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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris HAMPTON INN'S
EXTREME MAKEOVER


BY CHRIS BARNETT

March 11, 2004 -- Business travelers managing a meager expense account, vacationers on a tight budget or motorists just tooling down the highway have been checking into motels for nearly 85 years.

But that first motor hotel didn't fit our Hollywood-inspired image of the motor court: a dozen stucco cottages with cheap chenille spreads, a lone lamp on a single nightstand next to a sagging bed that bucked when you stuck a quarter in the Magic Fingers machine. It didn't have a flashing "no vacancy" neon sign out front or a hillbilly manager in a cramped office behind a rickety screen door demanding payment in advance.

In point of fact, the first roadside motel, built in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1925, was almost luxurious. Called the Milestone, it sat halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the California coast. It was designed and owned by an architect named Arthur Hienemen, who is also credited with coining the term mo-tel--and he spelled it that way.

The Milestone was residential by today's motel standards: a nicely furnished two-room bungalow with a kitchen, servant's quarters, a private garage for the traveler's Model T, swimming pool, restaurant and even a dance hall with live bands. It was modeled after the famed California missions. The rate for what was essentially a Spanish-style private suite: $1.25 a night. The Depression killed Hienemen's dream of a motel chain stretching from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Today's motel chains have never really captured Hienemen's vision of driving up to your door, parking and spending the night in something as comfy as a guesthouse. The marquee motel names--Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Motel 6 and Red Roof--are pretty Spartan, cookie-cutter prefabs. Move up the scale a bit and you're into hotels with interior hallways, elevators and a list of comforts that are either cheesy or costly, but not very creative.

No surprise. Today's lodging industry doesn't have many Arthur Hienemens willing to take a gamble and give the guest something great for the money.

One exception was the tag team of Roy Winegardner and Ray Schultz who invented Hampton Inns in 1984. They were top executives with Holiday Inn, which was then trying to bust out of its boring roots by creating fancy Crowne Plaza Hotels and Harrah's Casinos. The duo bet big on a motel concept that was hardly fancy, but they tossed in a free continental breakfast, free local calls and, five years later, a trailblazing 100 percent money-back guarantee. If a Hampton guest had any gripe, the overnight was free. Today, there are more than 1,250 Hampton Inns and giant Hilton Hotels Corp. owns the name.

Winegardner, who rebuilt the first Hampton Inn prototype 60 times before he was happy with it, and Schultz have retired. But Phil Cordell, general manager of the second Hampton ever built, is carrying on their legacy for bright ideas.

Just before 9/11, Cordell, now a Hampton senior vice president, began a three-year odyssey to reinvent Hampton Inns. He wanted to make them hip and homey, a refuge for weary, cost-conscious travelers without sending the chain's reasonable room rates into orbit. He and his team came up with 127 new features and services. Any new Hampton--they open two a week--has the improvements. Franchisee-owners were told to pony up for the retrofit or check out of the chain. Hotel folks call it "de-flagging." I call that tough love.

Frankly, I was suspicious of what could be done to make a $78 a night (on average) room feel like home. I like Hampton Inn for its affordable prices and unconditional guarantee, but I don't expect much in the way of making me feel special. Those cellophane-wrapped plastic cups sporting the Hampton logo and the tiny squares of soap still scream hard-core budget motel to me.

But the chain recently unveiled its new look in New Orleans and it is clear that Hampton Inns have, indeed, been given an extreme makeover. I didn't see any servant's quarters or private garages, but an estimated $100 million worth of improvements was obvious.

Some of the changes you'll soon see at a Hampton near you are cosmetic: red-carpet welcome mats and planter gardens at the entrance; black-and-white photography in the lobby reflecting local city scenes; piped-in traveling music; and a stylish front desk with nicely designed signs. Other changes are substantive: free high-speed Internet access in guestrooms and wireless Internet access in the lobby and meeting rooms.

The new guestrooms look far more residential than a road soldier's barracks. Beds are skirted, raised 28 inches off the floor and outfitted with a handsome headboard, better sheets and four pillows fluffed up and displayed at an angle, Ritz-Carlton style. The bedspread has been replaced by a "coverlet" with some designer touches. The mattress seemed pretty firm to me. The room has nicer furniture, including a roomy desk with an adjustable lamp and a comfortable upholstered desk chair on rollers. There's also a spacious, portable desk for laptopping and doing e-mail in bed.

Bathroom towels are of a higher quality and there's a nicely curved rod and shower curtain. Even the sink seems a bit European. Shampoos, potions and lotions have been upgraded and a nightlight is thoughtfully included.

A supercool new feature is a clock radio custom made for Hampton. Anyone can operate it and figure out how to set the alarm. Cordell says 150 clock radios were tested and flunked before Hampton created its own idiot-proof version.

Cordell and his crew of designers and decorators haven't scrimped. The new breakfast area resembles a country kitchen and while Hampton still dishes out the high-fat donuts, it has added sausage and eggs plus lots of fresh fruits, muffins, cereals and other low-fat foods. The coffee is pretty serious, too.

Too busy to stop and nosh? Hampton has created a breakfast in a bag that includes a cereal bar, fruit, a muffin and bottled water.

At the moment, 120 Hampton Inns a month are getting the facelift. And, believe it or not, Hampton officials swear that prices will not be kicked up to cover the chain's extreme makeover.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.