More than a few frequent travellers are burned out on the excessive and often obsequious “service” that passes for true hospitality these days. Sometimes I’d rather press my trousers myself than deal with the hassle of calling housekeeping, answering the door to a valet and getting dinged with a hefty charge.
In the last decade, forward-thinking hoteliers have re-invented the category known in the industry as select-service, commonly dubbed motels by road warriors.
Ever since automobiles hit the freeways en masse in the 1950s, North American tourists have demanded the convenience of a door-side parking lot, quick food and drinks and a no-frills place to lay their heads for the night. Often located near busy airports, new generation select-service hotels can be comfy and design-savvy retreats. And they’re no longer limited to the American roadside. Here are three of our favourites:
Nearly a decade ago I stayed at the first Indigo hotel in Atlanta, an offshoot of the Intercontinental Hotel Group, which arguably started the select-service revolution (IHG has in its portfolio Holiday Inn, the original select-service chain). The clean, reliable and family-oriented motel of yore is now a “hip, cool lifestyle hotel,” according to the brand’s website.
I recently checked in to the location near YYZ in Toronto and found the same beach-y scent and vibe – from the blue-and-white cloudscape behind the check-in desk to the cool, calming lighting – that I remember from the flagship Indigo. The chain’s logo sometimes looks like a seashell, sometimes like an aircraft turbine. Large sepia-toned murals in the lobby and on each floor celebrate the glamourous age of air and train travel.
But this new-school motel is more than a decor scheme. My online booking request for a quiet room on a high floor away from the elevator met, I found a pleasant nature motif carrying through the experience: an autumn-themed haiku on my keycard jacket invited me do download “music of the season” and the lamps, bedspread and headboard in my room were fresh bamboo-green. The hardwood-look laminate floor, terrifically powerful glass shower and Aveda amenities made me feel like I was on holiday, even though I was on a layover.
In the morning, the bill was slipped under my door so a quick cup of in-room coffee and a fast press of my trousers got me out of the room and to the free airport shuttle on time (No time for the gym, though there was one).
On the downside, before the airport curfew kicked in the landing and takeoff noise in my room was substantial. But Indigo is a far cry from a roadside motel and I’d check in again.
When I book on its website, the W Hotels’ little sister uses groovy, casual language that sounds totally laid back – but I like that I have the credibility and reputation of Starwood behind this brand (and can use my Starpoints). Still, it’s my first cue that an Aloft stay is best enjoyed by the young, or the very young-at-heart.
The lobby in the Indigo near PHX in Phoenix looks like a more colourful W, with tons of windows and natural light in place of W’s dark sexiness, vibrant mid-century-inspired furniture and an inviting view to an outdoor pool. On the check-in desk, a note about drink specials is embedded inside a kitschy snow globe.
Very young, very friendly staff check me in as I look around the lobby, where a large self-serve food area has drinks, snacks and amenities for sale (I score a small tube of toothpaste and a big chocolate cupcake). In the morning I’ll discover they serve inexpensive hot breakfasts from a diner-style pass-through window.
My room has the pleasant, efficient design of a ship’s cabin: a built-in wardrobe with open shelving, lots of vanity space and a brilliant electronics master panel on the spacious work desk for hooking up my own laptop/MP3/PDA to the big wall-mounted flat-screen.
If this is the modern-day motel, I’ll check in…every night. At just over US$100, my Aloft stay was a steal. But the cons – blaring retro music in the lobby, a rowdy amateur sports team that dominated the lounge space and pool – might be deterrents for more conservative travellers.
Radisson is one of the most American hotel brands, founded in Minneapolis in 1909. It recently took over the European chain of SAS hotels that the eponymous airline so successfully branded in Arne Jacobsen’s mode of cool Danish design, renaming them Radisson Blu (a brand that the company is now, incidentally, bringing to North America).
You’ll find properties in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I checked into the Belfast location recently, a hip brick-encased building a few minutes by foot from downtown and a short cab ride from the airport.
Now, Radisson Blu dubs itself a “full-service luxury” hotel chain, but the hallmarks of select-service are there: a surface-level parking lot right outside the door, limited facilities (no gym on site) and in-room amenities (ironing board, coffee station – with biscuits!) that aren’t typical of most European luxury hotels.
Blu aspires to more than select-service but doesn’t necessarily deliver. Its Italian restaurant, Fillini, shows gourmet ambitions but served me a soggy, cardboard-tasting pizza. But if I look at it as a design hotel experience for a motel price, Blu – with its efficient, cab-hailing doorman, a fair currency-exchange rate at the front desk and North American-style creature comforts – makes me feel happy indeed.
Indigo and Aloft have proven that, in North America, this venerable hospitality genre is ripe for reinvention – now chains like Super 8, Red Roof Inn and even the Holiday Inn are getting brand makeovers. Overseas, Radisson Blu shows that even at the European design-hotel level, travellers love the convenience – and price – of select-service.