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New Trend: Roadside Motels are Back and Thriving

By David Ashen Principal and Founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive March 24, 2019

This past year I fulfilled one of my long-term goals. No, it wasn't getting to the gym, which is a goal I renew every year but ignore. This one was something I haven't merely let slip by each January, but one that I haven't had the opportunity to make happen. Until now.

After years of being a service provider to the hotel industry as designer and strategist, I wanted to have ownership in a hotel. Well, in 2018 opportunity knocked. It was not what I expected (and, really, when is it?) but it was the right opportunity and the right time.

I'd had visions of owning a small piece of a beach resort in an exotic place or maybe a luxury hotel in a major city (other than New York City), but what was offered was a roadside motel in Salida, Colorado. It was a 50-plus room Super 8 that my friends at Imprint Hospitality (in Denver) were converting into an independent 3-star motel, not along a breath-taking coastline or in heart of riveting city, but among a number of other motels along the main highway into town. It was this nondescript motel that would be my first venture into ownership.

A Look at the Road Behind Us

There was a time in America when the roadside motel was not only a common fixture, but also a necessity on our nation's highways. The invention of the automobile enabled the creation of our highway system in the first half of the 20th century. Endless miles of blacktop were laid down across this country, connecting east coast to west, and enabling our growing love of the car and wanderlust to bring us places that in the past were only a dream. In addition, the system of roads and highways allowed for the creation of a whole new trucking industry that provided a way for goods to get to locations quicker and less expensively than they could in the past and to reach areas that previously were inaccessible.

With thousands of miles for travelers to cross, there was a growing need for folks to find places to sleep during their days- or even weeks-long journeys. The development of the roadside motel was a direct response to the rapid growth of our highway system and the American love of the automobile. Clean, safe and reliable rooms to sleep for the night became the calling card of the first hotel brands.

The term "motel" originated with the Motel Inn of San Luis Obispo, initially called the Milestone Mo-Tel, which was constructed in 1925. It was a word coined from the merger of "motor" and "hotel". In the 50s and 60s the rise of motel chains, such as Motel 8, Holiday Inn and Howard Johnsons, meant the end to the small "mom and pop" establishments. Then 70s and 80s saw the development of our intestate system, highway beautification programs and the many new, robust hotel chains we now know, which, in turn, basically became a death sentence for the roadside motel as we knew it.

Driving the Trend Forward

Fortunately, what was old has become new again. In the last couple of years, we have seen a desire for more authentic experiences and a lust for nostalgia, which is a direct result of our society being bombarded with technology every moment of the day and a sort of blandness or lack of excitement from the expected experiences delivered by a slew of global brands. This desire for simplicity and authenticity has resulted in a resurgence of the roadside motel, albeit, in a reinvigorated way, and what I believe will be the next hottest trend in development for the next few years.

With that, I expect that many roadside motels will be rebranded, similarly to how the Super 8 in Salida, Colorado, where I have ownership, has been. Now branded as the Loyal Duke Lodge, the motel has the look and feel of a clean and comfortable roadside property, but with the expected modern day amenities, such as fully renovated guest rooms with color TVs, Wi-Fi, breakfast and laundry service.

LDL is Loyal Duke Lodge in Salida, CO. Photo Credit: Adam Smock

LDL is Loyal Duke Lodge in Salida, CO. Photo Credit: Adam Smock

While these are the expected cost of entry at today's motels, it was important for us to create a point of difference at the site, which we did by creating a solid strategy and brand as the base. From there, we built a compelling but simple design narrative along with a refreshed service culture. The story was sitting in front of us-the folklore around Loyal Duke and its adored house dog at the Monti Cristo Hotel who would greet guests as they got off the train on their arrival to Salida. Hence, we had a name for the motel and a tale with which to put a stake in the ground.

One of the design elements created was an amazing dog totem set in the front of the hotel. The piece was carved from the trunk of a tree that had fallen a while back and we hired a local artist to use a chain saw to carve the doggy totem. As well, the lobby was redesigned as a welcoming lodge, with a wink toward the local mid-century modern Colorado cabin, a design that now embraces the guest with a warm lounge rather than a typical, less-inviting check in.

Other design elements include local textiles that were used for carpets, blankets and other accessories, and a well curated "pantry" for guests to purchase local food and goods.

The guest rooms have retained their roadside essence, where people drive right up to their rooms, however, the spaces have been refreshed with a new palate and finishing touches that make the former Super 8 feel super-local. Additionally, the service culture has been crafted to support these changes, and like Loyal Duke the dog of the past, the current team is there to greet you and make you feel at home (they probably won't curl up on the bed with you though).

Another property we transformed was the Freepoint Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Formerly an outdated Best Western Inn that sat in the parking lot of a Whole Foods store surrounded by development, the motel has been rebranded into a cool little 3-star property, designed with the millennial business and leisure traveler in mind. While now a part of the Tapestry Collection Hilton, the motel offers a scaled-back atmosphere with modern conveniences.

The redesign and branding haven't only given leisure and business travelers a comfortable and convenient place to stay, but also transformed what was a nondescript and worn property with tired rooms and a disjointed layout throughout, brought about by years' worth of bad renovations and additions. The win for this project was to re-imagine the public spaces to create a sense of place for the guest.

Freepoint Hotel Cambridge in Cambridge, MA. Photo Credit: John Muggenborg

Freepoint Hotel Cambridge in Cambridge, MA. Photo Credit: John Muggenborg

We also worked to distinguish the motel from its hidden spot among the business of highway development around its location. There was no "center" to the hotel; no focal point. Our solution was to create a "secret garden" in the middle of the property's public space by redesigning a former indoor space into an enclosed outdoor courtyard. This transformation moved the property from roadside motel to roadside oasis. Of course, we also brought the rest of the property up to snuff by completing a full renovation of the rooms, but the secret sauce was the reconfiguration of the lower level to deliver the surprise and point of difference for this highway motel.

The 41-room, 80-year-old Austin Motel in Austin, Texas, is another property that still offers traveling tourists and business people overnight accommodations, but now the place boasts a fresh and vibrant update. Designed in a bold, retro look complimented by modern conveniences, the motel is a bright and inviting spot among its neighborhood's restaurants, nightlife, dining and outdoor offerings.

The renovation of this motel, along with several other roadside properties in Texas, are the work of hotelier Liz Lambert, who has done an outstanding job with her Bunkhouse brand of hotels in the transformation of nearly lost motels from the last century into amazingly relevant destinations for her guests. Hotels such as the Hotel San Jose, the Austin Motel (both in Austin) and the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, are fabulous, fun and engaging. Bunkhouse goes bold and is unapologetic about the history of these buildings, while layering relevant cultural nuances through celebrating local art, poetry, music, food and drink. Although I have not been to any of these properties yet, each is on my short bucket list for 2019.

Road trips across American may have lost some of their luster with the nation's vacationing families and business travelers, but the places they stayed-those roadside motels-have today's road- and electronics-weary travelers longing for the properties' down-to-earth vibes. By transforming their outdated designs into modern accommodations that recall the past's back-to-basics culture, roadside motels are hotter than ever.