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Motel One: The affordable hotel chain that gives you a premium design experience across Europe


(Editor’s note: This story was originally part of our beta launch, and was posted on LinkedIn. We’re reposting it now at the height of the summer tourist season because Motel One debuted its Basel hotel last week, the Munich-based chain’s first location in Switzerland. We know and love Basel, and this may be the only affordable hotel there.)

My first trip to Vienna, and I’m struggling, trying to find a place to stay.

It’s July – high summer tourist time – and I try Airbnb. But there’s nothing affordable available close to where my colleague Ivana Avramovic lives, which is near the Wien Hauptbahnhof.

I try all the discount brokerage websites, but the best hotels are all the way across town from Ivana, who’s going to show me around and make introductions as I’m scouting out locations for Dispatches’s HQ.

Then, Ivana suggests Motel One. Well, she doesn’t suggest … she orders me to book a room at the new Motel One overlooking the Wien Hauptbahnhof, a block from her apartment: “It just opened in May. You’ll like it. It’s very cool. Now shut up and book it.” Which, of course, I do immediately.

The multi-day discount rate worked out to about 113 euros, which at the exchange rate this summer worked out to be $125 per night for a double, not counting the 14 euro frühstück.

I had no idea what to expect, with the worryingly low rate for a European business hotel conjuring mental images of the windowless, comfortless cubicles and moldy showers I used to haunt as a journalist on a budget, working in places like Adana, Turkey and Baghdad.



The Motel One in Vienna turned out to be surprisingly chi-chi. So nice that when our friend Rick Scavetta, left, shows up from Germany, he immediately says, “Wow, that bed looks really comfortable,” and makes himself at home with the TV controls.

The room was fairly spacious and functional. The bathroom/shower – so crucial to starting your work day – was large and sleek. All glass, granite surfaces, and chrome. And on the 12th floor, I had a dreamy view of Vienna, which drops down below the main train station into a huge valley along the Danube River. I don’t know about you, but I love a great lobby, because after all, that’s basically your living room where you entertain on a business trip. Rick, Ivana and I had coffee or cocktails, depending on the time of day, while we hung out, brainstorming Dispatches story ideas and marketing campaigns.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 2.12.15 PMThe bar decor – and the hotel as a whole – has this whole minimalist Dwell Magazine groove going on, with whimsical accent pieces, funky soft seating amid lots of hardwood and stone. Yet at the same time, it was kind of fancy, with subtle color motifs (turquoise is their corporate color), chandeliers and sophisticated lighting.

You have to love a place that sets off the subdued woods and stone of its bar area with purple pillars and an emerald shag carpet. The bartender was Bosnian, and in true Bosnian tradition, she spoke five languages.

Down a set of stairs from the lobby is the dining area/breakfast nook, which was fabulous. And it includes an elaborate outdoor dining terrace.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 2.11.09 PMI’m telling you all this for two reasons: As a travel recommendation and as an insight into business models.  On the travel recommendation level, I haven’t checked out all the Motel Ones, because there are lot of them, with the brand operating in all the major cities of Europe. That said, everyone who uses them regularly raves about them. Motel One almost has cult status.

Now, let’s look at the business model. I call it the “21C Museum Hotel” model after the 21C chain headquartered in my home town of Louisville. 21C impresario Steve Wilson is an art collector who appreciates how important design is to a satisfying consumer experience. Steve realized he could turn hotels into designer hotel experiences by adding his modern art collection to the mix, creating the world’s grooviest hotels. Everywhere you look, there’s something interesting to see.

Motel One isn’t 21C, but its designers make an aesthetic statement: You’re going to remember fondly the time you spent with us.

All this has translated into one of the most successful private hotel chains in Europe, and one you might not be familiar with if you just arrived in Europe. But you will be. New Motel Ones are scheduled to open in 2016 in Barcelona, Newcastle, Munich, Basel, a third location in Stuttgart and a hotel in Friedberg in the Black Forest. Plans are for Motel One to add Zurich, Manchester and Glasgow in 2017. The great thing, though, is there are multiple Motel Ones in the innovation centers where I’ll be spending a lot of time, such as the eight in Berlin.

I am at heart a businessman, and I found Motel One’s latest earnings statement from the 1st quarter, 2015. I was blown away. Founded in 2000, Munich-based Motel One had 48 hotels and about 13,000 rooms across Europe as of March 1, 2015. The chain took in a total of 64 million euros for Q1, with pre-tax and interest net revenue of 16 million euros. Extrapolating, that means total top line revenue for the year will come in somewhere around 300 million euros, with gross pre-tax net revenue likely approaching 80 million euros. Which is a crazy margin, depending on how leveraged they are.

My family and I love to travel, we love great hotels, and we always appreciate recommendations that keep us out of the hellholes. And we don’t pass them on lightly.

So, listen to Ivana: Motel One is new. You’ll like it. It’s very cool. Now shut up and book it.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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