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Motels boost the thread count

Over the last year or so, motel chains like Super 8 and Red Roof Inn have been getting a makeover — in many cases adding amenities that rival those of more upscale properties.
Image: Motel 6 room
Motel 6 hired a London design firm to remodel rooms like this one in Addison, Texas.Motel 6
/ Source: The New York Times

Platform beds with crisp white sheets and taupe coverlets; 32-inch flat-screen TVs; bright colors on the walls and mod furnishings that maximize space. No, it’s not the latest boutique hotel. It’s the new look of Motel 6.

That’s right. Over the last year or so, motel chains like Super 8 and Red Roof Inn have been getting a makeover. Not unlike the bedding wars initiated by Starwood Hotels & Resorts in the late ’90s, motels have been upgrading their interiors, doing away with those dreadful floral bedspreads and in many cases adding amenities that rival those of more upscale properties.

Red Roof Inn, based in Columbus, Ohio, is adding spa-inspired walk-in showers with rain-flow shower heads and pillow-top mattress pads as part of what it’s calling a Next Generation redesign. Wyndham Hotel Group’s Super 8 chain, which added curved shower rods, granite countertops and hair dryers to its previously bare-bones bathrooms a couple of years ago, is taking it up a notch by replacing bedding and adding nicer vanities in the bathrooms.

Holiday Inn is updating everything from its lobbies to its logo (formerly written out in cursive, it has been edited down to a cleaner, modern “H”). It even has created a piped-in signature scent that isn’t a byproduct of a highly chlorinated pool. The smell: citrus and white tea, with subtle undercurrents of perilla leaf, woods and herbs.

The budget hotel segment was due for a design overhaul as the discrepancy between economy hotels still stuck in the floral bedspread mode and more upscale, fashion-forward newcomers like NYLO Hotels and Starwood’s Aloft brand grew. And though none of the upgrades are plush by any means, the extent of the renovations and redesigns, which focus on minimalist chic, has been surprising guests and style arbiters alike. In February, for example, Motel 6, which hired the design firm Priestmangoode of London to facilitate its transformation, took Travel & Leisure magazine’s 2010 design award for Best Large Hotel for its “smart, hip, and of the moment” Phoenix design, as the chain calls the new look.

Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, owned by InterContinental Hotels Group, is investing $1 billion across more than 3,200 hotels to refresh the brands and is the farthest along in its overhaul. Roughly 2,000 hotels have been renovated since October 2007 when the company first announced the initiative, decluttering reception desks of the usual solicitations, adding powerful shower heads, curved shower rods and upgraded bedding. Motel 6, operated by Accor Worldwide, which unveiled its Phoenix design last May, has revamped more than 50 of its 1,000 North American locations. Red Roof Inn, which has 350 locations across the country and 50 hotels in the pipeline, plans to build 17 or so based on the Next Generation prototype. For now, it’s available in two locations: Beaumont, Tex., and Locust Grove, Ga.

The economic recession has created additional pressure for the motel segment to upgrade as rates plummeted across the board and travelers were able to trade up to hotels they normally couldn’t afford. “Because rates have fallen so far, people who were on a budget suddenly can get into a full service hotel for the same amount,” said Jan Freitag, vice president of global development at STR, which tracks the hotel industry. The resulting effect, he said: “Everyone needing to do more” to attract and retain guests.

Using Starwood’s Better Tomorrows promotion, which cuts the price of the second night in half, a two-night stay at the trendy Aloft Houston by the Galleria in Texas with nine-foot ceilings, walk-in showers, Bliss Spa toiletries and lobby lounge is $178 in late April compared with $215 for the Holiday Inn less than two miles away. One advantage: The Holiday Inn has a restaurant.

But once rates start to turn around, as they inevitably will, trading back down to the roadside motel will be an easier transition given the upgrades. And even now there are some amazing deals to be had — the key being finding a renovated property to stay at.

How does $40 a night sound for the updated Motel 6 Houston Reliant Park, which a recent Web search turned up for late March? Motel 6 conveniently flags revamped hotels on its booking site as “re-modeled” in any given search result list. But you can also call the reservation line and simply ask if there are any renovated hotels in the vicinity of where you want to stay. While you’re at it, be sure to ask about any special discounts including AAA rates if you have a membership, which often yield even more savings.

Red Roof Inn has been playing up its low prices with an “It’s chic to be frugal” message that emphasizes its free morning coffee and low room rates. Click on Red Hot Deals on its home page for specials.

Of course, major renovations never come cheap. And it’s ultimately the guest who ends up paying for the upgrades. “The Holiday Inn relaunch is about enhancing the guest’s experience in the areas that they value (great beds, great showers, etc.)” Natasha Gullett, a spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail message. “In such a way they don’t mind paying a small premium for a better experience.”

Indeed, fans of the new designs say it is worth it. Philip Pursley, a project manager for an energy performance contract company in Indiana, has spent time at the Holiday Inn at the University of Memphis for a job while away from home, practically every week for the last year. In doing so he also saw the transformation of the hotel as it upgraded its bathrooms, bedding and lobby.

“I just watched it go from a 5 or 6 up to a 9 or 10,” Mr. Pursley said. Before the renovation he added, “it was going to a motel.” Now, he said, “it’s very pleasant to the eye. It just makes you feel comfortable.”

So comfortable, Mr. Pursley has been willing to pay more than at other motels. He estimates that on some trips he has paid about $35 a night more than he would have at a competitor. He has also taken his wife, Jannie, to the hotel. She has since reminded him that soon his job will end and he will have to come home, to Glasgow, Ky., where the bed is perhaps not so cushy and the staff not so accommodating. “She said, ‘Your good life is getting ready to be over with,’ ” Mr. Pursley said. “ ‘You’ve got to come back home.’ ”

This story, “Motels Boost the Thread Count”, originally appeared in the New York Times.