Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Nervous About Staying With J Tonight

Diane, 3:30 PM, March 29th. Entering the town of Evansville, less than a mile north of the Kentucky state line, twenty miles east of Illinois. I’ve never seen so many traffic lights in my life. As G.D. Ritzy would say, this town’s full of pop, sizzle, and bebop. Forty-four degrees on a rainy day. My weather app said warm and partly cloudy. If you could sell an app a million times for 99 cents and have it be wrong 60 percent of the time, it’d beat working. Mileage is 69,420. Gauge is on full because I filled up in Kentucky where gas was cheaper. Remind me to brag around the office about saving a nickel per gallon. Lunch was nine dollars and forty-two cents at Grandy’s. That’s on Highway 41 in Henderson. That was fried chicken, baked beans, coleslaw, and some allegedly sweet tea. Damn mediocre food. Diane, if you ever get down this way, eat at the Taco John’s next door instead. Okay. Looks like I’ll be staying at a hotel named for Howard D. Johnson. Shouldn’t be too hard to remember that. I thought I’d get a room there so I could take a look at the building that used to be a Signature Inn. I hope that it’s a clean place, reasonably priced. That’s what I need, a clean place, reasonably priced. Oh Diane, I almost forgot. I’ve got to find out why this town has so many traffic lights. They’re really annoying.

Loyal Broken Chains readers have probably deduced that I spend a lot of time on the road and quite a few nights away from home. Following a series of increasingly poor experiences, I largely gave up on staying in chain hotels, instead opting for Airbnb properties, which more often than not offer an excellent experience, and are more comfortable than the average chain hotel for around half of the price per night, but recently, I developed a curiosity about one hotel in particular.

Thanks to the impressively comprehensive blog, The History of Signature Inn, I’ve developed an interest in the essentially defunct Signature Inn brand. While no original locations remain in the chain today, a good many of their distinctive buildings remain standing particularly in Indiana and Ohio, states I visit often. The majority of these buildings are still open for business under different hotel brands. I’ve also long had an interest in the diminished Howard Johnson brand, that led me to spending the night in an Econo Lodge that had originally been a classic, 1965 vintage Howard Johnson. The point at which these two interests converge is in Evansville, Indiana, home to Howard Johnson-branded hotel, operating out of a structure that was originally a Signature Inn.

Howard Deering Johnson got his start running a pharmacy and ice cream shop in Quincy, Massachusetts in the 1920s, slowly expanding first into seaside concession stands and then a restaurant chain. The first Howard Johnson Motor Lodge opened in Savannah, Georgia in 1954, and they quickly popped up all over the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Locations had iconic architecture, featuring an A-frame lobby structure known as a gate lodge out front with a bright orange roof, and a distinctive finned cupola, usually not far from a similarly roofed Howard Johnson restaurant. Rooms offered innovative amenities like silent-flush toilets, dual shower heads, bedside light switches, and a patio for every guest room. As automobile travel declined as a result of fuel shortages in the 1970’s, Howard Johnson's like many chains set up to catered to travelers, struggled. The restaurant and hotel divisions would eventually be split and sold off to new corporate parents. The restaurant brand is essentially dead today, though one restaurant in upstate New York uses the Howard Johnson name and erroneously claims to be the "Last one standing." Meanwhile, the hotel brand has bounced between numerous owners since 1979, each of whom neglected the brand to varying extents as its value slowly diminished. Wyndham owns the brand today. There were once around 500 Howard Johnson motor lodges in and around the US, while the brand was controlled by Howard D. Johnson, and later his son Howard B. Johnson, (It’s too bad he didn’t go by Howard Johnson Junior. They kids could have called him HoJoJu!) but following a series of ownership changes, the count of Howard Johnson Hotel locations today is around 331, few of which were originally built as Howard Johnson properties, not a major contrast from the 500 that once were in operation, but if you compare their location count to that of Holiday Inn, their largest competitor in the early days of motel chains the contrast is much greater, as there are nearly 1,200 Holiday Inn hotels open around the world today.

Signature Inn came on the scene just as Howard Johnson was beginning to fade. John Bontreger opened the first one in Indianapolis in 1981, and the chain grew throughout Indiana and surrounding states through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Signature Inns had distinctive architecture of their own, with a tall canopy leading to the main entrance to a lobby with a small atrium. The peaked roofs had a prominent rib running along the top throughout the building. Signs would be mounted on the outside of the rib and the top would house skylights. Many locations also featured an S-shaped pool. The chain fell on hard times not long after merging with Jameson Inns in 1999. Bankruptcy came in 2011, and by the close of 2012, the last of the Signature Inns had closed. The brand ended up in the hands of America’s Best Franchising, and they would go on to use the Signature Inn name on a few different hotels, but none are housed in purpose-built Signature Inn structures.

