Barista-brewed coffee and Traeger grills weren’t the amenities Rosie Reynolds and her husband Joe were expecting from a motel. “There are a lot of dubious qualities associated with motels,” says Joe, a Los Angeles-based brand strategist. But in pandemic times, there are also a lot of appealing qualities, such as limited indoor facilities and never having to share a corridor with other travelers.

But on a recent road trip along the West Coast, the Reynoldses, both in their early 30s, decided to base themselves at motels due to the affordability, proximity to towns, and ease of social distancing. In Bend, Ore., and Mt. Shasta, Calif., they booked stays at Loge Camps, a three-year-old hospitality brand that flips roadside inns into eco-minded retreats for outdoor enthusiasts. At both locations, the couple was pleasantly surprised to find grounds scattered with fire pits, hammocks, and bike-tuning stations—along with in-room comforts such as Rumpl blankets and complimentary trail mix. But it was the level of service that truly won them over.

“To navigate the challenges of coronavirus, Loge sent emails prior to our visit, which provided all details for a safe, contactless stay,” says Joe, noting such smart service innovations as DIY housekeeping kits and a new SMS text system for obtaining advice on local breweries or under-the-radar hikes.

The Reynoldses aren’t the only ones suddenly interested in renovated trucker hangouts. “Motels provide fewer opportunities for encounters with staff or guests. There’s no lobby traffic. You don’t have to use an elevator to reach your room,” explains Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of University at Buffalo’s infectious disease division. You can avoid people altogether when going between car and room.

All this, plus locations that are almost always near major cities, make motels some of the safest, most convenient accommodations for the current circumstances. That might be why many motels are enjoying sold-out summers while more traditional U.S. hotels averaged around 40% occupancy for the month of June, according to STR, a data company specializing in hospitality. What’s more, staying in a motel doesn’t require downgrading your travel style: High-design motels—some with prices that rival boutique hotels—have been on an ascendant trend since well before the pandemic.

Motels Reimagined
Across the country, hoteliers have been updating motels with upscale interiors, hiring boldface names to create interesting food and cocktail menus, and adding resort-like amenities.

At Loge Camps, which has five hotels along the West Coast, that also means outdoor movie nights and a charitable spirit; portions of each stay benefit nonprofits that focus on local stewardship. At Tourists, which opened last summer in North Adams, Mass., in the Berkshire Mountains, it means outdoor showers on wood-paneled decks and s’mores kits as a nightly turndown treat. At two-year-old Hotel Joaquin, in Laguna Beach, Calif., it means an on-site adventure outpost stocked with complimentary  surfboards, kayaks, and snorkel gear.

Though single- and two-floor layouts make them relatively safe, many motels are taking such further precautions as requiring reservations for pool time and providing in-room breakfast and beer deliveries.

As a result, travelers are using motels as base camps to explore the outdoors, rather than as overnight pit stops between long stretches of driving. Mike French, founder of the Pioneertown Motel, a former Old West movie set with 19 rooms near Joshua Tree National Park in California, recently introduced weekly and monthly self-guided retreats to satisfy the interest in longer stays. Guests who stay a week get two nights free, along with suggested itineraries and options to have barbecue set-ups or deliveries of produce from regional farms.

Luxury Redefined
“The big selling points of resorts—valets, concierges, formal social dinning, recreation, spas, health clubs, shopping—lose their appeal right now,” says avid traveler Rick Simonson, a 61-year-old former serial tech chief financial officer who now advises privately held technology companies while splitting his time between Dallas and Telluride, Colo. “Elevators, poorer ventilation, and lobbies at a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express now seem risky, too,” he adds.

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