It used to be commonplace for weary vacationers to pull off the highway late at night and have no trouble spotting a comfortable motor lodge where they could get a good night’s rest at a reasonable price.
It was a convenient, easy way to travel. But as the decades passed, road trippers began to shift their attention and dollars from motor lodges with the brightly lit “vacancy” sign to emerging hotel chains and luxury resorts.
In 1964, motor lodges — or small motels — were ubiquitous, with approximately 61,000 of such properties scattered across the country, according to “No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise and Reprise of America’s Motels” by Mark Okrant. As of 2012, that number had fallen to about 16,000 operating motels.
Now, historians are signifying a desire to reclaim “something of the motel spirit not yet entirely lost,” according to the Smithsonian.com, as reported on the website of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That spirit is evidenced in several states throughout the country, including Texas, Louisiana, Wyoming, Florida, New York and California, as reported last week in USA Today.
In the North Bay, three motor lodges have reemerged with a new look that blends nostalgia with the modern age.
The Astro Motel
It was in 1963 when The Astro Motel popped up along Santa Rosa Avenue in a neighborhood known today as SOFA, or the South A Street Art District.
Over the years, the neighborhood declined, as did the property. Efforts to revive The Astro proved unsuccessful until 2016, when Santa Rosa-based Spinster Hospitality bought the property with the intention of preserving its history, but with a fresh spin.
“Our take on the motor lodge is actually to take away the parking lot and make it this beautiful lush courtyard instead, so it can be more for people to sit and enjoy and interact,” said Liza Hinman, who, along with Santa Rosa native Eric Anderson, own Spinster Hospitality. Indeed, on-site parking is limited, with additional parking spaces nearby.
The pair also made The Astro a haven for bike enthusiasts by working closely with Andy Hampsten, a Giro d’Italia cycling champion who has a minor investment in the company. The Astro has Shinola bikes on-site for rental, with staff who can assemble and make basic repairs.
Spinster Hospitality made a $10 million investment in the 34-room motel, consisting of the purchase price, construction, furnishings, and the entire permitting process for reopening the motel, Hinman said. She declined to disclose the purchase price, but said the construction aspect alone was $5 million.
“The south wing was taken down to the studs,” Hinman said. “There was a lot of dry rot and abuse over the years.” The other side of the property had been mostly renovated by the previous owner, so work consisted mainly of cosmetic improvements, she said.
Although the former owner was unable to revive the property, he already had open construction permits from the city, which sped up the renovation process, allowing the partners to more quickly get to work on modernizing the motor lodge, Hinman said.
“We have a real appreciation of simple and modern design that’s comfortable but a little bit cheeky at the same time, and has a little bit of fun,” Hinman said. “We also are really big into respecting and reusing buildings that already exist, rather than new construction.”
Thinking about investing in a motel?
Have an overnight stay: Visit the motel, and see what it is like to stay overnight. A lack of quality in certain areas can argue for a lower purchase price.
Location: The location of a motel can have a huge impact on its future performance. Keep these ideas in mind:
Visibility: Is the motel easily visible from the street or highway? Is it easy to get to?
Nearby attractions: How close is the motel to airports, amusement parks, tourist attractions, concert venues, conference centers, entertainment, dining, malls, and corporate headquarters?
Market conditions: Is the population growing? Are new attractions such as sports stadiums, conference centers or corporate offices under development?
Competition: How many other motels are nearby? Do research on these motels. Try to get an idea of their room rate, occupancy, and reputation.
Barriers to entry: Is there anything stopping future competition? Some barriers to entry can include lack of reasonably priced land and lack of hospitality-zoned land.
Source: U.S. Small Business Administration