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Motels are having a moment. It's a coronavirus thing

Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

After many years of being looked down on, motels are getting new respect in the era of social distancing.

Guests at open-corridor inns may come and go without passing through crowded lobbies, packed elevators or enclosed hallways where viruses may linger.

"In outdoor corridors, people feel safe," said Mike Riverside of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. "People can go directly to their rooms" and potentially reduce exposure to the coronavirus.

Outdoor-facing, low-rise motels and hotels also stand to benefit from being typically reached by car, unlike big resorts and urban hotels that rely on air travel to deliver most guests. With many still apprehensive about flying, drive-to destinations are widely expected to be the first beneficiaries of the gradual return of pleasure jaunts away from home.

"There is pent-up demand for leisure travel and nobody is too excited to share an elevator," said Patrick Scholes, an analyst who follows the lodging and leisure industries for investment bank SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. "For the moment, it definitely does give you an advantage" to have outdoor corridors in your hotel.

Inns where every guest's front door opens to the elements loom large in the collective memories of Americans, but they are for the most part relics of the 20th century car culture that gave middle-class people the chance to explore their country. At the beginning of auto travel, overnight options were mostly limited to proper city-style hotels or camping near the side of the road.

 

Soon bare-bones "cabin camps" made up of individual shacks sprang up around rural gas stations. Many were so primitive that mattresses and sheets cost extra.

By the 1930s, according to Smithsonian Magazine, a classier alternative emerged known as cottage courts, made up of tiny cookie-cutter cottages built around a public lawn. Gas stations and restaurants began to appear nearby, and the freedom of the road gained a romantic allure.

The golden era came in the years after World War II when the country was prosperous and President Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway system had yet to be completed. Motel, a portmanteau of "motor" and "hotel," became the common term for the inns appearing along Route 66 and other undulating roads that passed through the centers of town after town.

By the 1960s, interstate highways became the preferred venue for car travel, and the motel boom winked out. Open-corridor hotels and motels came to be viewed by guests as less safe than competitors with lobbies and indoor halls.

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