Granite countertops, solar panels ... wait, is this Motel 6?

Halloween is coming, so I'm going to kick off festivities by saying one of the scariest phrases in the English language: roadside motel.

Norman Bates may be the drag queen emblem of all things horrifying, but across America, the stained bedspreads and mildewed corners of our country's motels are, unfortunately, not the stuff of fiction. The cheapest hotels in our country are, often, the most terrifying. It's been this way for so long that many of us refuse to set foot in any hotel lower on the price scale than a Hampton Inn.
The super-budget category knows it has a severe image problem. Holiday Inn abandoned the ultra-cheap price point years ago, leaving only a few stragglers and independent names in the lowest end of the overnight market. Econo Lodge. Super 8. And the name so ubiquitous for dumpy accommodation that it's practically its own punch line: Motel 6. But not anymore. Its new room design shows it's cleaning up its act. Now, the only place you'll see Mama Bates is at Netflix.

Motel 6, has built a new room prototype near its Dallas headquarters, off I-35W. Codenamed Phoenix (because the brand hopes to rise from the ashes of its burned-out reputation), it's a re-imagining of American budget hotel rooms. Granite counters and low-flow toilets in the bathroom. Smart use of space through mini-sofas slotted in previously misused corners. There are 32-inch flat-screen LCD TVs on the walls, solar panels soaking up energy on the roof, floors made of 80% recycled materials, and free Wi-Fi throughout. The whole building is angled away from the Western sun to keep it cooler in the summer.

Most Americans may think of run-down roadside motels as quintessentially American, and that Motel 6 is just joining an empty trend. In truth, the new design owes a lot to Europe, where budget hotel chains -- Ibis, Travelodge, Premier Inn, Etap, and others -- are a dominant and completely respectable force. Ibis hotels, for example, are famous for serving fresh-baked baguettes each morning.

Motel 6 is owned by French company Accor, which also owns Ibis, and the shift in design marks the importation of something that has been common and successful in Europe for years. There, crash pads can be both cheap and stylish (and often, unusually orange in color), and thanks to clever European design, don't quickly acquire signs of the gloomy neglect that plague our own budget hotels.

The price? Forty bucks on many nights.

The per-room cost to Motel 6 has been reported as $43,000, which is significant when you're talking about something people will pay $40 a night for, so it will be a while before budget travelers see this type of Motel 6 off every highway. But if Europe's budget brands are a guide, this style will eventually dominate.

Granted, budget hotels are only as good as the people who run them -- and it's a lot harder to change sloppy management. If operators let them get run-down and dirty, it will be back to square one for the super-budget motel category, which will then have to contend with a reputation as squalid and sparse.

I have to wonder how long it will take to smear unidentified stains on those attractive, bright orange bedspreads. But if the low-rent rooms in America continue to catch on to the general European trend, cheap road-trippers could be headed for some respect once again.
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