285 | ‘Allure of the Door’: Exterior-corridor hotels trending in COVID-19 pandemic

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Almost overnight, the roadside motel is a hot commodity. Travelers are going by car and when they stop they want the safest stay possible so they’re gravitating to exterior-corridor accommodations.

Nostalgia for road tripping steers travelers to safe-haven motels

Vishal Patel and Sunny Patel live in Tucson, Arizona, and wanted to develop a hotel that captured the outdoorsy ethos of the Sunset State.

A couple years ago, they acquired an economy motel along a main street in downtown Tucson with plans to redevelop it into a hip gathering place for locals and visitors.

The fact that the property is exterior corridor played into the partners’ buying decision.

Today, as the coronavirus pandemic has made health and safety the number-one amenity sought by guests, Vishal and Sunny have hit pay dirt.

Exterior corridor properties shunned over the past decade by many major franchisers have a new shine as travelers shy away from close human contact in fear of contracting COVID-19, the virus caused by the new coronavirus.

Click here to listen to episode 285

SUNSHINE + SAFETY: Vishal Patel and Sunny Patel opened their independent boutique hotel, The Tuxon, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The exterior-corridor property has attracted guests who have made safety and security top priorities during their stay. Having outside access to their rooms is a favored amenity.

The 112-room independent motel, renamed The Tuxon, caters to visitors’ heightened awareness of how the illness is spread. The design goes a long way to ease guests’ worry that they’ll unwittingly be exposed to the virus.

Bryan Tubaugh is executive vice president at Focus Hospitality Management, manager of The Tuxon. He said while the hotel’s outdoor accessibility is definitely a selling point to travelers, it’s usually not until after guests arrive do they realize the benefit of being able to access their room without going through a lobby.

“One of the things that we’re finding is guests don’t really choose the hotel because of the exterior corridor. However, when they arrive they realize, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is something we should take into consideration the next time we travel,’” Tubaugh said.

Because guests can drive to their room’s front door, use mobile check-in and even order food and beverage via an app, the services create an “Aha moment” because of the safety it all provides, he said.

LISTEN: ‘ALLURE OF THE DOOR’: Hospitality leaders celebrate the comeback of exterior-corridor hotels that give travelers a greater sense of control during the coronavirus pandemic and advise on how you can prepare your property to receive guests who value safety and certainty.

The Tuxon is a conversion project. It was once a Motel 6. After a few weeks of watching the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on travel and guest preferences, the owners decided to add an indoor-outdoor bar and lounge to the original plans. They also were able to expand the floor space to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

The hotel has gated access that assures only staff and guests are on property, which adds an extra element of safety in the coronavirus age.

Besides the hotel’s layout and messaging that promotes safety, Arizona’s reputation for wellness is also a big selling point.

“It’s funny, a lot of business travelers in the past would really frown on exterior corridor and now … we can really tie that into the natural outdoor setting that Arizona has to offer from the marketing standpoint,” Tubaugh said.

“The messaging is saying we’re offering a safe environment while also the safety and wellbeing from being outside.”

”THE CAR IS KING’: MMGY Intelligence reports prospective travelers plan to go by personal vehicle in the next six months.

More For the Road

MMGY Travel Intelligence reported in August that most of the 1,200 would-be vacationers it surveyed plan to travel by car during the next six months. The 73 percent of respondents over 18 years of age who plan a road trip is up by 6 percent compared to a similar survey in July.

These days, travel consumers rank health and safety as the number-one guest amenity in the age of COVID-19. And they feel more in control behind the wheel versus on an airline or cruise ship.

“The car is king,” says Andrew Alexander, president of Red Roof.

The chain’s older chalet-style hotels are seeing a resurgence in popularity as the company benefits from several consumer-driven trends in the COVID-19 age: The perceived safety of exterior corridor properties; the emergence of the essential traveler; the attraction of affordable hotel rates in an economic downturn; and leisure travelers’ desire for a road trip.

Occupancy at Red Roof’s exterior corridor hotels is higher than their interior colleagues.

“About 65 percent or about two thirds of our properties are exterior corridor and those properties are outperforming our interior corridor properties by 14 percent,” Alexander said. “It’s statistically significant.”

Driving the awareness are guests’ posts on social media that highlight the perceived health and safety benefits of being able to access their rooms from the outside.

“Exterior corridor is back in vogue and we haven’t been able to say that for 20 or 30 years. It’s quite exciting,” Alexander said. “I think that will create some long-term loyalty because (guests) will have good experiences at our hotels and they’ll say, ‘Why is that not an option for me going forward?’ I think we’ll see some good residual results.”

LONG HAUL: MMGY Intelligence reports vacationers who plan to travel in their personal vehicles will drive farther than they did in pre-pandemic days.

Outdoorsy Brand Standards

Another company that’s looking to the future with exterior corridor hotels is Red Lion Hotels Corp.

Harry Sladich is executive vice president of lodging development and franchise operations at Red Lion Hotels. He said the timing is perfect to expand the brand and its outdoorsy image. After all, exterior corridor properties have long been part of Red Lion Hotels’ brand culture.

