When motels get a makeover – how ramshackle roadside stays get chic reboots

If I say “motel”, what comes to mind? Flickering (No) Signs of vacancy? Rooms by the hour? An episode of Schitt’s Creek or Breaking Bad?

It’s time to rethink. When the pandemic put flying on hold, road-trippers in the United States saw a new, albeit still niche, option emerge for overnight stays – roadside motel restarts as trendy layovers, warned in technology and Covid-secure are on offer with a restaurant-sized restaurant spoonful of mid-century nostalgia.

“Who wants a hotel with a hallway, anyway?” asked a New York Times story about motel makeovers.

Spa City Motor Lodge in Saratoga Springs, The Drifter in New Orleans, and Selina Miami Gold Dust in Florida are just a few examples of properties channeling retro vibes alongside upgraded dining offerings, eye-catching cocktails, and cool pools.

The trend was in play before the pandemic but, as with so many other things, Covid proved to be an accelerator. Those wary of travel found that car travel, contactless check-in, and self-driving stays added to the appeal.

It’s not just in the United States. In Australia, motels like the Kyah Boutique Hotel in New South Wales and the Surfside Motel in Yeppoon, Queensland have been given a retro reboot.

Britain also has a new motel brand, a concept designed by Nick Jones of Soho House.

Mollie’s is a chain of ’21st century diner-motels’, the latest of which is turning over a former Travelodge in Bristol. Yes, it comes with red neon signs, burgers and shakes, but customers can also charge their electric cars and use smartphones as room keys, TV remotes and to order food.

“A touch of color, a touch of Conran,” says the decor blurb, and Mollie’s Motels also offers lobby workspaces, signature coffee, and uplifting cocktails. Next, the old Granada TV studios in Manchester.


Mollie’s Motel in Bristol

Mollie’s Motel in Bristol

The original motels had their heyday in the middle of the century, when gasoline was cheap and car ownership was booming in the United States. Motorways had not yet shortened journeys, and family-friendly “motorized hotels” developed to replace camping stops as overnight solutions.

Over time, fashion and affordable air travel, however, their image has frozen – not helped by the role of motels as seedy settings for outcasts and vagabonds in films like psychology, Paris, Texas and Memento.

In 1964, there were 61,000 motels in the United States, according to Mark Okrant. No Vacancies: The Rise, Demise, and Recovery of American Motels. Almost 50 years later, it was 16,000.

The romance of the road trip never faded, of course. Rather the opposite. Fuel prices are skyrocketing and climate change is forcing us to rethink the way we travel, but the lure of iconic roads like Route 66 and Highway 40, the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Route 1 in Iceland or the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, is stronger than ever.

For those seeking nostalgic freedom, traveling and staying with fewer people, you can see why the trend makes sense. There’s even a Netflix show, Motel makeover.

It fascinates me to see how Covid is changing our holiday stays – from upgraded lodges to al fresco dining or simple room upgrades like Netflix and a nicer cafe.

I wonder if we could see neon signs on the sides of Irish roads?

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