No Room at the Inn

Whatever happened to the NO VACANCY sign?

Historic Route 66 enters Amarillo, Texas, from the northeast, on a strip lined with seedy motels and fast-food restaurants. This is Route 66 in its older-Elvis phase, bloated and decadent and festooned with baubles. Photos of areas like this always accompany newspaper articles about the horrors of unmanaged development, and a drive down this stretch is a good antidote for syrupy nostalgia over the pre-interstate era.

Most visitors to Amarillo these days arrive on Interstate 40, which skirts the southern edge of the city center and has numerous exits that slough drivers onto mysterious and vexing frontage roads. These are the natural habitat of the chain motel, and La Quinta, Travelodge, Fairfield Inn, and Econolodge all offer accommodations here.

Students of the commercial landscape could drive along both routes and notice any number of things about the evolution of American travel—how the independent motel has entered a late stage of eclipse; how motel architecture has changed from low-slung L-shaped structures to bland multi-story boxes clad in stuccolike panels. But on a recent drive around Amarillo here's what I noticed: every single motel along old Route 66 had one of those VACANCY/NO VACANCY signs. Not a single one along I-40 did.

This trend isn't peculiar to Amarillo, of course. I first noticed the decline of the NO VACANCY sign about three years ago, during a trip down the East Coast. More precisely, I noticed it late one evening when I needed to find a place to sleep. Over the course of an hour I pulled off the highway and ran in and out of half a dozen chain motels to ask if they had rooms available. None did.

After about four motels I started wondering why the proprietors weren't informing me of room availability from the road, as has traditionally been done. I would even have welcomed that free-floating red-neon NO (without the VACANCY) employed by some older motels when full, although it had always struck me as brusque and a little creepy. But the NO VACANCY sign, even in its abbreviated form, appeared to be edging toward extinction.

You may think this a small matter. Perhaps it is. But, as small matters will do, this one began to fester. I wondered what exactly had happened to these signs. Had the technology somehow been lost? Did they fall victim to a hoteliers' conspiracy? At first I sought an answer by asking front-desk clerks about their lack of NO VACANCY signs. Their responses were rarely helpful. More often than not they'd lean over and peer out the window to confirm that they didn't have such a sign, and then shrug and say they weren't sure why.

So I started calling around to motel historians, e-mailing the question to lists of roadside-architecture aficionados, and writing letters to hospitality corporations. The answer, I was sure, would be simple.

The early history of the NO VACANCY sign is indistinct at best. "It probably started with a note stuck in the window or taped to a door somewhere, and then became a small sign along the road," says John Jakle, a co-author of The Motel in America (1996), which is to roadside accommodations what Gibbon's history is to Rome. "It must have gotten to a point where it evolved into an electrical sign that you could turn on and off at the flip of a switch."

What is known is that flicking on the NO became a matter of great pride in the 1940s and 1950s, when motels were cheeky upstarts competing against entrenched downtown hotels. "It was almost a status symbol," says Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., the director of the Historic Preservation Commission in Maine, a state still rich in early tourist courts and motels. "No vacancy. We've made it here. This is a good place."

Unlike the overly cheery Big Boy character, the NO VACANCY sign was never just an eye-catching roadside trifle destined to end up in coffee-table books marketed to those with an appetite for kitsch. It conveyed useful information. A signal trait of the Information Age is that data endlessly proliferates, occupying ever more obscure niches. (Advertising on urinal deodorant cakes comes to mind.) But with the disappearance of the NO VACANCY sign, information has actually become scarcer. How did this happen?

One moderately persuasive theory was advanced by Craig Thom, a computer technician from Illinois who describes himself as someone who "drives around a lot." Responding to an e-mail query, he suggested that the lack of a sign may in fact produce more information, at least for somebody. Several years ago a clerk at a Super 8 in Missouri told him that the manager wanted potential customers to present themselves even when rooms were unavailable, so that the front desk could track demand, presumably to gauge the need for expansion. "They are sacrificing customer convenience for their data, which doesn't make me happy," Thom wrote.

Someone else suggested that I look into the early history of Holiday Inn. Kemmons Wilson, of Tennessee, founded the chain in 1952 and served as the (self-proclaimed) Nation's Innkeeper until 1979, when he stepped aside. Wilson is now eighty-eight and heads up a chain of regional motels based in Memphis. I phoned him to see what he could tell me about the NO VACANCY sign.

"Now, isn't that an interesting question," Wilson said in a honeysuckle drawl. "Because that was the first thing I ever said: We'll never use a NO VACANCY sign." Wilson recalled early road trips across the Southeast, driving with his family down highways ablaze with NO signs. He remembered thinking that these signs were the height of foolishness, a missed opportunity to aid travelers in need. "Here you had a chance to help two people—someone with a room to sell and someone looking to buy a room," he told me. From the start he forbade his franchisees from using NO VACANCY signs; the gloriously rococo Great Sign for which Holiday Inn was to become famous permitted short greetings to local customers ("Happy 50th Rick and Gladys—Kiwanis Tues 7 pm") but was never used to broadcast room availability.

Jefferson Rogers, who is also a co-author of The Motel in America, worked the front desk of a Holiday Inn in New Mexico in the 1980s. He confirmed Wilson's account. "We were told, okay, you may be full, but you can find them a better property in town," he told me. "They would then have a warm and fuzzy feeling about Holiday Inns."

Although the beginning of the end of the NO VACANCY era may well have come half a century ago, I can't see that Wilson's reasoning explains the sign's absence today. No front-desk clerk at a fully occupied motel has ever offered to help me find a room, and "warm and fuzzy" experiences in today's service economy are about as common as free road maps at gas stations.

Next I posed my question in letters to various motel chains. Most ignored my inquiry, although three responded with the sort of your-business-is-important-to-us form letters that can induce a coma if read all the way through. Then I got a call from Liz Wilber, at Six Continents, the British corporation that bought Holiday Inn in 1990. She told me that I was not the first to have written about the matter—in fact, the company had received one other letter. She explained that travelers today make and cancel reservations constantly, and room availability fluctuates almost minute to minute. "They'd be flipping the signs on and off all day," she reported, almost mournfully.

I suspect that this isn't an indication of adventurousness or spontaneity, however, but just the reverse—a reflection of travelers' tendencies to provide for virtually any contingency, leaving nothing to chance and endlessly fine-tuning their trips. "There's been a change in the way people travel," Jefferson Rogers told me. "People don't just pull off the road to look for a place to stay, or shoot off on vacation. There's a lot of planning now."

Having learned my lesson three years ago, I've modernized my room-finding tactics. In Amarillo I did what I usually do now in an unfamiliar city—I tracked down a booklet of motel discount coupons and then located a reasonably quiet pay phone and started calling around, giving preference to places with toll-free numbers. It's a relatively efficient method that yields satisfactory results, although it doesn't feel very Kerouac-esque. Working the pay phone, I could still hear the call of the open road—but I could swear it was fainter than it once had been.