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Lessons Learned From a 1950s Motel

Mike spent most of his career in the health insurance industry before starting his own business consulting and personal development company.

"Dad, What's a Motel?"

We were driving down Route 301 in the heart of Ocala, a town in Central Florida known for spectacular thoroughbred horses. On this stretch of road, there were far more old, run-down, 1940s/1950s style motels than Kentucky Derby winners.

Since I never waste an opportunity to give a good "dad lecture," I told my two kids the story. We talked about how the automobile changed American culture forever, and how people began to venture out farther from home on a regular basis in ways that had never happened before.

My wife and I explained that the motels were a natural outgrowth of this change. When you drive long distances on family and business trips, you're going to need a place to stay. A place where you can park your car and grab a bite to eat before heading out the next day.

Judging from the strip of road that we were on, at one point they flourished. There were so many of them on both sides of the road over a 5-10 mile stretch I finally stopped counting.

The kids listened for a while, and asked a few questions....but they seemed more interested in their mother and I's recollections of a bygone era. We talked about staying in these types of places when we were kids.

We shared memories of restaurants (some good, some not so much) and being able to watch cable (a special treat). We also reminisced about the phenomena that were HoJos (Howard Johnson's, for those that never had the privilege).

Motel, Route 66

Motel, Route 66

The kids thought that was hilarious. They took to mocking the motels' kitschy names, and, in their view, pathetic boasts (cable TV! Air conditioning!).

They noticed the obvious aura of disrepair and dirt, grit, and despair. They noted that all of the motels seemed to be attached to or very close to a liquor store, pawnshop, or rough looking bar. They were looking at businesses who had seen better more and no less.

I thought of people who watched a way of life change...a good business model gone bad. I thought of fortunes lost...of people who watched it slowly slip away.

The Curse of the Interstate

It was the interstate highway system that of course led to the problems. When you're taking a long trip, you want to get there faster. Why hit all of the stoplights and deal with local traffic when you can blow down I-75 South to reach your destination?

I'm sure it didn't happen quickly. It takes time for people to get used to driving so fast, for so long, when they're not used to it. People probably wanted safer, more reliable cars.

It took time for people to abandon the slower, more leisurely, more pleasurable drive in favor of fuel efficiency, effectiveness, and time management. But it happened.

Life moves forward, often quickly. Eventually, people catch up to and like the idea of doing it faster, better, more effectively. We adapt, we improve, we get better....and old ways of doing things fall by the wayside.

Interstate bypass

Interstate bypass

The beginning of the end

It struck me as we continued to drive that those business owners were in a TOUGH spot. They undoubtedly invested a lot of money, time, and sweat equity building up their motel business.

The interstates took away their visibility and traveler's awareness of them. The large hotel chains that sprung up just off the interstate began to take their customers.

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It's a difficult position for the motel owner, to be sure. There's no social inexpensive (compared to commercials and billboards) way to advertise. You can't pick the motel up and move it elsewhere. You're kind of stuck. It's a dilemma demonstrated in great detail in one of my favorite cartoon movies....Cars.

Interstates, Motels, Technology, and You

I decided I didn't know what the correct answer was for a motel owner in that situation. But one thought kept coming back to me:

Did they see it coming? Did they see the trend, and didn't know what to do, or perhaps couldn't do much about it? Or did they continue to deny what was happening until all the good options were gone? How about you?

Turn on the news...take a look around at your local and regional economy, as well as the nation's economy as a whole:

  • Are you concerned that in the future your job will be done by a robot, or that technology will make your current job obsolete?
  • Are you working at a minimum wage or low-income job and don't see a good, upwardly mobile career path?
  • Are you in middle management, and worried about being downsized?
  • Are you just starting out and can't figure out how on earth to make a living given your current job and student loan debt?

Are you staring at a similar situation as the motel owner?

Evaluate the Environment

Okay, you suspect that maybe you fall into one of the categories above or one that's close enough. What to do?

First off, do an honest assessment of your environment, and recognize that you're not going to change the environment; it's here to stay.

The environment is like the weather. It doesn't care what you think, it isn't concerned with being fair, and it is completely beyond your control. For example, you may have seen technology replace or reduce the number of jobs in your industry....such as the automated checkout technology at grocery stores.

Recognize that the environment will never go back to what it was. The interstate highways didn't go anywhere, and neither will automation. Those jobs that were shipped overseas? They're not coming're not going to be able to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

When making your evaluation, make sure to get information and perspectives from a number of different sources...not just your friends and co-workers, or likeminded people. Read publications that serve your industry.

