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THEY DIDN'T LEAVE THE LIGHT ON FOR ME
By Michael Matthews
April 19, 2012 -- I am a hotel snob. And I like it that way.

I started in the lodging business at a five-star London hotel and have slept in and worked at five-star hotels and resorts for more than 50 years. It's been a wonderful career in the lap of luxury. I wouldn't have it any other way.

I will admit that there have been occasions, thankfully very few of them, when perhaps I've had to drop down to a Westin or similar full-service hotel. I once stayed at a La Quinta Inn in Austin and a Holiday Inn in Sweetwater, Texas. In each case, I went slumming only because I was forced to do so.

Not too long ago, however, a missive arrived from the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe.com headquarters. Attached to the E-mail from the big giant head Joe was a press release announcing that 2012 was the 50th anniversary of Motel 6, the budget chain now owned by Accor, the big giant French hotel group.

As you probably know, the big giant head Joe is a fan of what he calls great, cheap American hotels. He sings the praises of Hyatt Place. And he does road trips that focus on stays at chain after chain of what we lodging wags call the "focused-serviced" segment.

But after receiving his note, I asked the big giant head Joe a simple question: "Have you ever stayed in a Motel 6?"

When he said no, a moment of insanity overcame me. "I will," I bravely volunteered.

To his credit, the big giant head Joe said he'd reimburse me the $6 for my room. Six bucks, you understand, is where the six in Motel 6 comes from. It was the nightly rate charged when the chain launched 50 years ago. As it happens, six bucks is also the upper limit on expenses approved for contributors to our little noncommercial venture.

Before I start my reimbursement fight with the big giant head Joe over the actual cost of my room--I ended up spending $39.95 plus tax for my Motel 6 room!--a bit of background about the chain.

Guess where Motel 6 started? In one of the richest enclaves in America. Fifty years ago, two guys sick of the accommodations they'd endured while crossing the country opened the first Motel 6 in Santa Barbara, California. Right on Cabrillo Beach!

Now there are about 1,100 of them across the country and Motel 6 operates about 106,000 rooms. The original plan was that each Motel 6 would have exactly the same services and amenities. They'd essentially offer a "no frills" experience: two bars of soap, no-iron sheets, free coffee and a pet-friendly environment. These days, the chain has added cable TV and free long-distance calls. The company says most properties also offer WiFi and swimming pools.

Has Motel 6 been a success? Accor claims it has the highest occupancy rate and the lowest average room rate of any national lodging chain. But success is in the eye of the guest--or should be--and that brings us back to my stay at an actual Motel 6 hotel.

My selected Motel 6 was easy to pick. There are five Motel 6 locations in the greater Tucson area where I live. I chose the one designated Motel Six Tucson North #1127. It has a Hooters across the street. (I've never been to Hooters, either.) My neighbor, a former cop, also said that the area's best hookers hung out in the area. TripAdvisor.com's reviews were mixed, but generally positive.

Making a reservation was easy. A nice young man said "no need for a deposit if you arrive before 6 p.m., if not one night." But I gave him my credit card number, he thanked me and made sure he had spelled my name correctly. He didn't say he'd leave the light on for me--that's been the Motel 6 tagline for about 25 years--but it was a surprisingly easy procedure, far simpler than booking a room at Ritz-Carlton or the other hotels I usually visit.

My darling wife offered to accompany me, but really didn't push too hard. Packing wasn't a problem: toothbrush, spare underwear, sleeping pills and my Kindle. I took the wife's car, since I didn't think my Porsche would last the night in a Motel 6 parking lot. (Okay, I'm not only a hotel snob, but a car snob, too, I guess.)

I departed from my home at 7 p.m. for the easy, 10-mile drive. In practically no time at all, I saw a flashing Motel 6 sign on the horizon overshadowing the Hooters sign.

I parked, walked into the lobby and immediately noticed that there was no magnificent floral display. (What was I thinking?) I was the only one checking in and it was simple: Present your driver's license and credit card and you're on your way. Not a single form to fill out and no bellman to tip.

I couldn't help but notice a number of signs at the front desk warning guests that that the Union Pacific Railroad passed by throughout the day and night. Shades of the swanky St. Regis in Houston where, if you have the wrong room, goodbye to any sleep.

My room, Number 139, was at the end of a long corridor. It was certainly Spartan, but, at well over 400 square feet, larger than I had imagined. Besides the king-sized bed and six hangers, there was a desk with no nearby electric outlets; a television that wasn't a flat-screen model; and an ashtray with "no smoking" emblazoned on it.

Sadly, there was a burnt-out lightbulb on the side of the bed I wanted to use. The TV gave a great impression of snowfall on most channels. And the no-iron bottom sheet had a hole from a cigarette burn. Otherwise, though, the bed was firm and the pillow passable. Everything was spotlessly clean.

The fully functioning bathroom was stocked with two miniscule bars of soap, a towel (3x1.6 feet) and a washcloth. There was no fluffy robe, of course, and, come to think of it, not much fluff in the toilet paper, either.

And so to sleep--until a cacophony of Union Pacific horns woke me up. Not just once, but four times throughout the night. I can't say I wasn't warned.

Awakened by the Union Pacific for the final time at 6 a.m., I took a nice shower in hot water. But there was no free coffee since it apparently wasn't available until 7 a.m.

As I departed, I noticed they still hadn't left the light on for me.

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2012 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.