Exterior-corridor hotels were once an accepted hotel product type. After falling mostly out of favor for three decades, these properties are making a return as part of lifestyle hotel concepts.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Once a staple product type in the United States, the exterior-corridor hotel mostly faded from the scene during the 1980s and ‘90s, especially as part of new development. Today, however, there is a modest resurgence in the product, especially in the lifestyle segment, but also in the traditional economy sector.
Houston-based Valencia Group has embraced exterior corridors as a significant facet of its new Court concept of lifestyle properties. The Lone Start Court in Austin, Texas, is the first in the sub-brand. The 123-room upper-upscale property is built around a U-shaped courtyard with 11-foot-deep exterior corridors facing the middle.
According to EVP John Keeling, Valencia executives were inspired by the early success of Joie de Vivre Hotels and several independent boutique properties in reviving the look and feel of 1950s roadside motels. Valencia’s original idea was to buy existing motels and redo them as upscale lifestyle properties.
“We found a couple of problems with that theory,” Keeling said. “First of all, most of these little motels are on old U.S. highways that have been bypassed by the interstate (highways). Also, most of them have small rooms, tiny bathrooms, low ceilings—the kind of facilities travelers would put up with in the 1940s and ‘50s, but not so much today.”
Instead, the Valencia team is creating exterior-corridor lifestyle hotels from the ground-up, with architectural themes reminiscent of roadside motels that reflect the local communities in which they’re located.
“We’re doing adaptive reuse of historic buildings that don’t exist,” Keeling said. “We want them to look authentic, but we try hard not to be Disney.”
At the Lone Star Court, which captures both the German heritage of Austin and the surrounding Hill Country geography, the courtyard is the property’s focal community gathering spot. It has a restaurant pavilion, swimming pool, water feature and fire pits. Live music plays four nights a week. To enhance the ambience, automobile parking is located on the outside of the courtyard.
“Think of it as an Embassy Suites without a roof,” Keeling said.
Despite the motel atmosphere, the Lone Star guestrooms are large (390 square feet) and have bedding and furniture comparable to what’s in the company’s Sorella- and Valencia-branded properties.
A second Court property, the Cavalry Court in College Station, Texas, opens this fall and will embrace many of the same elements as the Lone Star Court but with an architectural connection to nearby Texas A&M University.
“We could have painted it maroon and called it the Aggie Court (the Texas A&M nickname), but that wouldn’t be subtle at all,” Keeling said. “Texas A&M is the only ROTC program in the country that has a mounted cavalry with a horse-drawn cannon. As a result, we made our connection to the town and university with a cavalry post theme.”
Keeling said future Court developments are in the works in Texas in Fort Worth, Lubbock and Dallas. The company also is eyeing Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for development.
Vantage Hospitality Group also hopes to move into the lifestyle segment through new prototypes for its Signature Inn brand, including one with exterior corridors.
“When we decided to get involved in the boutique and lifestyle segment, we looked at what niche we could carve out,” he said. “We determined that flexibility for our developers was key, which is the formula that has worked with our other brands.”
Some owners in Vantage’s Americas Best Value Inn brand continue to build exterior-corridor hotels, Mullinix said.
Member Sharin Patel recently opened a new-build exterior-corridor Americas Best Value Inn in Houston and has another under construction in Spring, Texas. Patel said customer preferences and development costs were factors driving the decision.
“In the Houston marketplace, many of our customers are more interested and attracted to exterior-corridor hotels because of the convenience they offer,” he said. “And factoring in all considerations, there is a significant cost difference and savings involved in building exterior corridor. And given the rising costs of new construction, this is one way to maximize cost efficiencies in the overall project cost.”
- Want more? Check out this column on “The death of the American motel.”
Falling out of favor
Developers stopped building and brand companies stopped promoting exterior-corridor hotels for several reasons, including perceived safety issues, consumer preferences and development costs, sources said.
“While there were some concerns about security issues, the primary motivator was that franchise companies wanted to update their images and felt exterior-corridor (properties) didn’t look modern,” said Steve Belmonte, CEO of Vimana Franchise Systems, franchisor of the Key West Inn and Centerstone brands.*
“Despite that, there is still a large percentage of consumers—especially in the senior market and the value market—who actually prefer the exterior corridor. They like the idea of pulling their cars up to the front of their rooms, and anything they have to bring into the room is only four feet away,” Belmonte said.
The preference for exterior-corridor hotels extends beyond seniors and budget-conscious travelers, said Ron Pohl, SVP of brand management for Best Western Hotels & Resorts.
“You often think of exterior corridors as only making sense in warm-weather climates, but in many resorts locations, such as in ski resorts, customers like the convenience of walking out of their doors and on to the slopes,” he said. “The same is true in warmer climates where you can walk out of a room and onto the beach.”
Pohl said another market is motorcycle enthusiasts. Best Western’s Ride Rewards loyalty program offers discounts and other benefits to Harley-Davidson owners who join.
“Knowing you can pull your motorcycle up to the front of your room and unload is very attractive to these customers,” Pohl said.
The exterior-corridor segment of the industry has benefitted from very little supply growth in the past several years. As a result, the group’s performance has mirrored results achieved by the overall U.S. hotel industry, according to STR, the parent company of Hotel News Now.
In 2014, revenue per available room rose 8.2% on a 3.7% increase in occupancy and a 4.3% jump in average daily rate. Last year, RevPAR rose 7.2%; occupancy was up 2.1%; and ADR rose 4.9%. Through May 2016, RevPAR increased 3.1%, which was above the overall industry RevPAR increase of 3% year-to-date.
Solving safety and security
Since the 1970s, exterior-corridor hotels have been dogged by consumer perceptions about safety. A high-profile rape of singer Connie Francis in 1974 in a Long Island Howard Johnson Lodge cemented the idea that these properties are more susceptible to crime. Hotel executives believe the perception is changing and operators can take steps to mitigate threats and liabilities.
Patel said he took specific measures to alleviate security issues at his hotels.
“One way we have compensated has been to enhance the property’s exterior with additional LED pole lighting in the parking lot to create a well-lit and safer facility,” he said. “Additionally, limiting parking lot access after hours with security gates provides added security from non-guest visitors. All of my properties utilize perimeter fences that provide for a more-secure facility and serve as a further deterrent.”
Belmonte said security issues with exterior-corridor hotels are not much different than with interior properties.
“People say with an exterior-corridor hotel someone can follow you right into your room, but whatever can happen in an exterior-corridor scenario could probably happen just as well in an interior hallway,” he said. “For someone jimmying a door to get into a room it’s a lot harder to do when you have an entire parking lot as an audience.”
The perception of security can still be a big an issue as reality, especially for certain guests, said Stephen Barth, an attorney, professor of law at the University of Houston and founder of a hospitality law website.
“It’s possible you’ll see safety and security in general as a point of distinction for selection in the hotel business,” Barth said. “For example, many women are traveling today, and for some of them the perception is that exterior-corridor hotels are less safe than interior corridor.
“You also have the responsibilities and mindfulness of the corporate travel community about their employees staying safe while they’re traveling for business. They’re putting more pressure on hotels to provide higher levels of safety and security.”
*Correction, 28 June 2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named one of Vimana Franchise Systems' affiliated brands.