What comes to mind when you hear the word “motel?” Images of Route 66 and a bygone 1950s era? Indeed, this style of roadside lodging – perfectly encapsulated by its portmanteau name, a combination of “motor” and “hotel” – experienced its true golden years post-WWII, in response to the rise of car travel. At their peak in 1964, there were a whopping 61,000 properties, which is how character-laden mom and pop motels became ubiquitous along American highways. But as nationwide chains and fancier hotels came onto the scene, motels began to shutter, and by 2012 there were just 16,000 left.
However, perhaps there’s some truth to the old adage that “what’s old is new again,” as motels seem to have meaningfully entered the public imagination once more.
In recent years, it hasn’t been a stretch to see motel round-ups covered in the pages of Conde Nast Traveller and Surface Mag. A variety of adaptive reuse projects, from the Ace Hotel & Swim Club Palm Springs to our very own Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, have given rise to the new-school motel, harnessing the pre-loaded character and charm from a property’s past and finessing it for the boutique traveler of today.
In 2020, COVID-19’s impact on travel has put an additional spotlight on the motel. With travelers reluctant to fly, this year Americans turned their sights to the “nearcation.” When polled, 31% of Americans said they planned to go on a summer road trip, and 97% voted for car trips as their favored mode of transportation. Given the uncertainty of these times, the affordability, proximity, and ease of social distancing that motels offer has evidently provided some much-needed comfort in escape; as compared to <15% occupancy rates in early May at luxury hotels, kitschy motels in upstate New York were sold out and the Mellow Moon Lodge in Del Norte, Colorado saw its occupancy up by 243%.
Perhaps motels are also benefiting from the sudden resurgence of nostalgia, in the way of drive-in movies and homemade sourdough bread. From renovated motor lodges near Woodstock to mid-century San Francisco haunts that once played host to the likes of David Bowie and Nirvana, they’re a great way to connect the present with the past.
While it’s fair to assume that a post-COVID era might bring yet another reshuffling of the lodging industry, here are three reasons to believe that motels may be here to stay.
Photo by Aubrie Pick
In a study conducted by Business Wire last year, the majority of Americans cited “sustainability” as the most important factor when choosing accommodation. Considering our growing generation of climate-conscious consumers, it’s safe to assume travelers will increasingly seek experiences that align with their values and minimize their carbon footprints. As a result, we may see the rise in domestic tourism persist past lockdowns, and repurposed motels (which are a great way to reuse existing materials) might stand out as the more sustainable choice.
A Sense of Place
In today’s experience economy, travelers prioritize getaways that can truly immerse them in local cultures and provide a strong sense of place. Motels are well-suited to meet these needs: their typically close proximity to small towns offers ample opportunity for exploration; and they come at-the-ready with authentic, rich physical and visual histories with which visitors can engage.
If there’s one topic that permeates every conversation lately, it’s hygiene and safety—luckily for motels, the isolating design features that once made them less favorable are now exactly what travelers are seeking. With exterior corridors, stairs in place of elevators, and smaller common rooms, motels provide a distinctive design perspective that positions them as a leader in handling newfound hygienic concerns. As Nicole Dahl of Hotel McCoy stated in the Washington Post, “The word ‘motel’ had a bad rep for a while, but COVID has reminded us all that a motel is, at basic definition, roadside lodging, allowing travelers to access their rooms without having to rub elbows or share common spaces with others.”
While the world learns to live with COVID-19, a light has once again been shone on the inimitable character and whimsy that motels possess. With characteristics that uniquely equip them to meet the travel trends of today, and the rich canvases they provide for a new wave of hoteliers and designers, we’re prone to believe that the motel renaissance is just getting started.