Discover more from Really Good Buildings
Designing an EV-native travel hub concept
This is a snapshot of our ideas on designing a modern motel experience.
I still remember one of my first nights at a motel. In the summer of 1999, our family visited the United States and rented a car to drive from Seattle to San Francisco. The trip was magical; my brother and I climbed black rocks by the Pacific Ocean, parodied seals’ moans, ran circles around sequoias in Redwood National Park, and sang made-up tunes about McDonalds and KFC from the back seat.
One evening, we got caught in a fog so thick that we could barely see our hands outside of the window. Our parents decided to stop at the nearest motel for the night. That motel happened to be somewhere on the outskirts of Eureka, California, next to a gas station and a fast-food restaurant outfitted with bulletproof glass by the cashier. Back in our room, I was lying on my bed, wondering what kind things occurred in that room to justify wrapping the bed in plastic that thick…
There’re tens of thousands of motels in the U.S. It’s easy to find a place nearby, but difficult to find a pleasant one. Roadside motels are at best a bland and clean utility; and at worst, a soulless cash machine with a roof.
It’s a shame, really, because there was once a time when motels competed in quality, technology, services, and design — a time when motels were in the business of hospitality.
The origins of motels
Roadside accommodations became an essential need when cars started to define the American way of travel. The first auto lodging services looked more like a trailer park than a modern motel. In response to auto tourists sleeping in the fields, small towns organized dedicated territories for auto campers with picnic areas, restrooms, and centralized garbage collection.
Soon, local farmers and entrepreneurs realized there was an opportunity, and built small cottage courts to offer short stays for transient guests and vacationers. By the late 1940s, the now-familiar form of a motor court with rooms accessible from the street, all lined up under a single roof, became the new default for motels.
Motels had to constantly compete, evolving their design, amenities, and business models to keep up with technology and customer preferences. Owners pioneered new architectural forms, air conditioning, television, and other now-common in-home technologies. Brands like Holiday Inn made their ubiquitous motels family-friendly with pools, restaurants, and an explicit focus on cleanliness and safety.
For many years, motels remained primarily local mom-and-pop enterprises. The first branded experiences came from referral networks that set a standard of mapped, trusted motels to help travelers find reliable accommodations on the road.
Eventually, local motel chains and referral networks turned into nationwide corporate enterprises. A place-product-packaging approach crystallized in the industry: chains established repeatable standards for motel design, amenitization, and their operating principles.
By the 1970s-80s, gone were the glory days of the local bespoke motels and chains competing on quality. The rise of cheap air travel lured more leisure and business travelers away from the road. The dominance of place-product-packaging on interstate highways made most motels uniform and practically indistinguishable. Private equity firms started to trade and flip motel brands every few years.
Thus concluded the transformation of roadside motels from spontaneous auto camps in the farm fields to unique local hospitality products, into a bland financial commodity.
A few months ago, my friend Vasily and I met for lunch in New York. Following the Russian attack on Ukraine, Vasily had to leave Kyiv where he ran the best boutique hotel and co-working in town. As Vasily started to explore new project ideas, I’ve suggested that we take a closer look at motels.
The way people travel is changing again, creating an opportunity to reimagine roadside hospitality experience for the better. We’ve looked into a number of emerging guest behaviors that are likely to reshape demand for road trip lodging and services, from the proliferation of electric car travel, to remote work, extended stays, and changes in navigation. We then created a development concept based on these inputs and visualized it with the help of our friends at Kosmos Architects, we call it:
The Travel Hub Motel
A modern motel should accommodate different guests and use scenarios throughout the day: EV drivers stopping for a quick recharge and rest; remote workers seeking a place to concentrate for a few hours; and travelers looking to spend a night or two, located in pleasant spots off the major highways. A travel hub motel may be a home for different travelers for a few minutes, hours, or days.
This isn’t such a crazy idea if we consider modern urban hotels that combine different uses under the same roof, and provide vastly different services to various patrons at all hours. How many guests at Ace hotel lobby working on their laptops stay overnight? How many patrons of Roxy jazz club live nearby? How many visitors of BURSA Gallery also grab a drink at the bar?
This concept works well with a flexible motel system made up of functional blocks can allow owners to fine-tune the amenity mix depending on a specific location. Some places may call for a transient design with fewer leisure features and smaller communal spaces, while others may be a better fit for a private arrangement designed for longer stays.
Taking this approach to an extreme, a travel-hub-motel may act as an operations control center for glamping and cabins on nearby properties, or even public EV-charging travel stops.
EV-friendly travel stops
Electric vehicles will profoundly reshape the roadside infrastructure. Obviously, any modern motel should guarantee abundant overnight charging, but it shouldn’t stop there.
Electric cars change travel behavior on long-distance road trips. Even with fast chargers, stops last much longer than with gasoline-driven cars, increasing from 10 to 30+ minutes. It may not matter much how a gas station looks and feels (although finding one with clean restrooms is as much art as science these days), but with electric cars, the rest stop experience matters.
