As for many Americans, motels, for me, have typically been a lodging of convenience. Not places I specifically seek out per se, but book en route elsewhere or out of necessity. A respectable Best Western off Interstate 80 when Donner Pass to Tahoe is suddenly snowed in. A basic room at the Stargazer Inn (and one of the few rooms anywhere) near Great Basin National Park. Lots of affordable, how-many-twentysomethings-can-fit-in-a-room rooms for all those post-college wedding weekends.
Pop culture, however, has long depicted motels as a lodging category toavoid. “Psycho.” “Memento.” “No Country for Old Men.” Even my family’s kitschy Covid TV comedy, “The Goldbergs,” has contributed to motels’ bad rap. Specifically, Season 7, Episode 1: the one inspired by the 1983 film “Vacation” where, like the Griswolds, the Goldbergs’ station wagon breaks down and they check-in to a motel room. It’s grim. And the coin-fed bed bumps and bucks like a bull all night.
Motels just can’t seem to shake their cinematic reputation as sad, seedy, last resort-resorts. No matter how successful 21st century moteliers have been at transforming tired properties, from Montauk to Malibu, into stylish escapes.
Newly inoculated this spring, I wanted to get away from the same-old 400-something days. I wanted a getaway that was fun and easy; fashionable enough to force me to forgo my fuzzy slippers I’ve been padding around in all pandemic; andnot $400 a night. I wanted to swim in a pool and see friends and eat good food neither cooked, nor retrieved, nor requiring dishes to be washed by me. My primary criterion, however, for My First Pandemic Getaway was that it be Covid Anxiety-Free. Which meant what I wanted was a hotel without hallways. Without crowded lobbies or “club levels” or elevators, too. What I wanted, I realized, was: a motel.
I am not alone. It seems a lot of people have wanted motels — be they shabby orchic — this year. “The technical term is exterior-corridor hotels,” explained Patrick Scholes, managing director of lodging equity research for Truist Securities, an investment firm. Exterior-corridor hotels — simply because their walkways and room entrances are open-to-the-air (and not the coronavirus) — “have definitely had an advantage during the pandemic, especially during the heart of it,” Mr. Scholes said. “They have done better across the board. Well, let’s use the phrase ‘less bad.’ They’ve done far less bad.”
It makes sense. Flying has been a daunting prospect for many Covid-conscious travelers. And so across the country, drive-to destinations have seen a surge of interest, as have road-trips themselves, and the roadside motels that have long paired with them.
“It’s been the perfect kind of hotel during the pandemic,” said Amar Lalvani, chief executive of Bunkhouse, the Austin-based hospitality company with eight properties, almost all overhauled mid-20th century motels, and plans to double its portfolio in the next few years. “Covid has given certain things a boost,” he said. Zoom. Baking. Cryptocurrency. “And motels are one of them. ”
A Room Off the Road
Motels were specifically designed, almost a century ago, to offer a direct line from car-to-bed, of course. “Mo-,” as in motor, a motorist’s hotel. The first was built by the Milestone Interstate Corporation, in 1925, in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegramranan article on its opening, explaining the then-novel concept: “A traveler arriving at night, or at any other time, need not climb out of his car and go into the office to register.”Who would have anticipated that a hundred years later, the very lack of interaction and indoor mingling a motel requires would be such a boon?
After World War II and the proliferation of the family automobile, motels cropped up along the country’s county roads. The 1950s and ’60s were motels’ happy heyday. Things began to change after the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956: With the roll out of the interstate highway system, roadtrippers could suddenly bypass towns. Big-box hotel brands were built right off the exit ramps, offering the perceived comfort of uniformity. Motels’ status took a downward turn.
Many of the existing 60,000 motels in the United States began to close, explained Mark Okrant, professor emeritus of tourism management at Plymouth State University and author of “No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of America’s Motels.” Others lived on as fine establishments; others were rented by the hour. “Many became love motels,” Mr. Okrant said. “Places to take your insignificant other.”
As in places where you could walk straight to your room and be anonymous. Illicit. Creepy. Hitchcock’s 1960 film based at the Bates Motel may have helped usher in motels’ new M.O.
