Do the motels of the past have a future in a post-Covid world?

The Sunrise Sands Beach Resort in Fort Pierce, Fla., is an example of the open-corridor style that is temporarily in demand because of Covid travel habits.
The Sunrise Sands Beach Resort in Fort Pierce, Fla., is an example of the open-corridor style that is temporarily in demand because of Covid travel habits. Photo Credit: Premier Hotel Realty
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

A style of small hotel once popular in Florida has gained new life in the pandemic but has a doubtful future once normality returns.

Anyone who grew up when the station wagon roamed the highways is no doubt familiar with the properties, ubiquitous in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, characterized by their open-air corridors and exterior staircases. Warm weather vacation destinations like Florida and California were filled with them.

These types of motel properties have struggled to compete in recent times, both because they have aged and because of some perceived drawbacks. But in the past year, demand has been on the rise for exterior corridor hotels as a solution to travel during Covid.

As more visitors come to Florida by car, they are searching out lodgings where they can feel isolated from other guests and staff. Lacking a central access point and lobby, the open-corridor design enables guests to pull up right to the door of their room. Also appealing is the lack of interior hallways that have to be navigated with limited air circulation.

"This type of hotel property is still quite common in Florida, not only because of the weather but because we have properties that are from an era in which that architectural style was prolific and well suited to our environment," said Richard Tobin, principal at Premier Hotel Realty, a hotel brokerage in Deerfield Beach. However, "Most of these exterior-corridor hotels tend to be much older," he said.

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Enter the six-story, enclosed, limited-service property, which has been built in abundance in Florida in recent decades. These hotels feature elevator service, which means more rooms and greater economies of scale. A single access point provides guest security, something seen as a drawback for more open plans. And centrally operated climate controls and sealed windows are more energy efficient than individually operated air-conditioning units that had been retrofitted to hotels originally built with only open-air ventilation.

"Nowadays, interior-corridor hotels tend to be regarded as more upscale and have higher [average daily rates] and occupancy versus exterior-corridor hotels," Tobin said.

Plus, chain hotels tend to prefer an all-weather design suited for use nationwide.

A big issue for hotel operators since the pandemic has been finding enough housekeeping and front-desk staff. That has been a minor plus for open-corridor properties that can be run with fewer hands on deck.

The open-corridor design style is seen here in the Palmer Inn & Tennis Club, in Rockledge Fla.
The open-corridor design style is seen here in the Palmer Inn & Tennis Club, in Rockledge Fla. Photo Credit: Premier Hotel Realty

"With an exterior-corridor property," Tobin said, "the owner can install electronic, contactless key systems, provide limited (or no) housekeeping (except between guest stays), electronic camera door systems and a speaker at the office and basically operate a property virtually or remotely."

Among some Florida visitors, the open-air design has a loyal following. Tobin points to a cluster of about 35 boutique properties in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, almost all open-air. He said patrons typically return year after year, many asking for the exact same room and some putting up deposits for the following year before they leave.

But in other cases, as they continue to age, open-corridor hotels are being rehabbed as apartments, especially in higher-rent urban areas.  Some were built with kitchenettes for longer-term snowbirds or can be enlarged by combining two units into one. And apartments require no housekeeping staff at all to run.

In contrast to the view that exterior corridor properties are functionally obsolete, Tobin said he believes they can have a future if they are repositioned after COVID in line with the advantages they possess.

"Across property types, there is a movement [of] returning design to allow for more fresh-air into the common areas and space in general," Tobin said.

Beyond design, operators can further capitalize on the idea by connecting with outdoor activities provided in their area, as well as by offering on-site activities such as socially-distant yoga, bike rentals or access to nearby fitness trails, he said.


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