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Neither Motel 6 nor the Ritz, these hotels meet you halfway

News, Tips & Bargains | TRAVEL INSIDER

Millions of travelers are checking in to midscale accommodations, where services are limited but savings are substantial.

March 12, 2006|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

CHRIS WILLIAMS appreciates plush surroundings.

In December, he and his wife, Alice, stayed in a $350-a-night Ritz-Carlton in Florida.

"Marble everything," he said.

But last month, the couple from Rome, Ga., decided on the Holiday Inn Express Hollywood, where room rates recently ran as little as $104 a night, for their five-day getaway to Los Angeles.

"It's nice to live in luxury," said Williams, who supervises technicians at a cable-TV company. "But it's not feasible."

Millions of frugal travelers agree. With their help, so-called limited-service hotels -- modestly priced, predictable and a cut above Motel 6, Super 8 and other economy brands -- have become the fastest-growing trend in hospitality.

And why not? Comfort Inn, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, La Quinta Inn, Ramada Limited, Wingate Inn and similar chains often charge half as much as full-service Marriotts and Hyatts just up the road.

And although their guests can't expect on-site restaurants, fancy lobbies or around-the-clock room service, they typically are not charged for these things: local phone calls, Internet access, parking and continental breakfast.

The 52-room Holiday Inn Express Hollywood offered all these perks, plus a sparkling swimming pool. On the recent Saturday when I spoke with Williams, it was sold out.

Four blocks away, a reservation clerk at the towering Roosevelt hotel, the 79-year-old doyen of Hollywood hostelries, told me it had rooms available that night for $295 and up.

The rate didn't include parking ($23 a night) or breakfast at the hotel's hip Dakota restaurant, where coffee costs $4 and granola $12.

Don't get me wrong. The Roosevelt is elegant and, no doubt, worth every penny to guests who cherish its style and unique history. But as Williams put it, if all you really want is a bed, such hotels may be "a waste of money."

Especially when room rates are recovering from their post-Sept. 11 slump and, in some places, are higher than ever.

In Manhattan last year, the average nightly rate hit a record $234, according to preliminary data from PKF Consulting, an international firm of specialists in the hotel and tourism industries.

Upscale-hotel rates have grown fastest, making nightly room tabs of $300 and more common not only in New York but also in many other cities and resort locales.

Midscale hotels that don't have food and beverage -- industry jargon that means "limited service" -- can be havens from this price inflation. And you won't have to look far for one.

Holiday Inn Express, launched in 1990, clones itself at the rate of about two hotels per week, said Verchele Mills, vice president of brand management for the chain at parent InterContinental Hotels Group in Atlanta. There are now more than 1,500 worldwide.

Overall, the limited-service category this year will add 33,208 rooms in the U.S., far more than any other type of lodging, according to projections by Lodging Econometrics, a research and consulting firm in Portsmouth, N.H., that tracks industry construction trends.

The term "limited service" came into vogue several decades ago to distinguish these hotels from more Spartan and cheaper economy chains, said Jan A. deRoos, a professor at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

By forgoing a big lobby, meeting space and 24-hour food service, he said, such a hotel can cram in more revenue-generating guestrooms and operate with a staff about a third the size found at full-service inns.

"It's a tight little machine," said DeRoos, who worked as a construction project manager for a Dallas hotel developer in the 1980s.

Cheap land helps the equation pencil out. Limited-service inns originally sprang up along highways and in suburbs, where real estate generally costs less, and they catered to business people traveling by car.

Now, spurred by demand and increasing room revenues, these hotels are migrating uptown.

In New York City, for instance, Hampton opened one inn last year and will open another this year; Holiday Inn Express opened one last year and is adding two this year; and Wingate Inn is opening two this year.

Savings can be significant. Rates at the Holiday Inn Express at Fifth Avenue and 45th Street in Manhattan, Mills said, hover around $180 a night -- well below the average for Manhattan. (Rates can vary significantly based on date and demand.)

But limited service isn't for everyone.

"This is for people who need a place to sleep, not to entertain," DeRoos said.

You'll have to leave the hotel to get lunch and dinner. Although the rooms typically are clean and well-kept, don't expect luxury or trendy design.

"Your bed is guaranteed to be a better quality at a full-service hotel," said Bruce Ford, senior vice president of sales for Lodging Econometrics. "Everything is a little bit nicer."

Darnley Small and his traveling companion, Merle Williams, both from Brooklyn, N.Y., collided with this reality last month when they checked into the Ramada Limited Marina del Rey.

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