Europeans Check Into Budget-Motel Concept

FINDING a place to stay in America is all too easy, what with highway billboards and neon logos pointing the way. In Europe, motels are next to impossible to find. Europeans stick most of their inns in town, not along the highway.

Now that is changing. A new breed of low-priced motel is springing up along the highways of Europe. The chains have catchy names: Formule 1, Premiere Classe, and Mister Bed.

For most of our 10-day drive through Europe, recently, my wife and I went for charm: the cozy Limmathof in Zurich, the friendly Hotel Wortz in Stuttgart, Germany, and the idyllic Golden Griffin in Rothenburg, Germany. They were memorable even if they were difficult to find. After an hour of fruitless searching in Augsburg, Germany, at midnight we finally called the hotel manager, who came and rescued us.

But the last night of the trip, we longed for something simpler: a cheap roadside motel, the kind that in America would squeeze ``econo'' or ``budget'' into its name. In Namur, Belgium, we found one.

The Formule 1 was functional: lots of concrete, a jaunty colored-triangle design on the outside, a packed lobby inside. The manager quickly dispatched a long line of guests. No room keys here, just a piece of paper with the room number and a security code for the door lock. The room was small, mostly taken up with a double bed, bunk bed overhead, built-in sink, and color television.

Bathrooms? A true European touch: They're down the hall. Don't go in when the light above the door is red. That's the wash cycle when the shower and bathrooms are being heat cleaned.

The price is hard to beat, especially in high-priced Europe: 999 Belgian francs (less than $29) for up to three people per room. Breakfast is a little extra. We passed. It looked more like standard-issue pastries from a Super 8 than fine Continental fare.

Still, Europeans flock to the place.

``It's rare to find a place with access like this,'' says Rudy Lebrun of Belgium, a fellow guest.

``It's a knockout,'' adds Clive Richardson of Wales. ``I saw the sign on the motorway and ... I said to the wife: `I think it's cheap. Let's go have a look.' ''

While two- and three-star places are losing business in the current recession, zero- and one-star motels are expanding, says Claire Cosson, a writer for Journal L'Hotellerie, a French hotel trade publication. ``It's really the only market for the future.''

Accor, a French travel-services company, pioneered the concept when it started the Formule 1 chain in 1985. Since then, the chain has grown to more than 250 motels mostly in Western Europe. The competition is fierce. Premiere Classe is nipping at Formule 1's heels. Villages-Hotel, Mister Bed, and others are also pursuing the budget market, which has led to an enormous building boom in cheap French motels. Last year, France built more new hotel rooms than all other western European countries combined.

But Accor, which also owns 40 percent of Motel 6, has an ace up its sleeve: It could import the US chain's folksy spokesman, Tom Bodett. I'm sure he'd leave the luminiere on for you.

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