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(Published: 2010-11-22)

I love a good design story almost as much as I love a good night’s sleep. So, finding out about Motel 6’s “Phoenix Project” was a sweet dream.

Motel 6, once known for low price, no-frills lodging, recently won Travel & Leisure’s 2010 design award for a large hotel. Its new “Phoenix” design prototype maximizes space, utility and style. At an average of $40/night, it’s the ultimate cheap chic sleep.

Motel 6 was founded in 1962 in Santa Barbara, CA by two contractors who wanted to build motels with rooms at bargain rates. They decided on $6 a night because they could cover building costs, land leases, and janitorial supplies; hence the name “Motel 6.” The original rooms had black and white TV’s, but a special key (50 cents extra) was needed to turn it on. There were no phones in the room, but guests were welcome to use the pay phone in the lobby. No restaurant on sight either—but the ice was free. No hair dryers or clock radios, but one unique design amenity was offered: Magic Fingers was a little box affixed to the bed which would, for a quarter, shake the bed and lull you to sleep. In those days, smart operators were told to put all bikers in upstairs rooms so they wouldn’t clean their motorcycles in their rooms. Tells you something about the clientele.

It’s a whole new night’s sleep today, and a whole new customer base as well. The Accor-owned budget chain has over 1,000 motels nationwide. When the executives decided to revamp the chain’s aged look to attract more business travelers, it hired Britain’s Priestman Goode, which had previously designed the chic airplane cabins for Virgin Atlantic and cruise ship berths for Norwegian Cruise Lines. Designers were briefed to keep construction costs low and to create rooms that would appeal to everyone, from tourists to traveling executives.

It appears to be working. In the words of one happy guest, their “eyebrows did handstands” when they beheld the cheerful new rooms. The wildly colored polyester bedspreads have been replaced with subtly striped coverlets atop pedestal beds (you can store you luggage underneath—a space saving feature.) The carpeting has been ripped up and replaced with wood laminate, lending a pared down, spacious look. Ambient lighting has replaced old-fashioned lamps. Flat screen TV’s are mounted into a wall unit that also includes a laptop and iPod dock.

The bathrooms were upgraded as well. A bigger shower enclosure features a seat; the vanity features a vessel sink atop a black granite countertop. Towels are stored in round cubbies in the wall and rolled into the shape of 6’s—a nice design touch that reinforces the brand. The overall look is fresh, modern, and colorful.

The real story here is that Motel 6 managed to stay the same, only be different. The pricing position hasn’t changed--it continues to be the lowest-cost national chain. The look and feel sure are different, though. They’ll still “leave the lights on for you”—but today it’s an energy efficient LED light. Even sweeter: In a nod to Motel 6 tradition there’s still a bottle opener affixed to the granite vanity.

Thank goodness, some things never change.

NOTE: Not all properties have been upgraded to date. Look for the “Remodeled” logo to ensure a Phoenix room.



Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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