By Nancy Clark

Cars are the only reason motels ever existed. Highways were the reason they thrived. As early as 1914, Americans traveling in their 1.7 million cars bunked down in cottage courts, individual cabins dotting the nation’s random road system.

The word “motel" was first coined by the Motel Inn of San Luis Obispo located at the mid-way point between San Francisco and LA, then a two-day drive. Neither city had commercial passenger airports yet. (San Francisco leased 150 acres of cow pasture as a temporary experimental airport in 1927. LA purchased a private airport called Mills Field in 1937, later known as LAX.)

The Spanish Mission architecture of the Milestone Mo-Tel featured individual bungalows in the tradition of the earliest motor courts and as well offered the newest architectural twist: attached guest rooms integrated under one roof.

In the ’30s and ‘40s, motels gained popularity, the attraction being that guests could pull their automobiles right up to the front door. By the ‘50s, motels were built around a public lawn and in some cases a welcome swimming pool.

It wasn’t until 1956 that the United States got its official “I” system when President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Construction of 47,000+ miles of new roadways was to take more than three decades to complete. But immediately the promise of improved logistics along with the 10-fold increase in automobile ownership meant Americans were on the move.

The ’50s and ’60s became the Golden Era of Motels. Motels were located along the highways while hotels were generally located in urban centers. Families found motels an affordable means of getting from Point A to Point B. Salesmen preferred the motel stay over hotel stay for budget and convenience.

In 1964, 61,000 motels operated across the USA. By 2012, that number had dwindled to 16,000.

The demise of motels was a socioeconomic phenomenon. Always regarded as a cheaper alternative to hotels because they offer fewer amenities, motels struggled financially and it showed in their upkeep. As time passed and care lapsed, many were razed while others became home to transients and long-term residents unable to scrape together rent money but for once a week. Family-owned motels passed from the first generation to the second, but for the most part the third generation wanted nothing to do with the 24/7 demands of a motel. They wanted out.

Notably, the American Hotel and Motel Association removed “motel”' from its name in 2000, becoming the American Hotel and Lodging Association. While the association believed the term “lodging” more accurately reflected the scope of hospitality from luxury and boutique hotels to budge and extended stay iterations, motels had developed a bad reputation. The use of “Roach Motel” said it all. 

Chains operate the majority of motels today, with the largest owner being Holiday Inn Express, according to researchers at In his 2012 book Life Behind The Lobby, Pawan Dhingra reports that one out of two motels in the US is now owned by Indian Americans. Indian Americans own 22,000 hotels and motels across the USA valued at $128 billion.

Trends in vacationing today give tenacious motel owners hope. The AARP Travel Research: 2017 Travel Trends report:

  • Millennial and GenXers more open to Weekend Getaways than Baby Boomers.
  • Millennials and GenXers also are more likely than Baby Boomers to set a budget for their trips and are more likely to have been impacted by the cost of rising airfares.
  • Fifty-seven percent of travel is motivated by the desire to spend time with family and friends. Spring Break, family reunions and weddings and graduations are drivers.
  • Forty-six percent of domestic travelers get to their destination by car; 41% by air.
  • Fifty percent of domestic travelers will stay in a hotel or motel.
  • And free Wi-Fi continues to be the most important hospitality perk with 4 out of 10 travelers claiming it’s a must.

Simplicity is the new buzzword of modern travelers, according to the International Luxury Travel Market that convenes annually in Cannes. Travelers from Baby Boomers to Millennials seek personalized experiences over marble-wrapped suites and motels, particularly the individually-owned sort, have the potential to deliver uniqueness.


On North Highway 85 in Greeley, Colorado at a point some refer to as the wrong side of the tracks is the Rainbow Motel, built in 1953. If it were human, The Rainbow Motel would become eligible for Medicare this year. The irony in that isn’t lost on Baby-Boomers.

The Rainbow is family owned. By my family. A curious evolution when I consider all the years of travel writing in my portfolio. My children and I have had opportunity vis à vis my journalism assignments to bed down in some of this country’s finest thousand-count bedsheets. We’ve been fortunate to travel on assignment to rare international destinations. For the last couple months our travel has been limited to weekend drives from Denver to Greeley for gritty and unglamorous work to revive this diamond in the rough.

All 6,412 sq. ft. of this 16-room motel on an 18,555 sq. ft. lot competes for our attention. Even the iconic signage that first enchanted us needs fixing and the estimates to repair it have, well, more zeros in the number than we expected. Priorities were set and then a new issue would come along and were reset overnight. The overarching plan was to demonstrate that improvements were coming to the Rainbow by showing passers by the improvements to the exterior first.

