Retro revivalism is breathing new life into roadside accommodations

There’s an old joke that if one holds onto old clothes long enough, they will eventually be back in fashion. While it may be some time before ‘70s polyester leisure suits are chic again, the same cannot be said about motels.

What was once a dilapidated and dying element of the hospitality industry has undergone a revival revolution in recent years, and the momentum isn’t slowing down. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. With a limited number of properties available, more and more smaller independent and larger hoteliers are working feverishly to make kitsch cool – and South Florida, because of its long love affair with midcentury architecture, is at the heart of the motel revival movement.

The birth of the motel

In many ways, the motel industry is the result of a post-WW2 booming middle class from decades ago. With a strong economy and automobiles, American families embarked on road trips, and motels satisfied a need for affordable accommodations located near roadside attractions, such as small amusement parks, western town re-creations, and caverns.

As the nation became more connected through an extensive and well-linked interstate highway system, motels and local roadside attractions were often bypassed. Travellers were more likely to stay in no-frill chain accommodations located near on and off ramps. In order to stay afloat, motel clientele changed, its reputation now tarnished by whispers of extramarital affairs, hourly rentals, criminal hideouts, and overall seediness.

The birth of the new motel

In the decades since the motel’s decline, more branded chain hotels swept in to fill the void and luxury hotels grew more luxuriant and expensive. A younger generation of travelers, weighed down by college debt and a weaker economy but valuing experience and affordability, helped to put Airbnb on the map.

The intimacy of renting accommodations in a stranger’s house, though, wasn’t for everyone – and inventive and creative hoteliers see an opportunity in the supply of aging motels. Often, these relics had remained in families for generations or had owners who were simply overwhelmed by the challenges of running a profitable operation. Either way, buyers and investors found eager sellers – and the revivalism revolution began.

How to make an old motel new again

The new hoteliers have pretty much stumbled upon a formula for re-doing an old motel, one that celebrates the personality of the structure without demolition. That formula’s success, though, is based on a few key elements:

  • No matter where a motel is located, from Austin, TX, to Jackson Hole, WY, to wherever the road takes you, it’s important to be restrained in design. Kitsch can quickly and easily become a cliché.

  • When considering a motel update, it’s important to leverage the work of local craftspeople and artisans. It’s a perfect way to celebrate the local flavor and to add a sense of uniqueness to the traveler’s stay.

On a local level, several South Florida motels have found a way to pay homage to the region’s historic and nostalgic architecture while creating a hip-but-authentic place for not only a new generation of travelers but also an aging Baby Boomer population looking for a stroll down memory lane. In Miami, there’s Vagabond and the New Yorker. Both are known for their nod to classic vintage style and an independent and community mindset. A little further up the coast, in Fort Lauderdale, is Manhattan Tower, with its iconic tower and Intracoastal views.

Searching for a hidden gem in SoFlo

At Morris Southeast Group, we’ve written extensively about the opportunities to repurpose old structures into something else – and we think it’s fantastic to repurpose an old motel into a celebration of its glory days that serves a new market of travelers. To learn more about hidden retro gems and other property investment opportunities, and/or our other CRE services, call Morris Southeast Group at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at


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