It means that EV rest stops may become closer to the business of hospitality than that of convenience stores. That certainly isn’t the case today, as many EV charging stations are located in remote parking lots or near shops that close for the night. The number of times I had to look for the bushes during a nighttime charge is frankly embarrassing.
This is obviously a subpar experience and a transitionary phase of the electric roadside infrastructure. Charging companies are in the complex infrastructure business; hospitality is not their core competence. That makes hospitality companies uniquely positioned to reimagine the charging experience and partner with these infrastructure providers.
We’re seeing a glimpse of that future from companies like Stack Charge, a U.S. land development startup with a dozen EV rest stops in the pipeline; bkWorld, a European manufacturer of prefab rest pods that has partnered with Tesla; and Electrify America, one of the leading charging infrastructure providers that is testing its own lounges.
Using a motel as an operations hub for EV rest stops makes sense. It helps relieve the economic pressure of remote maintenance by sharing labor and supplies, and treats rest stops as the hospitality products they should be.
Work + leisure
A modern motel should have comfortable co-working spaces accessible to overnight and daytime guests. Working on the road should feel just as convenient as working back at the office. In the U.S., trips combining business with leisure (now referred to as “bleisure”) are projected to grow by 19.5% annually, while 88% percent of such trips will be domestic.
Co-working spaces in select locations may create additional revenue streams for motels, from day use by locals. It may resemble the business model of Daybase, a co-working operator explicitly targeting small towns to facilitate hybrid work.
Beautiful locations, off the main highway
The rise of bleisure may prolong the time that guests stay in one place, and make surroundings more important.
Motels have often been clustered on major highways, to be visible directly from the road. Their large signs were a necessity in the pre-mobile era, when a traveler would see a vacancy sign and pull into the parking lot. It made sense at the time, but it resulted in motels facing the loud highway, surrounded by a sea of parking, gas stations, and road infrastructure. It may be a convenient location, but it is an unpleasant one, especially for longer stays.
Today, phones make highway signs redundant and allow motels to be located in relatively more picturesque areas off major highways. Travelers research and plan their overnight stops on their phones in advance and a quick detour to a better location is no longer an issue. This makes it possible for modern motels to be located farther from the major highways in relatively nicer areas.
American landscape is beautiful. Road trips are spectacular. Yet, most motels are ugly.
A modern motel must be designed with taste. I find the importance of good architecture to be self-evident, but there’s a rational reason for it as well. Design-oriented hotels outperform the competition by 7% in occupancy and up to 65% higher average daily rate.
Good design will also help motels to be a compelling substitute to international travel. Surprisingly, in a survey conducted by Booking, 1/4 of respondents said that they chose to travel to a destination closer to home to reduce their carbon footprint. The more people that choose to vacation by car instead of flying, the more the motel experience matters.
Of course, beauty and taste are subjective; some may find repulsive what I find appealing. And that’s alright, I’d be happy to see more experimentation in roadside hospitality with different takes on beauty and taste.
Other motel experiments
This wouldn’t be the first or the only attempt at reimagining a modern motel.
New Extended-Stay Brands
In the last couple of years, hospitality conglomerates started introducing new brands that try to combine leisure and work and refresh their amenities; for example, IHG’s Atwell Suites, Radisson Inn & Suites, and Choice’s Everhome Suites.
The Atwell Suites prototype includes a large shared business lounge, EV charging, and a revamped design. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but personally, I find these products to be too incremental and close to the status quo.
Tech-enabled startups and boutiques
FieldStation is the most relevant case of reimagining a motel as a mixed-use activity center. It converts old motels into an upscale motel with a service center for outdoor adventures, including equipment rental, guided tours, etc. It’s a new brand by Autocamp, a company with origins in upscale Airstream getaways.
Life House is the most prominent tech-enabled property manager working with motels across different price points. However, unlike in their bespoke ground up properties, LifeHouse is typically constrained by motels’ legacy building and has a limited ability to reshape them to meet all modern demands.
Hoteliers have also been restoring and converting select, independent vintage motels into upscale boutique properties. These are great projects, but they are typically located in remote places and have a high daily price, making them more of a final destination than a casual stop on a road trip.
Motels are so common that we almost forget they are there. This humble staple of the American roadside hospitality has potential to become a travel center for a new generation of road travelers. Motels can help a passerby recharge in comfort. Motels can enable productive work on the road. Motels can power hospitality operations for nearby properties. Motels can be cool and beautiful again. Motels can revive their hospitality spirit. Motels can once again make road trips magical.
As Vasily and I continue to explore this concept further, we’d love to learn from experts in the field, such as hotel developers, owners and operators of midrange motels, and operators of EV charger networks. Please reach out to me or Vasily if you know someone who may be interested in discussing this idea. You can also help by spreading the word and sharing this article.
Subscribe if you’d like to receive future articles exploring the intersection of architecture, technology, and real estate.
With gratitude to Kosmos Architects for collaboration on architectural concept and visualizations; and to Vasily, Cam Houser, Helen Jiang, Shubham Khoje, and Chris Wong for feedback on earlier drafts of this article.