois Pascquier set out to learn more about her story.
Nancy, you are originally from Quebec but belong to the Anglophone minority of the province. Were you bilingual or fluent in French before you came to France?
My mother is Francophone and my father was of Irish descent. We spoke English at home but I spoke French to my grandparents, and other relatives on my mother’s side of the family. Additionally, I have a Bachelor’s degree in French from Carleton University (Ottawa)
When and why did you choose to settle in France?
After graduating from university in Ottawa, I started working for the IDRC (International Development Research Corporation). At one of the conferences I was working at, I met a Frenchman who approached me asking if I would be interested in assisting him to set up a similar organisation in France. I asked him a first question which was “Where in France”? He answered, Marseille. My second question was “Does it snow in Marseille?” He said no. So I said Yes for a one-year assignment. While I was working for Data for Development in Marseille, I met a medical student, we fell in love and got married. Voilà!
Can you describe your occupation then?
Data for Development was a UN funded agency. Our purpose was to assist in implementing information systems in public administrations in developing countries. My main task was organizing conferences hosted by the countries such as China, India, Senegal…
What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in the very first years of your life in France? To what extent were the way of life, French bureaucracy, language, working with the French, education different from Canada? Could you give a particular example?
My first obstacle was my Quebecois accent, which the French have a tendency to mock. I worked very hard to perfect my new “French” accent although I quickly revert back to my Quebecois accent when I go home. In Quebec French, we don’t use the “Vous” (formal way to say You) I can still remember the look on my bank manger’s face when I kept using the informal “tu”. It actually broke the ice and I have been with the same bank since I arrived in France. My second surprise was later in life when I had my children and they started going to school. It was a major challenge as the public school system in France is extremely competitive and rather old fashioned with very little financial means. I consequently preferred to send my children to private or semi-private institutions and they both pursued studies abroad.
What inspired you to start your company, did you always have an interest in the area of leisure and travel?
I set up my business five years ago after I left a 15-year career working in PR and special events for Coca-Cola in France. My job consisted in organizing events such as teambuilding for our sales teams but also hosting clients at events where Coca-Cola had partnerships such as Olympic games, World cup soccer and Rugby, Rolland Garros tennis, Formula 1, Cannes Film Festival, concerts… This experience allowed me to further enhance my natural organizational skills while being exposed to some demanding clients such as the CEO of McDonalds, Carrefour…
How did you make the dream become a reality?
I seized an opportunity to leave Coca-Cola during a restructuring plan to set up my own business
Why did you choose Sète?
I fell in love with Sète the first time I visited it. I love being near water, Sète made my dream come true. It is surrounded by three bodies of water: canals, a lagoon and the Mediterranean Sea with its fine sandy beaches. It is a fishing town so the food is amazing. It has a train station, which allows me to be in Paris or Barcelona in less than 4 hours. And the Montpellier International Airport is only a 30-minute drive away! What more could I ask for? Wine? It is located in the heart of France’s leading wine producing region.
Describe to our readers what services Absolutely Southern France provides. What makes you different to other similar companies?
I offer customized programs to clients (individuals or travel agents) travelling to the Riviera, Provence and the Languedoc region. I’m different because I am a local, bilingual and bi cultural. I am specialized in offering culinary experiences such as gourmet tours, cooking workshops, wine tours …
How important have digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook been in fostering a community of like-minded travellers?
When I get the time, I like to write about food (The Art of Eating an Oyster, Cheese etiquette, the Roquefort legend) and include pictures that I take. I submit the articles to travel magazines and bloggers who are always delighted to get feature articles. These articles contain links to my website, Facebook and twitter which provide a lot of buzz.
Often in times of economic downturn and global strife, tourism suffers. How have you dealt with difficult times, were there moments you felt close to giving up? What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs facing challenges?
I cater to discerning clients who are not as affected by economic times. The recent tragic events in Paris will clearly have an impact on tourism in Paris. As I cover the south of France, I will not be as affected. In fact, I currently have more bookings for the summer season than I did at the same time last year!
Within a few years, you have become a major actor in the culture and tourism sector in Sète and have used this platform to promote worthy causes. Can you say a word about your other activities as the founder of the Anglo group of Languedoc Roussillon and your role in charity fundraising?
When I moved to France, I was happy to find a dedicated team of volunteers in an expat group in Provence to provide a hearty welcome. Thirty years later, I am happy to return what I was given by providing support to newcomers. Our network also donates to a local charity that is in need every year.
How do you envisage the near future of your company? Do you have any new projects?
As my business is continually growing, I plan on building my team to better satisfy my clients.
- I’m hosting a booth at a major Travel Trade Fair ‘Rendez-vous en France‘ in Montpellier, meeting a number of travel agents and tour operators from countries all over the world. I’m hoping to seize this opportunity to strengthen existing partnerships and build new ones.
- I have been approached to teach Tourism beginning next fall at the Chamber of Commerce.
Nancy McGee’s favourites:
To eat: Eating raw sea urchins sitting in the middle of the fish market with a glass of local white wine. Having dinner at the Michelin starred restaurant the Coquerie with chef Anne Majourel who is also my tennis partner
To relax: Walking my papillon spaniel Jewel along the canals and sandy beaches of Sète.
To read our feature article on Nancy McGee, click here.
Do you have a personal story of renewal? How does Nancy McGee’s story inspire you? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Come with us and be inspired:
Introduction // Quelques Femmes du Numerique // Kasia Dietz
Sandrine Benattar // Christina Montenegro // Maxime Chouraqui
Tom Clarke // Felipe Perez // Marie Van Haecke // Nicolas Piègay // Laura K Lawless
Lisa Vanden Bos // Chris Nielsen // Olivier Magny and Nicolas Paradis
Sarah Jeanne Ziegler // Lucie Knappek // Paul Arnephy // Caroline de Marchi // Catherine B
1, 2, 3 © Nancy McGee
4. via the Absolutely Southern France website
5. Sète by Merlijn Hoek, via flickr