Sleeping Alongside the Road:
recollections of motels by patrons and proprietors
by Mark J. Okrant
Americans are nostalgia crazy. We long for persons, experiences, and items from the past and have transmitted this fascination to our children and grandchildren through stories, with the support of the media. The popularity of Trekkie conventions, the History Channel, and Elvis’ birthday parties are but small pieces of evidence of American’s desire to remain in touch with the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Marketers have seized the nostalgia wave, too, and are using it to sell everything from automobiles to candy.
Sleeping Alongside the Road offers a nostalgic look at the American motel, an American icon that is indelibly etched in the memories of nearly half of all Americans, age forty and older. The book draws upon my modest ability at recapturing nostalgic landscapes, wherein full-day journeys culminated by staying overnight in one of the thousands of motels that dotted state and county roads, labeled blue highways by William Least Heat Moon. Sadly, the wrecking ball has removed a number of motels from the cultural landscape. Indeed, motels—especially small, family-owned establishments—are becoming a thing of the past. Thus, Sleeping Alongside the Road seeks to capture the image and the feeling of a way of life before it disappears from the American landscape.
The stories contained in this volume are of real motel experiences. As the author of two travel and tourism-centered murder mysteries, I’ve utilized a network of associations built during more than thirty years as a tourism academic and researcher. The majority of the vignettes in “The Patrons’ View” portion of this book are anecdotes gleaned from numerous former motel guests whom I had the pleasure of interviewing. The remainder comes from my own experiences as a traveler along America’s tourism landscapes. The portion titled “The Proprietors’ View” is a compilation of stories from past and present owners and general managers of motel properties. In total, the latter group represents nearly four hundred years of experience in the operation of motels.
Mark J. Okrant
Chapter Excerpt about Proctor's Lakehouse Cottages
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A MOTEL OPERATOR COUPLE
The craziest day of the week for our property is Saturday. Actually, Saturday starts on Friday night, when we begin thinking of all the things we need to do to make Saturday a little easier. Usually we don’t do anything but think due to pure exhaustion!! Then Saturday morning arrives at about 6:00AM, and it’s time to look at the paperwork to see who is checking out and who is checking in. But first the coffee goes on. All the registration cards of those who are leaving are placed in numerical order on the office desk awaiting match-up with the room keys to be returned at checkout. Next, all of the paperwork for our arriving guests is pulled and placed in alphabetical order on the credenza behind the check-in desk. Business emails must be checked and responded to early, regarding future bookings. You have to say goodbye to people leaving, and you have to remember the faces (and names) of those checking in, since last time they were here, you became friends with them. Our guests like personal attention; it’s what keeps them coming back. Once the checkout list is determined, it’s time to pull the supplies needed for each unit checking out: sheets, bathmat, towels, soap, trashbags, postcard, pen, pad, toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, etc. Frequently, we need to do this for ten or more units at a time. Once supplies have been pulled and put in carry bins, each bin is placed at the door of a unit awaiting the guest’s departure. While walking back and forth and placing the bins, we take a quick look at the grounds for cigarette butts, soda cans and trash that guests leave around. A check on the trash area is necessary, to be sure there is room for the departing guests to place their trash in the bins; for, weekly guests do their own housekeeping and take trash out by themselves. By this time, it’s 7:00AM and Maureen (my wife) is up. Her first job, after coffee and a quick email check, is to empty the butt buckets and trash cans around the sundeck and picnic table area. Maureen does the dreaded job of the day of raking the lake grass (milfoil) on the beach into piles to be picked up by me. This is done early so the beach is as clean as possible when the guests arise. Sweeping the sundeck and re-arranging the deck furniture is next on Maureen’s list. And then there’s checking and cleaning the charcoal grills. Of course, there is always the occasional guest who is up early and likes to chat.
