In the 1970s, a motel stay was as much a part of a family road trip as siblings fighting over the middle seat. Fast forward a few decades and things changed. This once convenient roadside option was suddenly either popping up in horror films as a naturally spooky setting or filled with guests who didn’t mind a rough and tumble aesthetic.
For the average traveler, the motel experience went from a must-do to an only-if-we-must option. But much like recreational vehicle camping and family road trips, motels are making a comeback thanks to the pandemic and a reimagining.
“It’s no longer this old, dirty, rundown, off the highway place where you’re going to take off the top cover on the bed because you don’t want to even touch it,” said Darren Simpson, general manager of The Burrard in Vancouver. His property, renovated in 2011, boasts crisp linens, a fleet of bikes, a palm tree-filled courtyard and ping-pong tables.
It’s the sort of re-branding that The June Motel co-owners April Brown and Sarah Sklash said has attracted people to their boutique properties, too. What used to be a place where the only art on the wall was a ‘No gutting fish in the room’ sign now offers chilled bottles of rose to greet millennial guests on arrival.
“We spent about a year transforming the entire property,” said Brown of their Prince Edward County location. “Now you pull up and there’s pink doors, funky pink neon signs and a wine bar in the lobby.”
Millennials, their target market, love it, Sklash said. “It’s super-curated and all of the things they love about a great place to stay, but there is a bit of a throwback to the good-old-days kind of vibe.”
While most of The June’s guests likely weren’t around during the heyday of motels, The Burrard’s guests also include both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Simpson said his guests aren’t interested in a traditional hotel stay. “I think there is a specific niche of traveler looking for a unique design or the unique character of a building, and some of these renovated motels really offer that,” he said.
A year of pandemic lockdowns has only grown the popularity of motels. An obvious appeal of many modern roadside stays are their private entrances and exterior hallways and courtyards that allow for social distancing and air flow. According to a recent study by Booking.com, alternative accommodations (including motels) accounted for 30 per cent of all new bookings in the third quarter of 2020. That number was only 12 per cent in 2019.
Business has been so good that The June opened a second location, in Sauble Beach on Lake Huron, over Labour Day weekend in 2020.
Families aren’t being left out either. Each of the 10 winterized cabins at Wander the Resort, located in Bloomfield, Ont., offers two-large bedrooms, a spacious living area, a full-kitchen and a private patio. The stunning property opened earlier this year in Prince Edward County and is already completely sold out for 2021.
This renewed motel interest, Simpson said, is a clear reflection of people’s increased comfort levels with a new way of traveling that includes staying close to home and taking all health precautions.
“We are seeing people very hyper-locally traveling because I think they’re just sick of being at home,” he said. “People just really want to get out.”
Brown agreed. “We are looking forward to a very busy summer,” she said.
Ready for a roadside stopover? Try one of these three twists on motel chic.
Hotel Zed: With the opening of Hotel Zed Tofino last fall, the Hotel Zed chain is celebrating its third motel in British Columbia. A $20 million investment has resulted in a funky, 58-room enclave complete with a retro arcade, psychic’s den (including a crystal ball for visitor to use to divine their future) and a lobby you can ride a bike through – literally. Need a lift into town? Their 1968 station wagon shuttle helps guest to get where they need to go (note: the service is currently not operating due to Covid restrictions). (hotelzed.com)
The Lakeside Motel: Less than two years old, Prince Edward County’s largest waterfront hotel deck and bar are already a summertime staple. The 10-room traditionally laid out motel property mixes classic, minimalist touches with a pool that offers South Beach summer weekend vibes. Two small homes are also available for rent for larger bubbled groups. Prefer a camp-out? Four canvas tents, each with a Queen-sized bed and private fire pit, are also available to guest who want to do a little glamping. (thelakesidemotel.com)
The Lamphouse Hotel: Canmore, Alta., is a popular year-round playscape for active travellers and the Lamphouse Hotel has brought non-fussy, comfy-chic accommodations to the mix. Perfectly suited for the times, a virtual check-in provides you with the code to unlock your room pre-arrival making the entire process contactless. In-room martini stations and an outdoor hot tub are among the amenities. Travelling with a bigger bubble? Consider the Lamphouse Apartment that sleeps up to 10 people with a full kitchen, two-and-a-half baths and a washing machine and dryer. (lamphousehotel.com)
Heather Greenwood Davis Special to Wheels