Limited-service hotels cater to frugal travelers

Trends

March 26, 2006|By JANE ENGLE | JANE ENGLE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 per 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. And on a recent Saturday, 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 in many cities and resort locales.

Mid-scale hotels that don't have food and beverages -- "limited service" in industry jargon -- can be havens from this price inflation. And you won't have to look far.

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 more than 1,500 worldwide.

Overall, the limited-service category this year will add 33,208 rooms in the United States, 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 guest rooms and operate with a staff about one-third the size of 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, 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 will 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.

Customers of limited-service hotels must often compromise on location, too.

In the Los Angeles area, the Ramada Limited Marina del Rey, on an unlovely commercial stretch of Washington Boulevard, is about a half-mile from the scenic marina and a mile from Venice Beach.

Some guests, such as Vitaly Kudryavtsev, a physicist from Sheffield, England, don't mind.

In town for a conference at the Marina del Rey Marriott, which overlooks the marina, he had found the Ramada Limited on the Internet and booked it.

At $79 per night, his room cost less than half what the Marriott was recently charging for weekend stays.

For the savings, Kudryavtsev, traveling on a science grant, was happy to make the 15-minute walk to the Marriott.

And unlike the Marriott's guests, he paid nothing for his wireless Internet access.

Jane Engle is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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