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The humble motel is getting a rebrand. First developed in the 1920s, motels were established along highways and byways to give motorists an affordable, convenient place to stay. At their peak in the mid-1960s, some 61,000 such lodges were operating across the United States. That number has fallen sharply in the years since, as more attractive lodging options (including chain hotels) became readily available. The motels themselves suffered a reputational hit too. As the movie Psycho, released in 1960, both reflected and reinforced, motels became someplace that people would not choose to stay, given other options.

But the impression is changing again. No longer relegated to lodging for seedy or desperate purposes, motels are being rebranded as desirable destinations, worthy of hangouts and aspirational Instagram posts. The trend might be traced back to the pre–social media period, when a former lawyer named Liz Lambert bought the San José Motel in Austin in 1995 and transformed it into a boutique hotel. Yet it has been broadened and embraced, again as exemplified by popular media, where the stunning popularity of the television series Schitt’s Creek made the Rosebud Motel a hip site for the dissemination of entertaining content.

Thanks to good marketing, smart programming (e.g., Prince-themed pool parties, live music, yoga, macramé classes), and nostalgic appeal, real-world motor lodges also have been enjoying some resurgence. And then the pandemic hit, and people’s desire for car travel (to avoid crowded airplanes), coupled with their desire for separate accommodations (to avoid sharing space with strangers in hotel lobbies), heightened and hastened the motel comeback. The manager of the Stonewall Motor Lodge in Texas acknowledged, “We’ve been getting a lot of people who say they’ve never stayed at a roadside motel before. There’s a stigma that motels are hole-in-the-walls, but we’re a high-end motel.”

It may be too soon to say with certainty whether the interest in motels will continue once travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. But one factor suggests it might persist, at least for a while. With rising vaccination levels, people are on the move again, traveling for business, pleasure, and changes of scenery after a year or more locked down at home. And with that, regular hotels—the kind people used to stay in, when breathing the same air as hundreds of other people did not present a deadly threat—are once again filling up, leaving plenty of demand still remaining for trendy motels.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would someone want to stay in a motel instead of a hotel?
  2. Why did interest in motels rise, during the pandemic?
  3. What can motels do to keep customers interested, even once it is safe to stay in a regular hotel again?

Source: Rachel Levin, “Who Wants a Hotel with a Hallway Anyway?” The New York Times, June 16, 2021; Danielle Braff, “Amid The Pandemic, Motels Stage a Major Comeback,” Washington Post, August 20, 2020; Cynthia J. Drake, “The Great Roadside Motel Comeback,” Texas Monthly, April 27, 2021; Andrew Wood, “The Rise and Fall of the Great American Motel,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 30, 2017; Kenneth Kiesnoski, “Hotel Rates on the Rise as Travel Demand Ticks Up,” CNBC, April 28, 2021