If you want to check out one of the latest trends in travel and hospitality commercial property, you could watch Schitt’s Creek, but why not actually try the motel experience for real?
It’s getting easier. Motels are back, not just on the acclaimed Emmy-Award winning TV series, but also in real life, across North America. Entrepreneurs and developers are rediscovering the virtues of mid-20th-century roadside inns that had been slowly fading away, and the opportunities to reimagine them for travellers as pandemic restrictions ease.
In Thornbury, Ont., Penny’s Motel, built in 1974, reopened on July 1 as a retro-style boutique, and its owners say it has been doing brisk business all summer. They say their goal is to recapture the ambience of a family road trip, while updating the experience with luxuries such as high thread-count sheets, sleek new décor, hipster outdoor activities, gourmet room service and a wine list.
It seems to be working so far, says John Belknap, co-owner of Toronto financial district restaurant John and Sons Oyster House, who bought the 13-room motel last year with two partners at one of the riskiest times for purchasing a travel property – in 2020.
“We hit a sweet spot with our timing by opening this July. The lockdowns started to ease a bit then and people are looking to travel, but they don’t want to go too far and they want to be safe,” Mr. Belknap says.
According to CoStar Group, a commercial real estate analytics firm, in July, 2021, Canada’s hotel industry reported its highest monthly performance levels since the pandemic began. During the year and a half up to then, more than two-thirds of Canada’s hotel rooms were vacant, international travel to Canada dropped by 93 per cent and revenues per available room, a key industry indicator, was down by 60 per cent.
Now, properties in smaller centres and resort areas like Thornbury (near Georgian Bay) have been showing the strongest comeback growth, said Laura Baxter, CoStar Group’s director of hospitality analytics for Canada.
I think people like the idea of being able to drive up, not be in a lot of indoor spaces and not have to get in an elevator.— John Belknap, retro motel owner
“Rates at hotels in small towns exceeded 2019 levels by 1 per cent, which was the first indicator to reach prepandemic levels. Rates in resort locations also showed strong growth, reaching [average daily rates of] $251, up from $182 in June,” Ms. Baxter says.
The posted rate for rooms at Penny’s ranges from $225 to $425 a night.
Penny’s is far from the only entrant in what appears to be a growing retro motel market. In 2016, businesswomen Sarah Sklash and April Brown redid the Sportsman Motel in Prince Edward County into the June Motel, with 16 rooms.
Last year, the business partners repeated with an even bigger June Motel in Sauble Beach, with 24 rooms, a pool, restaurant, gift shop, lounge – and a new six-part Netflix series about their project called Motel Makeover.
Also in Prince Edward County, guests have been flocking to the Drake Motor Inn and its companion, the Drake Devonshire, both leisureland offshoots of the ultrahip Drake Hotel in Toronto’s Queen Street West district.
Mr. Belknap and his partners purchased Penny’s Motel to try and add their own design and management ideas to an interesting business, with financing from 13 private backers. When the partners first toured the property, it had mice, no landscaping and furniture and décor that looked like all that stuff in your grandmother’s basement.
Negotiating to buy a travel-related property at the dawn of a pandemic wasn’t easy, but the price was right – $1.17-million, or roughly the price of a modest Toronto house.
On the plus side, the location seemed optimal. Mr. Belknap is a skier and Thornbury is in the heart of Ontario’s most popular ski region. And while Penny’s doesn’t have a pool, it’s next to Georgian Bay, so the motel can do business year-round.
Old motels offer great opportunities for the imaginative. In Tofino, B.C., the hipster Hotel Zed boasts that it “oozes 1970s swank,” with a retro-decorated check-in office and its own Saturday Night Fever-style mini-disco. The Tofino Zed also pays homage to millennials by letting guests ride their bikes through the lobby and decorating the property to “look damn good on your Instagram.”
For those interested in getting into the motel game, there are still some diamonds in the rough, according to Mr. Belknap. Niagara Falls is one area with potential, he says, and there are a few left in Scarborough at the east side of Toronto.
At the same time, Mr. Belknap also warns that not every aging motel has retro potential. “You drive along the highway, and you see places where there aren’t a lot of attractions nearby and you wonder: who stays at these places? Who’s going to stay there?” he says.
While Penny’s three partners aim for the motel to be profitable, it’s also a labour of love, says co-owner Drew Sinclair, managing partner of SvN Architects (there are 11 additional partners who chipped in to obtain the property).
“I have memories of going across the country with my parents as a kid and pulling up to motels like this. You could go into the office and get doughnuts! You could play on the swings outside! You felt so free. I love that. We’re trying to recapture the feeling,” Mr. Sinclair says.
To achieve this, while also attracting modern guests, the partners have been redecorating and refitting the rooms with millennial-friendly features such as comfy king- and queen-sized beds, stylish work desks, vintage vinyl record players and a decent Wi-Fi signal.
Outside, they’re treating the property as what Mr. Sinclair calls a “curated” space – with a bocce court, communal barbecue, corn-roasting pit and an art wall that shelters the site.
Guests can get oysters and good wine from room service (because Mr. Belknap owns an oyster restaurant) and the owners are planning to put in a 15-seat restaurant. One feature they have deliberately retained from the earlier version of the motel is the old sign – it looks like a sign version of a 1970s leisure suit.
In the pandemic and, it’s hoped, postpandemic era, Mr. Belknap thinks motels might be more appealing to health-and-safety conscious customers than larger hotels and resorts.
“I think people like the idea of being able to drive up, not be in a lot of indoor spaces and not have to get in an elevator,” he says.
It’s a response that’s consistent with a prediction in a recent report on the future of hospitality by consulting firm Deloitte, which said that: “Companies have no choice but to reimagine the customer experience for the realities of the new normal.”
It’s also a normal thing to have fun and to innovate at the same time, Mr. Sinclair says.
“Penny’s is a passion project, but it’s also culturally relevant,” he says.