Putting the Motel in Hotels

When design hotels first appeared in the ’80s, with their stylish bars, big-name designers, and excessive tariffs, many of us could have been forgiven for thinking that they were merely places to stare at in the pages of books such as the Hip Hotels series.
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But recent developments in the hotel market mean that stylish, contemporary rooms may soon be accessible to all of us when we pull off the highway on a business trip or plan a weekend getaway.

Design hotels were initially seen as top-end luxury accommodations, but their success has made us look again at the places where we stay, meaning that chains and budget innovators are all investigating how they can replicate the boutique experience on a shoestring.  

No stranger to success at the lower end of the market, easyGroup pioneered the budget-airline industry in the U.K. with its easyJet brand, and is now launching a contemporary hotel in central London with rooms available from a thrifty $9 per night. Like easyJet’s airplane seats, easyHotel’s beds are cheaper the further in advance you book them, with online booking encouraged through discounts. Rooms are modern, if spartan, but the real innovation comes in what is considered an extra. At easyHotel almost everything will be an extra, including towels, toiletries, and maid service.

You’re not expected to sweep your own floor or provide your own bedding at the glamorous 25hours in Hamburg, Germany, though something of the same mind-set prevails, with tiny toiletries kept at reception with price tags affixed rather than placed in your room (and later smuggled away in your luggage). The hotel is a riot of expensive-looking ’60s space-age design, but it’s very much a part of the budget-boutique hotel movement, offering rooms for $128 a night and weekend specials to the under-26 crowd for $76.       

Yotel, another new London hotel set to launch in 2006 by the group behind YO! Sushi—a hip U.K. chain of inexpensive restaurants in the United Kingdom that serve sushi from conveyor belts—has taken radical steps to bring in stylish central London rooms for $130 a night. The compact rooms, which are just 112 square feet, were inspired by Japanese capsule hotels, but the most unexpected aspect of their design is that the pod-style rooms have windows that face a light-filled corridor rather than the outside world. This allows for future Yotels to be fitted as prefabricated units in otherwise unattractive locations, such as airports, industrial units, or even underground, thus allowing them to occupy inexpensive or undesirable real estate.

But it’s not just younger businesses that are taking on the challenge of making a budget stay a more attractive proposition—established chain hotels are nearly all looking into how they can grab a piece of this market. Perhaps foremost among them is Best Western, which has been experimenting with modern interiors in Europe and the U.S. These new hotels offer stylish seating, flattering lighting, and enough pillows to smother a soccer team while leaving out expensive-to-operate extras like room service and nightclubs. (The latter is probably something of a relief for many anyway, considering the number of complaints I’ve heard from those staying in design hotels who were kept awake by the heavy bass thud from six floors down—or next door.)

Best Western is being closely followed by InterContinental, which is pitching its Hotel Indigo in Atlanta, with other cities to follow, as being like your favorite retail outlet (think Banana Republic).

Choice Hotels, which owns Econo Lodge and Comfort Inn, among many others, has also jumped aboard the bandwagon by rolling out a design sub-brand with rooms at around $100 a night.

It can only be a matter of time now before Motel 6 announces its plans for a Starck-inspired makeover and starts casting the security guards and dressing them in Prada.


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