About 20 percent of Red Lion Hotels’ inventory is exterior corridor. One of its original brands, Red Lion Inn and Suites was designed as exterior corridor and it fed into the company’s Pacific Northwest outdoorsy ethos.

The company still values its exterior corridor hotels.

“As a brand, we were never opposed or had any intention of sun-setting the exterior corridor hotel because it really with fits with where the brand came from,” Sladich said. “We thought we could take advantage of a lot of the bigger brands deciding all of sudden the exterior corridor hotel is detrimental to their brand image. We never thought they were detrimental or obsolete.”

Guests of Red Lion Inn and Suites and its other exterior-corridor-friendly brands such as Signature Inn, America’s Best Value Inn and Knights Inn attract the proverbial road trippers – AAA members, families seeking an affordable vacation, car and motorcycle clubs who want their vehicles outside their doors, and folks who don’t want to haul their luggage through a lobby. “The newest thing now is to avoid the elevators,” Sladich said. “You know, there’s a saying by Confucius: ‘Study the past if you want to divine the future.’”

Sladich points to the genesis of roadside motels, noting their number began to grow in the mid-1950s when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act that financed the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.

Hotels began to pop up along the highways. “They were in great strategic locations and they haven’t moved,” Sladich said. “That’s why we see value in them.”

To take advantage of the opportunity found in with the mid-century motels, Red Lion Hotels a few years ago re-launched Signature Inn.

The brand was mothballed by a previous owner and revived by the former Vantage Hospitality Group. After Red Lion Hotels acquired Vantage Hospitality’s brands in 2016, it rolled out Signature as an upper-economy to midscale conversion brand with a hip mid-century design vibe to appeal to younger travelers.

Other Red Lion Hotels brands heavy with exterior corridor properties are America’s Best Value Inn and Knights Inn.

The franchiser added nearly 1,000 ABVIs to its inventory when it bought Vantage Hospitality. In 2018, Red Lion Hotels acquired the Knights Inn brand from Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, adding about 350 hotels.

With about 900 of the hotels remaining in Red Lion Hotels’ system, Sladich said the properties are candidates for conversions to Signature Inn.

Road tripping is popular and Sladich expects it to stay that way for some time.

He advises hotels and motels how to attract and serve today’s road warriors.

“All of our marketing has been geared to the road trip,” he said. “We are telling our hotels to pay attention to that.” Hotels can offer amenities such as water for the road. Staff members should find out what’s open in the area and be able to suggest places guests can visit during their stay.

He advises that hotels “play off the nostalgia” of the road trip. He remembers when he was a boy, his family had a Bingo game with which he and his siblings would check off items they saw while on the road.

“Hotels can do a lot of things to really play into the road trip,” he said. “It will help them win positive reviews and return business.”

HOUSTON NEW BUILD: Super 8 by Wyndham debuted in 1974 as a roadside exterior-corridor motor inn. Today, its reputation as an affordable stay continues but what’s interesting says brand leader Michael Mueller is the number of Super 8s recently opened or under construction that are exterior corridor like this Super 8 Houston Northwest Cypress that serves oilfield workers.

Blue-Collar Wisdom

When Wyndham Hotels & Resorts sold Knights Inn it may have reduced its inventory, but it did not weaken its fondness for exterior-corridor hotels.

Michael Mueller, president of Super 8 at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, said about one quarter of Wyndham’s franchised hotels in the U.S. are exterior corridor. And most of those are select-service brands such as Super 8, Days Inn, Travelodge, Howard Johnson, all in the economy segment, and Baymont Inn, a midscale brand.

Most of the economy properties were launched as motor inns, Mueller said. Travelodge in 1940, Howard Johnson in 1964, and Super 8 in 1974. “They were designed for the road warrior, and they continue to serve guests’ needs.”

As the coronavirus pandemic heightens travelers’ sensibilities regarding health and safety, today’s transient traveler is “realizing what the blue-collar guest knew all along,” Mueller said. Exterior-corridor properties are convenient and reduce access to other travelers.

He noted owners seeing high occupancy include those catering to health care workers who want to avoid bringing the coronavirus home to their families. “These heroes can pull in any hour of the night without having any guest interaction. I think that says it all.”

For the past few years, all of Wyndham’s legacy economy brands have been undergoing modernization through redesigns that continue to attract travelers who value the properties’ architecture as well as the price.

As older exterior corridor properties become a renewed guest attraction, Wyndham is licensing newly built exterior-corridor Super 8s.

Though exterior corridor “conjures up an image of an older hotel,” Mueller said nearly half of the Super 8 hotels under construction in the past two years are exterior corridor. In many cases, such as in the oil fields of West Texas, the properties serve a niche demographic.

“I had a conversation with a developer just last year who couldn’t believe we were still building exterior-corridor hotels. He thought I was joking,” Mueller said. “But here’s the punchline: Super 8s are getting significantly more than their fair share of RevPAR. In some markets they’re seeing a 100 percent RevPAR index and in others it’s 150 to 200 percent RevPAR index.

“If you would have told me last year that exterior corridor hotels would be in vogue in 2020, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “But here we are in a new world.”

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