At roadie gatherings over the years, there’s long been watercooler talk about the need for someone to buy up old Route 66 motels, renovate them to retain the old-time charm, yet offer amenities that modern travelers expect.
It looks like Smalltown America Inns, Lodges and Motels aims to step into that role. Its motto is: “Where we’re bringing back Smalltown Americana — one motel at a time!”
I spoke by conference call Monday to Richard Talley, president of Smaltown America; his wife Gail, a major investor; and Rom Corbel, vice president. Talley boasts about 20 years’ experience in the lodging industry, including stints with Holiday Inn, John Q. Hammons and Marriott. Corbel, who originally hails from France, brings marketing experience to the Centennial, Colo.-based group.
Smalltown America is set to open its first refurbished Route 66 motel, Motel Safari in Tucumcari, N.M., on Feb. 18. It bought the motel on Dec. 7 and extensively remodeled it.
“We try to reuse as much of the old furnishings as possible to maintain its original image in history, but we do not sacrifice on quality,” Talley said of the 23-room motel, which dates to at least the 1950s. “For instance, Motel Safari will have 32-inch flat panel LCD TVs, high-speed Internet, Sealy Posturepedic pillow-top mattresses, and the works. But the desk furniture, the chairs, the vanities, will be the same. Everything that we can keep, we do.”
Rooms at the Motel Safari will initially go for $66 a night — higher than the budget motels in town but less expensive than the chains near the interstate.
“We’re not going to be the $20 to $30-a-night motel with the bad mattresses,” Talley said, “but we’re not going to be the $80-a-night brand-new-built ones, either. We want to fit right between there, as long as we get our money back from our investment.”
The company seeks to revamp old Route 66 motels, boost their value, and use the equity to help buy another old motel. Talley said that by the end of 2009, he anticipates having four motels under Smalltown America ownership.
One of Talley’s goals is to acquire the historic Boots Motel in Carthage, Mo., which has been closed since 2002 and once was threatened with redevelopment.
“We can’t say it’s going to happen, and we can’t make any promises on that,” Talley said of the Boots buyout. “It’s going to depend on whether the property’s still available, and whether we can negotiate a deal with the current owner.
“We’re here to help the Route 66 community and save all the old Route 66 motels that we can, ” he added.
Talley said Smalltown America originally envisioned acquiring 100 old motel properties on historic highways all across America, not just on Route 66. But, over time, he decided that Route 66 was better because it had “more exposure.” He considered old motels on Highway 101 on the West Coast, but decided it was too risky at this time to delve into “million-dollar properties.” He decided there were better values in small towns on the Mother Road.
“We eventually whittled it down to the best-potential properties still structurally sound that were financially responsible to make an investment with,” he said. “That’s how we started with the Motel Safari. It was all across America in these small towns to pick up these motels from the 1930s to the ’60s that were still in good structural condition. Families still drive across America to stay in these motels, but would like a nice TV and nice bed instead of springs popping through the mattresses from 50-year-old beds.”
Corbel’s role is to market the motels, especially using the Internet through the Smalltown America site.
“Route 66 is very well-exposed and well-known internationally, especially in Europe,” Corbel said. “We would hope to attract some international tourists. ”
Talley said he would consider other advertising ventures, including billboards, to draw travelers.
Talley doesn’t anticipate friction with the other high-profile historic motel in Tucumcari, the Blue Swallow Motel.
“In all honesty, I don’t think it’s competition,” he said. “First, we expect to have a very good working relationship with (the Blue Swallow’s owners), and I think we’ll complement each other. There are those that want an original Route 66 motel in its original condition, which would be the Blue Swallow. Then there are those who want things that you’re not going to get over there that we have.”