Fast forward to the Netflix era, and “Breaking Bad” certainly didn’t do motels any favors with its recurring scenes at Albuquerque’s Crossroads Motel. And, of course, to where does the wealthy Rose family flee after losing all their money, in “Schitt’s Creek?” The run-down Rosebud Motel. “You want me to get murdered first?” Alexis says to her brother, David, in the first episode, as they argue over who has to sleep in the bed closest to the door.
No Shirts or Shoes Required
And yet offscreen, oh how things are changing. The Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, created by the entrepreneur Chip Conley in 1987, may have been the first made-over motel. But Liz Lambert, an ex-lawyer, is often credited with starting the trend, when she renovated Austin’s once-sordid Hotel San José. “I didn’t have great ambitions at the time,” she told the “Women Who Travel” podcast in 2019. She thought she’d just do a one-off. Instead, she went on to open Austin’s Hotel Saint Cecilia and found Bunkhouse, which was majority acquired by Standard International in 2015.
Mod-motels have taken off in recent years, especially this past pandemic year. Weekends at the Stonewall Motor Lodge, a renovated 1964 property near Fredricksburg, Texas, with nice linens, live music and complimentary charcuterie, have been booked since last summer.
“We’ve been getting a lot of people who say they’ve never stayed at a roadside motel before,” said Tim Henke, the manager. “There’s a stigma that motels are hole-in-the-walls, but we’re a high-end motel.”
“In the past twenty years, there has been what I call a democratization of design to places outside of the luxury environment and outside of the traditional metropolises,” Mr. Lalvani said. Unique looks intended to be anything but cookie-cutter that lean into both the place and the past, inspired by the mom-and-pop owned motels of yore. Plus, many new motels offer programming — like Purple Rain-themed pool parties and outdoor yoga and macrame-plant-hanger-making classes.
Marketing nostalgia, companies like Bunkhouse are bullish on new-fashioned, mid-20th century motels and the relaxed indoor-outdoor atmosphere they afford, whether we’re in a pandemic or not.
For Rob Blood, founder of Lark Hotels, which has some 30 properties, the pandemic got him nostalgic for the family road trips and Howard Johnsons he remembers as a 1980s kid. “I started looking for opportunities, geeking out over these midcentury motels that had lost their luster,” he said. He created Bluebird by Lark, a sub-brand which opened Spa City Motor Lodge in Saratoga Springs on June 4, the first of three revamped motels Bluebird will launch this summer alone. (Next up for Bluebird: Cape Cod; Stowe; Hunter, N.Y.)
Mr. Blood discovered, after spending much of his career restoring buildings as old as 1612 into luxury hotels, refurbishing motels has been a relative breeze. “There are only two floors, two room types, one courtyard — sturdy cinder-block construction,” he said.
Jou-Yie Chou is a partner at the Brooklyn-based design studio Post Company, which redid Brentwood Hotel in Saratoga Springs in 2016 and now Callicoon Hills, a century-old resort, which reopened in the Catskills on June 7. The challenges in renovating these midcentury properties are in the unknowns, he said, like “what’s behind the walls, what ‘skeletons’ are buried.” Another challenge, he said, is bringing them to today’s standards “in a manner that respects the original design and does not implode the budget.” They lifted the carpet, for instance, and discovered gorgeous Douglas fir floors.
Though restoring old bonesis Bunkhouse’s brand, in September, the company opened the brand-new Hotel Magdalena, in Austin, in a 1970s motor-court style. “It’s what people want,” Mr. Lalvani said, of the couches and courtyards, outdoor walkways, low-key comfort.“Especially after a year working from home.” No suits. No formalities. No shoes. “I can’t walk around a Four Seasons barefoot.”
The Influence of Instagram
Mr. Chou believes motels have shed their “historical negative baggage.” (Travel-pun intended?) People appreciate their designs, as well as the autonomy and touchless communication that comes with them, he said. “The pandemic has accelerated guests’ acceptance of virtual service.”