Officially, checkout is at 10:00AM, but on a Saturday many guests leave early (9:00AM), which is exactly the time when our maids arrive. Once the room key is brought to the office, I’m the first to arrive at the empty unit to see its condition, and to strip all the dirty laundry out of the unit and take out forgotten trash. All clean items are placed around the unit; so that when the maid arrives, all she has to do is clean and make up the unit….which, by the way, is hard enough! All of the dirty laundry is brought back to the laundry room and sheets are placed in the laundry bag for the laundry service. All pillowcases, wash cloths, bathmats and towels are cleaned on site and are placed in the correct bin. We ask our guests to sign the guest book, leaving memories for future guests to review. When guests leave, there is always the great kid who wants his picture taken with me for his scrapbook at home. Usually, when we are in our Saturday cleaning cycle, someone will stop in off the street to see what is open for the night, or
what may be available later on in the Summer – or even next Summer. They do this because they stayed nearby and saw how great our place looked. Sometimes, it’s because they didn’t like the place they were staying in this Summer. We always try to talk to these people, and show them our units; but, during the cleaning cycle it is very hard to take the time. A few minutes for some breakfast are taken….on the run!
Check in is officially at 2:00PM, and there are always the guests who show up at noon hoping their unit was cleaned first, so they can get in early. When we first bought this place, we tried to accommodate them, but now all arriving guests must wait until 2:00PM to check in. Usually, at about 1:00PM, the maids are all finished with the cleaning, and I go back through all of the cleaned units for the final check. Even with a great cleaning crew, there are things that need to be adjusted. First impressions are the most important, outside and inside the units.
On a rainy day, these first 8 hours are miserable. A (very) few minutes are taken for lunch …also on the run! Now it’s 2:00PM, and the first new guests arrive at 2:01PM! Somehow we are always ready for them. They all must come to the office to register. Many times the whole travel party comes into the office, since it is filled with neat memorabilia, travel brochures, etc. After the paperwork—with payment in full upon arrival—is done, Maureen tries to update the returning guests about any changes we’ve made since their last visit; she also tells new guests all the things that are great to do in the area, as well as which restaurants are good. Then Maureen shows all guests to their units, informing them where the trash goes, and where their picnic table, charcoal grill and chairs are. She also tells them our rules: no diving off of the swim platform, swim within the swim line, where their parking spots are, etc. Once inside their rooms, Maureen tells our guests where everything is and that we provide extra trash bags, toilet paper and paper towels, as needed. Depending on how many check-ins there are, this process generally lasts at least until 5:00PM. And, if there are any empty units, the “off the road” person must be shown what’s available, regardless of when they arrive. On a typical Saturday, we’ll receive 20 to 30 phone calls, which come in throughout the day, requesting things that need to be attended to.
Once the flow of new guests slows down, it’s time to look at the registration cards to see what we’ve missed, and to be sure all guests’ credit card/cash information is accurate. While I do the paperwork, Maureen tends to the flowers and plants all over the property. Then it’s time to order our dinner from our favorite place just down the road – Waldo Peppers. Usually, by this time, we are worn out from a work day that is already 12 hours long, so cooking is not in the cards. Most evenings, we sit on the porch during dinner and are available for questions from guests. We also use this time to play catch up from the activity of the day. Hopefully we are sold out early and have already put on the “No Vacancy” sign; but, if we’re not full, and it’s time to close up for the night, the “No Vacancy” sign goes on . . . even if we have units available. Usually, the best guests for our property come early in the day. Generally, those that come after dark just want a cheap place to stay, and that is not us. Sometimes, I really want to put up a sign out front that says, “We are not cheap because we are on the lake and pay waterfront taxes,” but of course, I don’t. Now, just prior to going to sleep, is the one time during the day when we can do a little relaxing. A full night’s sleep is never a guarantee, as there is the occasional call at 3:00AM looking for a room.
Does all of this sound difficult? Maureen says this description makes running a motel sound easier and smoother than it actually is. You have to be ready for the unexpected; for example, one of the maids may call in sick, have to leave early, or need a ride home. What I do know is, more than our location or accommodations, the reason for our success is hard work—all the time. Despite our work load, we’re always sociable and available to answer questions, to fix something or to help plan a day’s activities. Maureen says I’m great at managing all of this, and never “lose it”. I’m not so sure. One of the keys to our success is that we make all our guests feel special. Of course, the problem with this approach is we’ve succeeded in making them think they really ARE special! That’s the motel business for you.
F.C., age 58
Proctor’s, Weirs Beach, NH