Historiography: A Room at The Inn

Looking for a room at the inn - All Photos by Randy Stern
Looking for a room at the inn – All Photos by Randy Stern


A weary traveler needs a respite from a long journey.

Even in the days when it took longer to get from coast to coast and the roads were not of the greatest shape, finding time to rest was something that was a part of the journey. If a motorist could afford it, there were places where a night's rest from the road offered a bed, a shower and a few other amenities.

The motel was a part of Americana. It still is. Some say it was probably the best idea that came out of the growth of the automobile.

The word "motel" came from combining the words "motor" and "hotel." It was a perfect word to provide a comfortable bed and bathing facilities for drivers and their passengers on journeys that took days to complete. It also offered a scaled-down experience that was once the dominion of wealthier travelers worldwide.

How so? Hotels were usually positioned either in the center of town or by a rail station. When only the wealthy traveled by coach and, later, by train, specific accommodations were created to ensure comfort for those travelers. Even in smaller towns, staying a hotel meant being served – porters, bellhops, room service, and so forth. That also meant tipping everyone who gave you service. As you know, you have to budget for tips while traveling.

As roads opened up across the USA, the idea of overnight rest was taken under consideration. In the 1920s, that meant setting up inexpensive and rudimentary locations for overnight rest. Some motorists came equipped with beds, cooking sets and a roof rack to stow everything they need for a long journey. Trunks were not available on most cars at the time.

Sometimes, motorists would pitch their own tents. Tents became quite the phenomenon since the opening of the National Parks system a couple of decades prior. To tie-in the semi-self-sufficiency of motorists, auto camps were created early on in the 1920s. These were first operated by municipal governments, and later by for-profit entities. The idea was to provide a space for motorists to get some rest off the side of the road with a pitched tent and some basic facilities.

Tents soon gave way to cabins. These cabins lacked facilities, however. Plus, tents gave way to travel trailers in the 1930s. There had to be something a bit more civilized. Along with auto camps, tourist courts – a forerunner to the motel – sprung up along the highway. If a motorist was willing to pay more for electricity and running water in a cottage, the auto court was the way to go. Tourist courts had other facilities attached to it – such as a filling station, a cafe and a convenience store. They became overnight destinations that were needed for the weary motorist.

Motel Historiography 2

In 1925, a fully contained location was created. The Milestone Mo-tel opened in San Luis Obispo, California alongside US-101. It featured regional architecture – mission-style, in fact – and offered a single building with rooms that were fully contained. It offered electricity, full bathroom facilities – the same as a tourist court. The idea was novel, though faced with a new challenge by 1930 – the Great Depression.

To see the worth of roadside accommodations, witness the migration of the unemployed in the USA during the 1930s. As cars and trucks loaded with a family's worldly goods, they found solace at roadside respites. The scene itself supported the idea that perhaps there should be a place where even ones with the toughest wallets could find a place to rest from a tough road trip.

In this era, there was also the reality of racism. In many places across the country – in particular, The South – African-Americans could not stay at the same places as Caucasians. Tourist homes were set up mainly to accommodate those who could not attain a room or a place to rest due to societal segregation. A tourist home would be a private residence where additional bedrooms were available for segregated travelers. Guidebooks were made available to list these places and their locations to make things easier for African-American travelers during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

These options continued through World War II. As the country came out of the war, prosperity arrived for many and leisure time became part of the American Dream. By 1947, there were 22,000 motor courts operating in the USA. However, they would be engulfed by the growth of the motel.

To understand the economics of building a self-contained motel property, a comparison on initial construction costs in 1947 simply made sense. If someone wanted to build a large metropolitan hotel – specifically right in the heart of town, the cost per room would be $12,000. For a 50-room motel, the same cost per room would be $3,000. Because of the lower cost of construction, there were 50,000 motels open by 1950.

With the expansion of the motel came the growth in room amenities. Heating and air conditioning, for example, were built into the design of these motels. Televisions began to appear in rooms towards the middle part of the 1950s. Let's not forget those "magic fingers" vibrating beds!

Motel Historiography 3

The world of credit changed in the 1950s. Business travelers and a few other people began to carry charge cards to secure and pay for their rooms. Today, VISA, MasterCard, Discover and American Express cards are the best way to secure a room online or at the counter. It is part and parcel of the hospitality business.

