The Great American Motel

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Boorstin could have expanded his comment to embrace the globe, but in any case it is unlikely the chains would take umbrage. For aside from a splash of local color in the bar, a high degree of uniformity and consistency is precisely what they seek. They long ago learned that weary salesmen and parents with youngsters squabbling in the back seat are in no mood to experiment, and the chains go to great lengths to ensure that such travelers will find everything just as they expect it—from the softness of the beds to the canned farewell of the waitress. (“Thank you. Have a nice day. It’s been a pleasure to serve you.”) Holiday Inns has its own “university” to drill its standards into employees, and company inspectors pay unannounced visits. If a franchise holder repeatedly fails to make the grade, he risks the loss of his Holiday Inn sign—known within the company as the “Great Sign.”

For years motels grew ever more elaborate. By the 1960’s some had not one but two or three pools for guests not to swim in. Auditoriums drew the convention trade, and in Florida the dog kennels were air-conditioned. Another trend was for motels to move into downtown and become multistory motor inns. In these the already blurred distinctions between motels and hotels just about disappeared. The rates often didn’t differ much from those charged by hotels, guests could no longer park their cars outside their doors, and bellboys on the alert for tips hovered anxiously. All the amenities of a hotel were available, including the fifteen-minute wait to check out in the morning. One lingering difference was that parking remained free at motor inns, whereas most hotels charged for it. Another, less appealing difference was that most motels were cheaply built compared with traditional hotels—and their transient, insubstantial quality was somehow more conspicuous in the city than on the highway. Motor inns do not age like the Plaza.

A more recent development has been a new generation of motels that dispense with some of the frills and charge half the price of the fancier places. We are too spoiled to want to go back to the drab little shacks by the railroad tracks, but the promoters of the cut-rate motels are nevertheless onto something. A cheap, comfortable, casual tourist accommodation was a good idea when Model T’s went chugging down the highway, and it still is.

Checking in With Nabokov