Shabby motels become cool places to stay
By SARA CLEMENCE | Bloomberg | Published: November 2, 2017
Hotel design is often a process of addition, whether it’s that perfect throw pillow, location-specific coffee-table books, or a splash of texture on an accent wall. But not when you’re gutting a shabby 1930s motel.
“Most of our design process was about subtraction,” said Liz Lambert, founder of the Austin-based Bunkhouse Group, which in March unveiled its overhaul of the aged Austin Motel. “[We had to] peel away layers of garden gnomes and tchotchkes that accumulated over time.”
Now the derelict inn is a cool-kid magnet -- just like its sister hotel, the celebrity-packed Saint Cecilia. Around the U.S., hoteliers are turning down-at-the-heels motels -- a national icon of sorts -- into stylish, remarkably upscale hotels.
The trend started a decade ago, according to Mike Cahill, founder and chief executive officer of hospitality real estate firm HREC Investment Advisors. In the past couple of years it has been spurred by affordable property prices and a changing definition of luxury that emphasizes character and experiences over thread counts and square footage.
That doesn’t make the business of motels a sudden no-brainer. Such small properties often operate on tight margins. They don’t benefit from economies of scale, in everything from marketing to accounting to linens, as chains and large hotels do. (Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has said these sorts of cost savings drove the Starwood merger last year.)
In booming areas, it can be more cost-effective to tear down motels and build something larger from scratch. Cheap real estate can also translate to costly, time-consuming, and controversial renovations -- the buildings are often seen as part of a community’s local legacy.
Renovation “takes a lot of empathy. It is much easier to develop a hotel in Manhattan,” said Erik Warner, co-founder of Eagle Point Hotel Partners, which this year converted motels in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Greenport, New York. Too, “you never know what you are going to find behind the walls. It’s easy to come in and decorate, but much harder when you discover the pipes are bad.”
So why bother? For Lambert and others, the challenges are worth the reward of creating a noteworthy hotel, contributing to the rebirth of an area and, they hope, profiting as a result.
“It’s like the ultimate in recycling,” Cahill said. They’re a boon for travelers, too, at price points that often dwarf the branded big boxes nearby. Here are the standouts to book on your next trip.
Austin Motel, Austin, Texas
For years, hotelier Lambert had a crush on the 30s-era Austin Motel, an icon of the city’s restaurant-packed South Congress Avenue, and its neon sign. After her year-long makeover, the 41-room property marries minimalism with bursts of color and kitsch: lip-shaped telephones, colorful Voutsa wallpaper patterns, and synchronized swimming performances for poolside entertainment.
“I think we preserved the spirit of the place,” Lambert said. “And of course, we kept the sign. I mean, that sign may be the No. 1 reason I wanted the hotel all these years.” From $125.
Nobu Ryokan, Malibu, California
It wasn’t the dated decor of the Casa Malibu Inn that prompted Oracle founder Larry Ellison to pay $20 million for it: The motel was built right on coveted Carbon Beach; also called “Billionaire’s Beach,” thanks to the extravagant homes abutting it. After a total reinvention, the hotel reopened in June as part of Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s fast-growing brand, with just 16 individually designed rooms.
The style is refined and organic, with teak paneling, concrete fireplaces, handmade teak soaking tubs and linen-hued upholstery. There is a shared deck of ipe, or Brazilian walnut, wood and an oceanfront lap pool (currently closed); the interior garden is in traditional Japanese style. To compensate for the lack of an on-site restaurant, guests can order room service from Nobu’s high-end sushi spot two doors down. From $1,500.
The Drifter, New Orleans
The bones still say motel, but nothing else does at New Orleans’ new Drifter hotel. “We had this dream to transform [the Drifter] into a destination,” said co-owner Jayson Seidman, whose once-shabby 1956 motel is set in an unlikely area-an up-and-coming, industrial stretch of Mid-City once known as a hotbed of drugs and prostitution.
Seidman and his co-owners turned the parking lot into a tropical garden, removed the dirt that used to fill the swimming pool, and added a lounge and coffee bar. The casual-cool result was launched this summer, with yoga classes in the morning and a buzzy cocktail hour scene.
The rooms are simple, with gray walls and upholstery and honey-toned wood headboards. “We’re playing the high-low game -- we are a 1950s motel, but we have Aesop toiletries and really nice linens,” Seidman said. From $175.
The Brentwood, Saratoga, New York
The pocket-size Brentwood isn’t in the fancier part of this upstate resort town best known for hosting the annual Travers Stakes horse race. (It’s near the more populous Saratoga Springs, north of Albany.) Instead, it’s among the stables behind the back stretch of the Saratoga Race Course-and that’s part of the appeal.
“In the mornings you can sit there with a coffee and see all the horses walk down the street,” said Jou-Yie Chou, partner at Brooklyn-based Studio Tack, who transformed the rundown motor lodge into an elegant retreat with reclaimed white-oak flooring, high-shine black wainscoting, vintage oil paintings, and an intimate Carrara marble-topped lobby bar. “We wanted it to be handsome,” Chou said, “not kitsch or cute.” From $139.
The Elita Hotel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
It was supposed to be a lipstick renovation. But after new owners took over the Shell Motel, a half-block off the beach in Fort Lauderdale, they decided otherwise. “We gutted it,” said Pawel Plata, co-founder and manager of the Gzella Collection, which which now includes three converted motels along a burgeoning corridor of the South Florida coast.
With designer Blanche Garcia of the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible” fame, they replaced the Elita’s wan yellow exterior with a graphic black-and-white facade. Out went brown tiled showers and pastel parrot prints; in came tinted glass bathroom doors and serene gray walls. But the highlight of the hotel, which opened in mid-2016, is the enclosed modern garden and pool. “It’s just our oasis,” Plata said. From $134.
Anvil, Jackson, Wyoming
At the Anvil, even the bed frames make a statement. “They are a reflection not just of the fact that wrought-iron beds were a luxury in Jackson a hundred years ago,” hotelier Erik Warner said; they also pay homage to the ruggedness of this ski resort-cum-cowboy town, south of Grand Teton National Park. Other statements: a beverage program by New York cocktail outfit Death & Co., a trattoria led by Pok Pok alum Troy Furuta, and a top-notch concierge program that focuses on the local community.
“We’re spending a lot of time and resources to find that man or woman who can, say, take you into the Tetons under the pines … the float company that takes you to a private ranch to sit around a table with locals,” said Warner. From $195.
The June Motel, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada
Once you’ve been to Prince Edward County, it’s hard not to go back: It has dozens of excellent wineries, Caribbean-like beaches, and tons of charming boutiques and restaurants, all within an easy drive of Toronto or Montreal. But it has little in the way of great hotels.
So when a couple of Toronto friends came upon the “dingy” but structurally midcentury Sportsman Motel, they saw great potential.
“Despite the popularity of the area, everyone seemed to struggle to find a place to stay,” co-owner April Brown said. Now the 16-room property is an eclectic, boho-chic spot with pink doors, Solair chairs, and a Rosé Suite plastered in floral wallpaper, midway between the mysterious (but beautiful) Lake on the Mountain and the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Picton. From $119.
Sound View Greenport; Greenport, New York
At this new gem on the North Fork, the shore is the star: All 55 rooms open onto a private, quarter-mile-long beach at the far eastern end of Long Island. Built in 1953 and redone by Eagle Point this year, the motel has rooms featuring shiplap cedar walls, rope rugs and colorblocked quilts. James Beard-winning chef Galen Zamarra oversees its seafood-focused restaurant. Try the clams, fried in a buttermilk-saltines batter, and the lobster beignets. From $205.