How to Design a Hip, Outdoorsy Motel

The perfect recipe for flipping an old motel into a hotspot for younger, design-conscious travelers. And double the price per night.

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The last several years have seen the inevitable growth of “hip” motels. Largely buoyed by the success of places like the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, both solo operators and larger chains are diving in to the trendy motel trend to attract younger, design-conscious travelers. These “boutique motels” are popping up in both urban areas and in more outdoors-focused places towns like Jackson, Tahoe, Joshua Tree, and more.

Event Rentals & Private Spaces | Ace Hotel Palm Springs
The Ace Hotel Palm Springs

Here’s how to make a hip, outdoorsy motel:

  1. Buy an old motel that’s past its prime. You know the type, you’ve probably driven past a million of these. Ideally in a location with good access to the outdoors.
  2. Paint it (mostly) white.
  3. Add a bold accent color. Paint the doors orange, red, or black.
  4. Redesign the rooms with a simple Scandinavian aesthetic (aka, lots of plywood)
  5. Fill your rooms with (sparingly placed) toiletries, accents, and decor that have simple, yet elevated branding. Use a large scale mountain wallpaper or put a map on the wall.  Use outdoor gear in an “unconventional” way — carabiners as hangers, climbing holds as jacket hooks, or Coleman lanterns as bedside lights. When in doubt, browse the “Home” category on Huckberry.
  6. You’re almost ready. Put up some some string lights, a Malm fire pit, and have the latest Gestalten or Cabin Porn-style book on every table.
  7. Make sure all your marketing materials tout your motel as a “basecamp for your adventures” and use a line art tree, mountain, teepee, or animal in your branding/logo.
  8. Host an influencer couple wearing flat-brimmed cowboy hats to solidify your outdoorsy-yet-approachable vibe on social, and you’re good to go!

Now, this is all in jest, I’m not totally against these kinds of updates. I’ve stayed at the Ace Hotel, and even bounced around the idea of doing this myself (although never really gotten past "oh, that might be fun"). I love Dwell, I like good design, and I follow general trends in hospitality well-enough to understand what folks want. I like that many of these properties are trying to bring a more community-focused aspect to lodging, and I'm definitely more likely to stay in one of these properties than the motels they were before.

Last week, Autocamp (whose Airstream properties I would put in the luxury outdoors category), announced the launch of Field Station, “an inspiring and inclusive modern lodging brand for the active outdoor community.” The plan is to treat Field Stations like a vertically integrated experience — with guides, gear rental, local programing, weekly lectures and activities all organized through the hotel. It’s a smart idea, especially for the popular areas like Moab, Tahoe, and Joshua Tree where they plan on opening the first locations.

Moab Hotels
Field Station Hotel Room

Cool, but oddly familiar…

Loge Camps have been around since 2017, with locations in Washington, Oregon, and California. They offer gear rental, events, outdoor gear placement in the rooms, etc, etc. I know they had been planning additional expansion in places like Colorado and elsewhere, but it seems like that has slowed. Autocamp is well-funded (they’ve raised $115M) and in a position to become the most recognizable brand name in this lodging category.

LOGE Camps - All Locations
LOGE Camps

What I don’t like

In general, lodging in the US is getting more and more expensive, and upscaling older motels (while cool), is also a great way to turn a $80/night motel into a $200 one. I’m not sure what the solution is here, but this summer my girlfriend texted me the prices for a Missoula Super 8 that was 2x what I was paying in St. Anton, Austria for a mountainside hotel room with spa, pool, included (incredible) breakfast + 4 course dinner, and an afternoon coffee/cake hour every day.

I sometimes worry that this style of design can contribute to the feeling of sameness across the outdoor industry. It's extending a problem that is already pervasive in the apparel side of things (and demographics, unfortunately) into our physical spaces. The same vibe, same decor (the EXACT same books), the same brands, the same type of people. People are sometimes surprised that I follow/care about the ‘fashion’ side of things that The North Face and other sometimes do. Yeah, it might not necessarily be for me, but it’s fun to see anyone doing anything that breaks out of what feels like a pretty one-dimensional industry at times. Is the "Scandinavian" style design simple and elegant or cheap and boring? Are we elevating interiors with all this white paint and sparingly placed decor, or just spreading a spartan, soulless, repeatable aesthetic?

Looking for more boutique motels?

You can find them all over the country, and at all price points. Here are a few:

Zipcar Partner - Basecamp Hotels

Basecamp Hotel - South Lake Tahoe, CA

Amigo Motor Lodge - Salida, CO

Mountain Modern Motel, Jackson – Updated 2022 Prices

Mountain Modern - Jackson, WY

a blue VW van parked in front of a motel

Calistoga Motor Lodge - Napa, CA

Images shot on location at Butler

Skyview - Los Alamos, NM

Scribner's Catskill Lodge ( Hunter Mountain, USA ) - Design Hotels™

Scribner’s Catskill Lodge - Hunter, NY

Rivertown Lodge — This Is The Place I Was Telling You About

Rivertown Lodge - Hudson, NY

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