Sunday, May 18, 2008

Checking In, Part II

So old downtown hotels, like newspapers, were having to cope with technological change -- air conditioning, TVs, Danish modern furniture -- when Dwight Eisenhower envisioned autobahns in America and Congress created the Interstate Highway System, which has more in common with the Internet than just the first five letters. Both allow a faster flow of traffic.

The interstates began building, according to the commonly accepted wisdom, in Topeka, Kan., in 1956. (As with anything involving Kansas, Missouri objects. Who knew? Check it out.) As the vacation traveler bypassed more cities between start and finish, why get off the freeway to drive downtown area to stay at the city's top hotels? Particularly when Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson, Ramada, Quality Inn and others were rapidly building new motels out by the freeway, or at least the bypass. You pulled up to the door, unloaded luggage and kids, didn't have to tip the bellman. And there was always a swimming pool.

And unlike the mom-and-pop motels that were in the suburbs already, you didn't have to guess about the quality. (I can remember driving up and down Michigan Avenue near Dearborn, Mich. in 1966 with my parents as they tried to figure out which of a string of motels was going to be the best option and which were disreputable. On vacations after that, we used chains all the way.)

In the biggest or most convention-dependent cities -- ones where staying downtown was part of the experience -- the old hotels did well, in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans -- but they were the exceptions. In my home town, the Claypool, Lincoln and Washington closed in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Harrison and Warren dipped in quality, the Marott became an apartment building, the Continental just faded away. And this was in a state capital where much business was still done downtown. But you could get downtown from the suburbs in minutes on some of the interstates.

So hotels that had been the hallmarks of their cities for decades simply disappeared. Emblamatic was the closure of the Willard Hotel in Washington in 1968, a hotel that had been virtually a branch of government for decades. It seemed as if downtown hotels were doomed.

But the motel chains started moving in from the highways -- first with cookie-cutter suburban motels on the edge of downtown, then with more urban-designed buildings. Chains such as Stouffer's and Radisson joined Hilton in building new downtown hotels. John Portman's Regency Hyatt House in Atlanta excited the country with the atrium hotel concept. Downtown hotels crept back into fashion. The Willard reopened, as did the Severin in Indianapolis and the Seelbach in Louisville. The original Tutwiler in Birmingham was gone, but an old apartment building was converted into a new Tutwiler.

Now, in nearly any large or medium-size city, downtown hotels are easy to find -- many of them new, some of them historic. And the downscale crowd is in the old motels from the 1950s, and suburbs trying to not be seen as slums are trying to bulldoze them just as the cities wanted to eliminate the older hotels. Because, unbelievable as it would have seemed in the 1960s, fewer travelers today want to stay in a hotel where you drive up to the door and unload the kids and luggage. (Security problems, downscale image, etc.) Now people pay for valet parking. (Rarely for the bellman, though. Roller luggage, carryons, and carts by the door have made him redundant in most cases.)

But the downtown hotel didn't come back in many smaller cities. A Kokomo, a Macon, a Muskegon may have one downtown hotel attached to a convention center, or all the hotels may be out by the freeway. So some things definitely changed. The era when visitors to Johnstown would stay at the Hendler, or in Waco at the Raleigh, is not coming back. But after a big mashup in the 1960s and 1970s that destroyed much of the existing infrastructure and industry, the last 25 years have been a time of recovery, realignment, starts and stops. In a recent visit to Richmond, Va., I saw new downtown hotels in old buildings, old downtown hotels, old downtown hotels rebranded as new downtown hotels, and former and still-closed old downtown hotels. Had I paid enough attention I might have seen now-closed formerly new downtown hotels. Other than the national-chain names, I would have seen the same thing in 1900 or 1940. It's just the ebb and flow of business, not a perfect storm destroying all in its path.

There are a number of lessons for the beleaguered newspaper industry in this, even with the huge caveat that an analogy between the two is impossible. Until we are all living in virtual reality, a hotel has to exist. If a newspaper is simply the news in it and nothing more, a news "paper" does not have to exist. My view is that a newspaper is more than the news in it, that it is a consumer product in and of itself, but that's open for debate.

Given that, though, big mashups caused by breathtaking change do happen, but they don't happen forever. Eventually there's a new normal, a new paradigm, a return to normalcy, whatever one wants to call it. Eventually someone says, it wasn't that downtown hotels were a bad idea; it's that downtown hotels with old furniture in poor locations without complete air-conditioning and with poor parking facilities were playing a losing hand. They had to find a way to compete that wasn't just playing catchup, which they couldn't win.

This is how the Hotel Lassen in Wichita was trying to compete in 1958, with its "Drive-in Entrance and Registration Facilities." They got that customers were driving and needed parking. They knew that motels were starting to eat their lunch. But they thought it would work to bust a hole in the back wall and put the "drive-in" entrance in an alley under a fire escape. This was not going to draw customers away from the Holiday Inn out by the Kansas Turnpike. Like many of the hotels of the 1950s that became "Motor Inns" of the 1960s and senior-citizen residences of the 1980s, they were trying to hold onto the old rules and win by the new ones as well. Disruptive change alters the playing field; it doesn't mean you can't win. It means you can't win by trying to play "me too," because the new rules aren't set up to favor you.

Still more to come.

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