Motel sign

A new era for motels

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Once ubiquitous on American highways, the humble motel is experiencing a renaissance. Soho House recently launched Mollie's Motel, its new budget brand, sparking a trend for stylish roadside lodgings at an affordable price.

From Psycho to Thelma & Louise, there are few cult American movies which don't feature an iconic motel scene. The term motel was first coined by local businessman Arthur Heinemann in 1925, when he shortened the lengthy sign for his Milestone Motor Hotel in San Luis Obispo, California to Motel. During the 1930s, road travel saw a surge in popularity and simple roadside lodgings popped up to cater for travellers looking for an inexpensive stop. Known as mom and pop motels, they would often have diners or general stores attached and attracted drivers with their garish neon signs.

The industry peaked in the Sixties when there were more than 60,000 dotted across America's highways. However, the glory days were not to last and the demise of the humble motel coincided with the building of vast Interstate highways and big-name hotel brands - like Holiday Inn and Best Western - establishing roadside inns for the travelling masses. The historic Route 66 was the biggest hit when Interstate Highways offered faster routes between the east and west coast, which led to the ultimate fall of the accommodation segment.

Find vintage charm across America

Of course, with the popularity of all things Americana it was only a matter of time before these retro properties made a comeback. In the past decade, there has been a growing trend for buying up dilapidated motels and turning them into cool boutique properties. The Downtown Clifton, a former motor lodge built in 1947 in Tucson's historic Barrio Viejo district, was bought and transformed into a hip boutique pad by its new owners in 2015. "At the Downtown Clifton, it's about intimacy of space and service,” says Co-Owner Moniqua Lane. “With these older buildings, spaces can be more uniquely designed, and that plays a part, but really, it’s about a physical and thus emotional closeness to friends, family, place, and staff. Our guests routinely speak of their experience with us as like staying with friends or family. You can only provide that in a smaller, humbler setting."

Soho House Mollie's Motel interior

Photo: credit to Soho House, Mollie's Motel

It's a clever blend of nostalgia for old America, modern style and slick service which makes these revamped motels popular. “I believe there is a certain nostalgia in motels that makes people feel comfortable,” says Mike French, Co-Owner of the Pioneertown Motel in Pioneertown, California. “The Pioneertown Motel is unique given its old Hollywood history and open desert landscape.”

Pioneertown was built in 1946 in the San Bernardino High Desert as a film set by the 'King of Cowboys', actor Roy Rogers. The town's original motel – built to house performing actors – has become a trendy bolthole for cool Californians. “We find that our customer is looking for an escape in both place and time, and our property offers a transportive experience inviting guests to imagine the many eras of this legendary desert sprawl,” explains French.

Savvy style to UK's roadside

But it's not just stateside which has seen an upturn in the motel market. In February, Mollie's Motel and Diner opened in Buckland, Oxfordshire, the latest venture from the Soho House group. “The roads are busier than ever, but the roadside hasn’t really changed,” says Nick Jones, Founder and Chief Executive of the Soho House group. “We’ve taken on board the motel idea of a convenient place to stop over with affordable prices. At Mollie’s the rooms are simple and stylish, they have all the things I think are most important if you’re stopping on the roadside or passing through with family – comfortable king-size beds, powerful rainforest showers, air-conditioning.”

Modern technology meets retro style

Of course, with Soho House behind the brand, Mollie's is much more than just a place for weary travellers to rest. The 79-room purpose-built motel is light and contemporary with mid-century modern furnishings, while the adjoining Fifties-style diner is modern and slick, and serves classic American diner food, craft beers and cocktails. “If all goes well, I want to open more around the UK on the roadside and in city centres. We’re looking at opening another motel and diner near Bristol, and a city centre Mollie’s in Manchester. It will have all the same values – affordable style, comfortable rooms, mobile booking and check-in, but each one will be slightly different,” says Jones. With plans to roll out Mollie's Motels across the UK, it could be just the shake up Britain's roadside accommodation needs.

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  • Boutique motels can offer affordable style and a homely service as an alternative to bigger chains
  • Older motels are often uniquely designed and the smaller, more humble settings can offer comfort and intimacy
  • Use modern technology such as personalised apps to create a more streamlined experience from booking rooms, reserving tables and payment right through to keyless room entry
  • Style it right and modern motels can still offer a flash of nostalgia which makes guests feel comfortable and at home