The Evansville Signature Inn was built in 1986, and became a Jameson Inn twenty years later. It was among the last of the chain to carry the Jameson brand when it became a Howard Johnson in 2012. It was one of a few businesses in Evansville I wanted to check out on my trip there a couple weeks ago, so I eschewed my normal Airbnb, and spent $79 plus tax for a room at the Howard Johnson instead. I had long been curious about the current brand image Wyndham is trying to cultivate for Howard Johnson, as it seems to lean heavily on the history of the brand, perhaps to attract nostalgic baby boomers who grew up dining and sleeping under the orange roof on family vacations. Marketing emphasizes rooms decorated with the classic orange and turquoise Howard Johnson color scheme with Midcentury Modern touches. This new nostalgic aesthetic Wyndham is trying to cultivate for the Howard Johnson brand, plus the prospect of visiting a former Signature Inn was simply too much for me to resist. 

There's no mistaking that roofline and canopy. This is an old Signature Inn.  
The outside of the building is still striking today, if a bit dated. 

From the outside, the Evansville Howard Johnson still looks much like it did in its Signature Inn days. The prominent roof, faded green in color is still there. The fact that it wasn’t painted orange during the Howard Johnson conversion felt like a missed opportunity. It was late afternoon when I checked in, slightly unnerved that the process involved signing a waiver absolving the hotel from responsibility should my belongings or vehicle be stolen or damaged on their property. Once I had my room key, I took a few minutes to appreciate the lobby, noting that minimal changes had been made. 

A group of Norwegian businessmen abruptly got up and left these tables shortly before I took this picture. 

The furniture, tile floors, and exposed wood ceilings all seemed to date back to the Jameson/Signature era. The skylight and vaulted ceiling extending from the canopy outside to the lobby atrium inside was a striking bit of vintage Signature Inn architecture. Only signage and a few strategically places swaths of orange and turquoise paint indicated the place was a Howard Johnson property now. The dining chairs in the breakfast area had been adorned with stretchy orange cloth covers in a hasty attempt to incorporate the corporate color scheme. On one wall, an enlarged Howard Johnson print ad from the 1950’s showed a family relaxing in a hotel room with a view of the pool and a Howard Johnson restaurant out the window, as if Wyndham is begging customers to remember what the brand used to be. 

 ˙ǝlʎʇs uᴉ ʞɔɐq ǝɯoɔ oʇ ƃuᴉoƃ sᴉ ǝʞᴉl noʎ uᴉɐɥɔ lǝʇoɥ ʇɐɥ┴ ˙sʍǝu pooƃ ʇoƃ ǝʌ,I

The ancient carpet looks especially out of place against the colorful door frames. 

I proceeded down the hallway toward my room, and noted that the guest room door frames had been painted in alternating shades of turquoise and orange. The funky color palette was incongruous with the surroundings however. The door frames seemed to clash with the blond wood of the doors themselves, and the busy baroque pattern on the carpet, both of which likely dated back to the Signature/Jameson days. Incongruous was a word that kept occurring to me once I was in my room as well. While the beds were against a turquoise accent wall, and were trimmed with matching turquoise runners, and there were some similarly funky lamps, mirrors, and artwork, all the furniture in the room seemed to be leftovers from the Jameson/Signature days. Their neoclassical aesthetic clashed with the newer furnishings in the room, and served to highlight how cheaply the rooms had been updated. During the conversion, a single wall had been painted, a few things were hung on the wall, some colorful cloth was thrown on the bed, and some lamps were replaced. Anything heavy or expensive was left where it was. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Hotels at this price point rarely invest significantly in the rooms beyond basic upkeep, if that. It was clear the room was meant to look good when photographed from one specific angle, which was the angle used for room pictures on the booking websites. Once in the room, it was obvious that it was a thrown-together mess. 

The room looks fun, fresh, and funky from this angle...

...but rotate 90 degrees, and you'll find some tired furniture...

...and old carpet that doesn't match the rest of the room. 
I had the strangest urge to headbutt this mirror. 

