The comeback of the humble US hotel is the one silver lining of Covid

When the long-overlooked series Schitt’s Creek swept the board at last month’s Emmys, it was not only a triumph for the Canadian sitcom, but also spectacularly timed. The story of a wealthy family forced to relocate to live in two rooms of a motel, its awards success has coincided with an enormous resurgence in the popularity of the humble motor lodging, an unexpected outcome of the coronavirus pandemic which has ravaged so much of the travel industry.

“Motels are definitely making a comeback, particularly over the past six months,” says Chip Rogers, CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

According to Smith Travel Research, which tracks US travel data, for the final week of September, hotel occupancy nationwide stood at 48.7 per cent, more than 31 per cent down on the same week in 2019. But, says Rogers, the picture is more complex than that. “Business travel is virtually non-existent but leisure travel is still happening. Urban centre hotels are down 76 per cent, but interstate and small town hotels and motels are only down 23 per cent.”

“Most people who are travelling are not getting on planes now – they are driving instead, taking road trips; and they’re not heading to cities, but to outdoor destinations, such as national parks. So, they are staying at interstate motels,” says Rogers.

Ace Hotel and Palm Springs, in a former 1960s motel, started the trend for the motel renovation

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The simple physical nature of motels also appeals in this newly paranoid world. “The trend in recent hotel design was towards large social gathering spaces and lobbies, but that’s all been flipped in the past six months,” says Rogers. Motels, with a typically small number of rooms, across single or double-storey buildings, with one’s own private, external entrance, offer limited interactions with others and greater control over one’s environment.

What travellers demand from their lodgings has changed dramatically over the past six months too. “Business travellers want great Wi-Fi and all the amenities you will find in a luxury hotel, but the leisure traveller – at least right now – is fine with a no-frills motel because they’re going to be doing outdoor activities anyway,” says Rogers. “If they’ve got cellphone service, which they will on an interstate, they don’t even need Wi-Fi.”

The Phoenix Motel in San Francisco

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The pandemic popularity of the motel, however, is also tapping into a trend for designer motels that began a decade ago with the opening of the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs, a conversion of a 1960s Howard Johnson motel, followed by the Pioneertown Motel in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, an Old West outpost which reopened in 2014, and has become a destination in its own right. The kitsch and historic Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district has been making a splash since its reopening in 2018. And in Texas, a state of vast distances, big cars and cheap petrol, hip motels are booming, with the renovation of the iconic 1938 Austin Motel in Austin, the Stonewall Motor Inn in Fredricksburg, and the Thunderbird Hotel in the remote art town of Marfa.

The motel industry first took off in the 1950s along with increasing wealth and leisure time in post-Second World War America, but with the rise in affordable air travel from the mid-1960s, their popularity steadily waned. The US was left with plentiful midcentury motel stock ripe for stylish renovation.

“Everyone started to want that boutique hotel aesthetic, but injected into the motel,” says Brian Smith, co-founder of New York design agency Studio Tack which specialises in converting old motels. Their first, the Dogfish Inn in Lewes, Delaware, opened in 2014. Since then, the firm has completed upscale renovations of motels across the US including Sound View in Greenport, New York; the Anvil Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming; the Brentwood Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York; and the Coachman in South Lake, Tahoe, California.

The Austin Motel in Texas, a state known for its motor lodges and inns

“The best motels are no longer just a way to get from point A to point B – they become point B,” says Smith. “The really successful ones are the ones that are tapped into not just the design culture, but also pull the local culture through the hotel, and tell a story.”

Jenny Southan, founder of travel trend forecasting agency Globetrender, agrees. “Motels were born in America but up until recently weren’t displaying much in the way of innovation. By their very nature, they were places people stayed in out of necessity rather than choice. However, over the last couple of years they have been undergoing a revival, with inflated prices and upgraded looks to appeal to the aesthetically minded millennial and Gen Z generations with an eye for 1950s nostalgia.”

The Sound View in Greenport, Long Island

And Southan believes the current boom is set to continue too. “In the viral age, travelling by car, motorbike or campervan is the most hygienic way of getting around,” she says. “And as borders remain shut and travel restrictions make going abroad more difficult, exploring one’s own country will be continue to be the obvious (possibly only) option for a lot of people.”

However, she warns: “while ‘designer’ motels will certainly do well, and even become destinations in themselves over the coming years, the stereotypically grubby motel that litters every American highway will gradually die a lonely death as even Covid-fearful truckers shun them for health reasons.

“In many ways, the pandemic will inadvertently raise standards across the industry and travellers will reap the benefits.”

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