The death of the American motel
24 FEBRUARY 2016 7:05 AM
Once they were pillars of the hotel industry in the United States, but today motels are mostly nostalgic scraps of history for baby boomers. Not surprisingly, a retro-motel trend is emerging.
My apologies to the good folks at Motel 6, but one of the stalwarts of the lodging industry in the United States for eight decades—the motel—is dead or on the road to expiration. For many people in my age group, the word motel conjures up wonderful summer roadtrips with our families. While the sightseeing and attractions were great, every kid couldn’t wait until the end of the day to jump into the motel pool.
While the modern motel as we know it was a by-product of the car culture that sprung up following World War II, the concept actually dates back to the mid-1920s, when a California entrepreneur opened the Milestone Mo-tel in San Luis Obispo as a contraction of the words “motor” and “hotel.”
It wasn’t until the 1950s that motels became ubiquitous accommodations for middle-class America. Chains like Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn, Quality Court and thousands of Mom-and-Pop independents were hosts to the millions of families who hit the road for summer vacations. Two decades later, those mostly exterior-corridor chain properties had gone slightly upscale.
From there, even the word motel fell out of favor, replaced with descriptors such as limited service, focused service and select service. It seemed as though hotel owners saw a motel designation as a drag on rates, occupancy and type of clientele. Even the industry’s main lobbying arm in 2001 dropped motel from its original name and morphed into the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
Today, sadly, a motel is more likely to be a warehouse for prostitutes, drug dealers, criminals on the lam and other dregs of society. (Of course, there are thousands of exceptions to this characterization: Many of these properties are still independently owned but some belonging to mainstream brand companies such as Best Western International, Motel 6 and Vantage Hospitality Group.)
I expect the downfall of the motel is no one’s fault but rather a shift in the tastes and affordability of consumers. Safety is another issue, with interior corridor hotels vastly perceived as safer than those in which guestroom doors open to the outside.
Grabbing the headlines
Turn to Google News if you don’t believe the bad reputation many motels have in their communities and among travelers. Here are a few recent headlines and stories appearing on Google News with the search terms “motel” or “motels:”
- Motel near Graceland filled with crime
- 6 sent to hospital after brawl, stabbing at Buena Park Motel
- Police clamp down on drug sales at motel
- Woman’s body, two live monkeys found in Florida motel
- New York cop caught running prostitution ring out of motels
- Father’s ashes stolen from Stockton motel parking lot
It’s easy to see why consumers shy away from a place called a motel. And perhaps unfairly, some local government officials have taken steps to close some motels they’ve deemed to be dangerous or nuisances to their communities.
Whatever is old is new again
While I believe the motel of the past is a relic doomed for the scrap heap of history, the concept is not completely dead. As happens with other consumer products, nostalgia has regenerated interest in the roadside motel, with several companies launching products that are a nod to the past.
In 2013, The Valencia Group opened Lone Star Court, a 123-room motel-like property in Austin, Texas. While the hotel has a Texas retro feel some might liken to the motor courts of the 1940s, it’s definitely an upscale experience with amenities and facilities geared toward the millennial traveler.
Bunkhouse Group has four properties in Texas even kitschier and more millennial focused than the Lone Star. And Joie de Vivre Hospitality, now part of Commune Hotels, launched this throwback trend in the late 1980s with the transformation of several run-down California motels into hip properties.
It will be exciting to see what will be the next chapter in the 90-plus-year history of the American motel.
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