For all its aesthetic faults, the room did manage to tick many modern hotel boxes. The bed was comfortable. The TV was modern with more than enough channels, and the WiFi worked well. My main complaint about the place is with the staff. My room was across the hall from the laundry room where the housekeeping staff washes the linens, and they were at work, playing loud music and having boisterous, argumentative conversations until well after dark, all of which were perfectly audible in my room. Around the time they finished up and went home, my neighbors began having a loud argument of their own that didn’t subside until past midnight. When I called the front desk to complain about the noise, nothing was done despite the clerk's assurances otherwise. 

She's deactivated; Wrapped in plastic!

Guest safety also appeared to be of minimal concern as well. When I entered my room, a clear plastic trash bag had been placed over the smoke detector, presumably so some previous guest could vape in the room without worry of setting it off. Housekeeping had neglected to remove it, creating a potential safety issue. Likewise, when I went outside to check out the S-shaped pool (It was drained and the gate was locked. It’s still pretty chilly in Southern Indiana in early spring.) I noted the card reader on the side entrance to the building was broken, but the door had been propped open with a small rock, allowing anyone wandering by to enter the building undetected. 

"I've gotten all new drapes for my hotel room. Ed bought them for me yesterday at Gentleman Jim's."
Between the noise, worries about safety, and a barely functional in-room HVAC unit, I managed about three hours of sleep during my time in my hotel room. When I did manage to drift off, I had strange dreams involving a little man in a red suit slowly dancing while seeming to talk backwards. Weirdly, I understood every word he said. When I checked out the next day, there was no manager present for me to make aware of the issues I’d had. I left a list of complaints with the desk clerk, but it seems as likely as not that it went in the trash. I held off putting on my red-framed glasses on, clutching my laptop to my chest, and informing her that one day, my blog would have something to say about this. My blog saw something that night. (Ask it!)

During the heyday of the Howard Johnson brand, as well as the Signature Inn brand, a high emphasis was placed on customer satisfaction and guest comfort. Efforts were made to keep the experience between locations consistent and positive. In the low to mid priced hotel segment, that emphasis has slowly eroded away. For many large hotel companies, including Wyndham, franchising has become an increasingly lucrative revenue stream, and as a result, it has become increasingly advantageous for the company to keep franchisees, regardless of whether their properties meet basic standards to carry their brand. Many hotel companies, Wyndham included, own the rights to multiple hotel brands, arranged in a hierarchical structure of price points. When a franchised location no longer meets the standards of the high-priced Brand X, the parent company merely offers them a franchise agreement under the lower-priced Brand Y rather than forcing them to clean up their act, allowing the hotel owner to continue to operate as part of a well-known chain, and allowing the company to continue to collect franchise fees. It’s win-win. The only loser is the customer. Howard Johnson’s is at the low end of Wyndham’s brand portfolio, meaning it’s squarely in Brand Z territory, which would probably explain my disappointing, but in retrospect not surprising experience.

My brief stay at the Evansville Howard Johnson, formerly Signature Inn, was emblematic of problems with the hotel industry as a whole. Once storied and respected brands are now being used to allow franchised operators to run glorified flophouses under the flag of a national brand, often resting on the laurels of that brand's former glory There are still decent budget-priced chain hotels out there, but in today’s hotel market, cheap hotels run the gamut from generally acceptable to uninhabitable. For the foreseeable future, I’ll stick to Airbnb when I’m travelling, looking for a clean place, reasonably priced, as they tend to be acceptable to excellent for much less money, thereby freeing up resources for me to travel to more broken chains, and to continue my quest to find perfect cup of coffee and slice of cherry pie. 


  1. Relationship status:It's complicated.

  2. That's a shame, both regarding the minimal updates to the hotel during the Howard Johnson conversion and your poor experience while staying there. The prospect of a HoJo in an old Signature Inn really excited me at first (I've long been a fan of Ryan's work)... but it seems like I really ought not to have gotten my hopes up for anything great (besides the post itself, of course!).

  3. I'm lowkey obsessed with the Signature Inns, have snooped around almost all the ones in the Indianapolis area, but haven't stayed in one (I want to see one of the pools in action). The ones here look decent on the outside at least, very recognizable as what they used to be. I have a goal of hitting them all! Your review didn't surprise me, my only HoJo experience wasn't great either.

  4. ::Diane, 3:30 PM, March 29th. Entering the town of Evansville, less than a mile north of the Kentucky state line::

    And here I thought you've given in to The Dark Side, Agent Cooper!