Review financial analysts who evaluate companies and industries. Take a look at the assessments from employment agencies and personnel management publications and organizations. Go to online job boards and see how much your job or industry is (or isn't) in demand.

Be as objective as you can possibly be. Try not to be overly optimistic or need to be a realist here. Get feedback from people whom you respect and trust.

And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.

Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies making buggy whips.

And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw.

Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company?"

— Lawrence Garfield (Played by Danny Devito) "Other People's Money" 1991

Self Assessment

Next, do an honest self-evaluation. Are you really indispensable.....or would the company or the industry roll on without you, and not even skip a beat?

What skills do you have, and what education and skills have you developed over the past few years? If you were giving a job interview to a person who is just like you, would you hire them?

Do you spend time improving your skillset? Have you applied for any new jobs, within or outside of your company, in the past 3 years? What hobbies do you have? Do you have any special connections or talents that could be put to use in staring your own business, or generating outside income?

How's your health? How many hours per day or week can you reasonably work and perform at a high level? Do you have outside responsibilities (such as to small children, or an ailing parent) that may place restrictions on your time, your finances, or your ability to make career changes?

Do you have reliable transportation and stable living arrangements? Does your job place physical demands on you that you may not be able to meet as you get older?

Does your job or industry change rapidly, requiring constant education and training just to keep up....or can you go years without learning new skills or knowledge?

Lifelong Learning

So you may need to change direction in the future to avoid becoming a 1950s motel. What next? Become a lifelong learner.

The days of going to college or a trade school, getting your degree and certification, and not doing any more learning for several decades are gone forever.....if they ever existed at all.

The nature of employment has changed....putting in 30 years, getting a gold watch, and riding off into the sunset used to be a common occurrence. Nowadays, people change jobs several times over the course of a career.

In the uncertain world of today, you are going to have to constantly learn, grow, and develop just to keep up....the explosion of technological growth and change demands it.

In The Snowball, the famous biography of legendary investor Warren Buffett, there is a part of the book that recounts a conversation between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett when they met for the first time in 1991. In that conversation, Gates famously proclaimed: "Kodak is Toast."

Today, we understand what Gates meant. Digital technology changed the world...we no longer need to develop film in order to take beautiful pictures.

But very few people understood that in 1991. There is a term for what happened with Kodak, and it's a good idea to both learn and come to grips with it.

Disruptive innovation is a term in the field of business administration which refers to an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leading firms, products, and alliances."

— Disruptive innovation - Wikipedia

Adapt Like the Loveless Cafe

Since change and disruptive innovation are going to occur, it's important to be flexible, and learn how to adapt to it....which is easier for the lifelong learners of the world.

Remember: The environment is going to change, just like the weather does. You have as much control over it as you do the weather.

The Loveless Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee was a former motel and restaurant that began operations in 1951. After a few different ownership changes, management saw the writing on the wall in 1985 and closed motel operations.

Loveless instead focused on creating an exceptional restaurant experience for customers. They re-designed the motel to create a country store, a mail-order business, and an event venue for parties, weddings, and other events.

Loveless has received national recognition for its accomplishments.....but it's important to note that none of that would have happened if they had continued to think of themselves solely as a "motel and restaurant".

The owners of the Loveless Cafe saw the handwriting on the wall and decided the interstate wouldn't defeat them.....just re-define them.

Loveless Cafe Motel Sign

Loveless Cafe Motel Sign

Embrace Change

So what did I tell my kids when they asked why the motels kept losing money, or why they didn't do something about it? I told them the truth: I didn't really know. Like I said, it had to be (and still is) a tough situation to be in.

But I did tell them, as best as I could, what I did know: Life can come at you hard and fast. It's not always fair. But you can adapt and overcome the interstates in your world if you accept them and their impact, and embrace the change with confidence, courage, and intelligence, but they were right; people should no longer boast about free air-conditioning.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Marie Glass on July 25, 2017:

Nice article, Mike. Brought back many memories from family trips long ago. Our lives are filled with change so we must be flexible to keep moving forward. It's essential.

Gene Church on July 24, 2017:

Insightful article. Great storyline.

Blackhawk850 on July 23, 2017:

Excellent and relevant article! He gets it!

Kevin Winkeler on July 23, 2017:

Thank you Mike for a great article! I'm going through several of the issues you mention in your article right now within my career and my company. You have me plenty to think about!

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