Landscaping crews swept in to clean up the exterior. The overgrown evergreen shrubs were pruned away and a 6 ft. lamppost was discovered underneath it all. The center court, run amok with weeds, was leveled and “landscaped” with Astroturf, recalling the product introduced in the ’60s. The existing landscaping stones were dug out and fashioned into a pad upon which the rare Design Within Reach Airstream sits proudly, ideal to serve lemonade to guests in the heat of the summer…next summer. The exterior work was our subtle way of saying someone new is in the house.

On the first day of ownership, the same morning as the first total solar eclipse in 99 years, I met my first motel guest as he was squinting into the sun from the middle of the Rainbow parking lot. “That was it?” he remarked to me, still a stranger. “Yep, aren’t you glad you didn’t drive all the way to Wyoming for that?” I quipped. We soon learned he was an atypical guest, English speaking, professionally employed, and gracious—the kind of guy you’d meet at a country club. He’s been a guest for six months.

Greeley was founded as Union Colony in 1869, an experimental utopian society later renamed Greeley after Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, who came to Colorado in the 1859 Pike's Peak Gold Rush. Built on farming and agriculture, Greeley was always ahead of the curve when it came to adapting new technologies. Telephones were in town by 1883 with electric lights downtown by 1886. Automobiles were on the roads by 1910 and the Greeley Municipal Airport was built in 1928. Today Greeley is home to 100,777 residents. Twelve thousand students are enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado.

Curiously, Greeley is the largest community on the Front Range not situated along I-25, a decision made to prioritize preserving good farmland over easy highway access. Traffic is growing every day on U.S. 85, and planners estimate its daily volume will nearly double by 2035 forever changing Greeley.

In that same mode of change, the two men who could become Greeley’s most influential people you never heard of are both named Jarod, only spelled differently aka Jarod and Jared. The first Jarod Clark, found and negotiated the deal to buy the Rainbow. He’s good at that, good at finding the odd and unusual opportunities. The second Jared is Jared Simmons, Manager of the Rainbow. He’s truly the one guy in the deal who cannot be replaced. Like any business, key employees are essential to the point that the business would be doomed to failure if not for them. In a motel setting, there’s often just one key player or a couple sharing the role of manager, reservationist, cleaning crew, marketing, record keeping and policing problems.

Quintessentially American, the Rainbow Motel has the potential to become regarded once again as a fun, clean and affordable boutique motel. “We’re resurrecting what was best about the greatest era in motels and refining it to suit modern travelers’ expectations, bringing it back to be a roadside icon,” Clark said.

The artful new entry door opens to the lobby that has been stripped of its stale carpet and heaps of overfilled file cabinets. It took the better part of a day to remove Rotary Club stickers from the windows dating back to the ‘90s. The walls and ceiling smart with fresh white paint and new-issue mod ceiling fans cool the room. The carpet is an artistic array of rainbow-colored carpet squares. The sleek mod Swedish desk where guests check-in is pure glossy white and the desk chair is rainbow colored upholstery complementing the two retro Acapulco chairs, mid-century classics. Behind the scenes, the commercial washer and dryer that washed at half value have been replaced with energy efficient powerful laundry machines that clean, really clean the bed linens and towels.

Two of the 16 guest rooms, formerly the butt of jokes like, “The ‘50s called and wants its furniture back,” are wholly transformed. Stripped of decades-old matted carpet and mattresses that smelled slightly of urine, the reveal of the new digs is astounding. Recent guests claim the rooms easily compete with the new Doubletree by Hilton Greeley at Lincoln Park, albeit without the spa, restaurants, meeting rooms and pool. A shower shield was installed instead of the tattered shower curtains and the vanity sink replaced with a custom travertine sink manufactured at the new shop next door to the Rainbow.

Of course, the Manager’s unit was a priority…a proactive move to ensure some level of comfort and satisfaction when the going got going.  Deep oversized chairs and a long sofa upholstered in matching denim paisley (a tribute to the era) provide a place to stretch out once it is lights out.

Room rates are up and so is security with a service hired to guard the premises. Policies are in place, and guests’ expectations are as amped up as the wattage in the new LED bulbs. If there is gold at the end of a rainbow, it will be the reward of guests’ amazed faces when they experience the improvements to the place, concedes Simmons. His career to date—managing a major department store—tees up as if it was always the plan to work in hospitality. He excels in customer satisfaction and that’s what differentiates average from best in both industries. Simmons is all about improving processes, timing room turns as he cleans, implementing modest yet revolutionary system changes.

Road Warriors, families en route to grandmother’s house for Christmas, salesmen on a schedule and budget, travelers and tourists—there’s a new place to check out the next time you’re passing through Greeley. We will likely be over at the Rainbow where there’s plenty to do to keep the shine on. 

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