Indeed technology is helping the very self-service nature of motels. At the Capri, a 1963 property, in Ojai, Calif., renovated three years ago, check-in is via text. Its 30 rooms all open to the air and have been open — and mostly occupied weekends since September 2020 — said Marlee Rojanfrom the front desk. And consistently booked midweek since March. “For months, I’d just sit here by myself all day, trying to make sure people felt comfortable. We weren’t allowed to serve coffee or water, it was super weird,” she said. “I’d just say: ‘I’m here if you need me!’” No one did.
It’s also vital with marketing, which as Mr. Blood said, can be “a bit of an uphill battle.” Catering to people’s nostalgia plays a big role, as does choosing desirable locations, but Instagram in particular has made it easy to showcase the mood of the new motel. The feeds of hip hotel-motel groups are convincing scrolls through cool pools and pretty couples, patterned pillows and simple yet sophisticated rooms. Palm-held reminders that these arenotyour parents’ musty motels.
The M Word
Maybe just don’tcall them motels?
“I’m not afraid of it,” Mr. Blood said of the M-word. “But we like motor-lodge better.”
“We prefer not to refer to it as a motel,” said Kristin Huxta Bradley, senior director of communications for Kimpton, when asked about the Goodland, a converted 1960s property outside Santa Barbara. It has record players and poolside DJs and retro-styled rooms flanking the pool. “It’s not the motel experience,” she said. “It’s a boutique hotel. We don’t have any motels in our portfolio.” Call it what you will, of all Kimpton properties, those with exterior corridors “have performed well and seen some of the quickest return to prepandemic business levels,” Ms. Bradley said.
A ground-floor, drive-up room during a pandemic in dreamy Ojai or sweet Cape Cod is desirable, no doubt. But a ground-floor, drive-up room off the highway, or street-side in a crime-filled city, during normal times? Not so much, the major chains decided a dozen years ago.
By 2008, Holiday Inn — which began in 1954 as a chain of hotels off the interstate highway system — stopped renewing contracts with its exterior corridor hotels, citing perceived safety concerns among its guests. “Major brands see exterior corridors as a liability risk,” Mr. Scholes said. “They made a big push to get rid of them. We’ve definitely seen a purge.” He dismisses the mod-motel movement as niche, and while exterior corridors have been advantageous lately, it is not a sign, he said, that the traditional long, carpeted, hermetically sealed hotel hallway is going anywhere.
All I know is: On a recent sunny afternoon, coming anxiously off My First Flight and My First Uber, walking into the Cara Hotel in Los Angeles felt like a breath of fresh air. Because it was fresh air, mixed with a warm breeze. The Cara opened in the Los Feliz neighborhood in September, across from a Petco-Marshalls mall and down the road from Griffith Park.The 1950s property had most recently been the Coral Sands Motel, once a popular gay cruising spot touting free porn TV until the deteriorated motel was purchased for $16.5 million — and transformed into a 60-room elegant, al fresco hotel.
Wide, wrought-iron, glass doors were propped open to an expansive courtyard. Palms fanned overhead. White archways and billowing drapes offered a faint whiff of the Greek Islands, on Western Avenue. I whisked off my filtered Graf Lantz, like Mary Tyler Moore and her beret. And as I climbed the exterior stairs and followed a long, narrow walkway beneath blue sky to my small yet cushy room, I felt a kind of calm I hadn’t in a while. I was mask-less! On a mini-vacation! From Covid-life. From my life.
Until my 12-year-old daughter rang on FaceTime. “Are you at the motel?” she asked. I flipped my screen and flashed the scene from my second-story balcony: the courtyard buzzing below with beautiful, full-faced people sipping brightly colored cocktails; plates of pricey arugula-avocado salads; olivetrees strung with little lights; the decorative — yet only ankle deep — pool aglow. “That’s not a motel!” said Hazel, wide-eyed.
At least not the no-frills motel it used to be. “It looked like something out of a scary movie before,” said DJ Roller, a fellow guest and founder of an entertainment technology company, upon recently checking-out of the Cara. Waiting on the sidewalk for the valet, he marveled at the motel’s open-air makeover. (Complete with this very un–motel amenity.) “I used to stay at a hotel down the street, but …” he smiled, making it clear he’s found a new favorite. “It’s been closed because of the pandemic.”