Perhaps the best innovation of the motel business is the most memorable: The "Vacancy" sign. It is the one indicator to a traveler of when and where to stop. As night falls, that vacancy sign became a "No Vacancy" sign – one that would either keep a traveler going or become a point of frustration. Before we relied on smart phones, that sign was the only way to let us know if there a place at the inn for the night or not.

Along with the expansion of the motel came the growth of chains. These chains offer familiar room settings and amenities in every city they have a property. Best Western began in 1946 operating properties through franchises in the Western USA. Quality Inn began as Quality Courts operating motor courts as a referral chain in 1939. Holiday Inn started posting up their familiar big green signs in 1952. In 1954, the name Ramada began to appear at a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona. In case you're wondering, Motel 6 was a late bloomer – starting in 1962.

Motels became the staple of car and truck travelers through the 1960s. Even better, a decision by the US Supreme Court (Heart of Atlanta Motel v United States) desegregated accommodations for everyone. However, the 1970s brought a new reality. Independently operated motels were losing out on the chains – which became mega-chains starting in the 1980s. There were drives to replace older, not so attractive motels and motor courts with more modern facilities…or, just absolutely nothing.

Plus, the word "motel" began to have a negative connotation. The image of a motel was that of poor conditions, insects, rodents, poor or non-existent service. Not to mention, they would also have the image of being places where crime and other unsavory business would occur. It got to the point where the American Hotel and Motel Association replaced that word with "Lodging" instead in 2000.

Actually, all was not lost. The attack on September 11, 2001 spurred an economic reaction. Though the economy dipped, gas prices began to climb to levels never seen in this country. The flying public also found themselves in a pickle between strengthened security measures and rising airfares. With less money in the pocket of the average tourist, less expensive alternatives were being sought.

Motel Historiography 4

Though burdened with the image of less than desirable-ness, the motels actually came back. The reason for this was the strengthening of the chains. French hospitality company Accor took Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn under its wing – and invested in them. Wyndham integrated a collection of brands into the family – including Ramada, TraveLodge and Super8. Choice Hotels also invested heavily in their brands – including EconoLodge, RodewayInn and Quality Inn. You saw other companies and brands expand, as well. Companies such as Budget Host, AmericInn and America's Best Value Inn began to pop up to add to the growing choices of affordable accommodations.

As more travelers went back to traveling by automobile, motels regained their position as providing affordable respite to the weary traveler. This is where we are at today, buoyed by lower fuel costs and a recovering economy from the 2008 global recession. At least in the USA, affordable accommodation is the way to go – though its image is still being worked out.

I will give you an example. A year ago, I visited Los Angeles to do some stories for V&R. For the "homecoming" portion of the trip, I stayed at a motel in Chatsworth near the Metrolink station. I had a press vehicle with me and was also doing work with it for other publications. For the nights that I stayed there, I honestly did not feel safe. One lady that was a bit crazy was staring at me – and the car – practically every time I was around. The place was full of people that were allegedly involved with some crazy thing. Had I known this place was less than desirable; I would have not booked my room there.

However, there were times I stayed at a motel that looked a little rough and were really comfortable places to stay. They were safe, secure and provided exactly what I needed – respite and, sometimes, a place to work. This happened more times than often in my life.

When I travel, I take in consideration budgets to ensure maximum return on a business trip (since that is all I do these days – basically all of my travel is work-related). Since I make most of my plans, I do look for value in cost for accommodations. Of course, it would be great to stay at a nice hotel, but on driving trips, there are other costs to calculate.

Think about this, motels were designed for tourists to park their cars while staying overnight. With parking included, that is one expense removed. Most of the chains offer free Wi-Fi, continental breakfasts, pools, hot tubs, workout rooms…and so forth. Consider the value proposition between accommodations – motels actually can be a larger value, especially when you are on a budget and is trying to break up a major road trip for overnight respite stops.

Motel Historiography 5

These days, the definition of a motel has been expanded where they are no longer considered one in the classic sense. Families on a budget are finding great values in staying in extended-stay properties and mid-priced hotels, such as Courtyard by Marriott and Hilton's Hampton Inn. Websites and mobile applications that search through multiple chains and properties offer a chance to stay at a better property for the same price per night as a standard rate at a budget motel location.

The latter point may be another harbinger to the existence of the motel. Yet, they still are in business – and are here to stay. To do so, they have to compete with more expensive properties, while maintaining their low-frills image – by offering more amenities.

At the end of the journey – far from home – there could only be one welcoming sign for the weary traveler: "Vacancy." There will always be room at the inn.

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