Cheap sleeps: Check out what's new at budget hotels

Microtel chief Roy Flora was on a plane when he got the idea: Select a guest when visiting his lodgings and reward chosen ones with a free stay.

"I've done it about 50 times," he says. "I look for someone who may be on a restricted budget (perhaps using an AARP card or notably rate-conscious) and I say, 'Put away your credit card and cash. It's on my bill.' " One couple in their 70s "looked at each other and started to cry," he recalls. They had brought a granddaughter to Atlanta for spinal surgery and were on a tight budget.

Flora, group president of Microtel Inns & Suites, empowers staffers to do the same, part of a chain-wide policy to "surprise and delight" those who check in. That and other Microtel hallmarks have placed its 301 properties atop the economy/budget hotel category for an unprecedented seven consecutive years in the prestigious J.D. Power and Associates North America hotel guest satisfaction survey. It wins for consistency in product and service, J.D. Power says.

And as the economy wreaks havoc with hotel revenue, Microtel and other budget chains whose rates average under $70 are picking up customers who used to opt for pricier lodgings. They're also offering more bang for the buck, with updated rooms and increased emphasis on personalized service.

All Microtels are owned by franchisees who meet strict standards. Revamped or new ones boast quarters that are a budget version of more upscale hotels: platform beds (easier for housekeepers since there are no dust bunnies), cushier mattresses, white duvets, large flat-panel TVs.

As at a growing number of economy lodgings, free Wi-Fi and breakfast are offered. Microtel rates also include complimentary calls in the continental USA. But Flora, a veteran hotelier and former franchise consultant, attributes much of the chain's success to "service and delivery, not just the product."

So does Microtel deliver?

To find out, USA TODAY checked in unannounced Sunday night at a three-week-old property 50 miles north of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport in Canton, Ga. Like most Microtels, it is compact — just 71 rooms and suites.

Front-desk staffer Jennifer White, a nursing student at Kennesaw State University, was helpful on the phone before arrival, giving directions. The new Microtel is next to a Hooters restaurant and a Wendy's, not a particularly lovely location.

But inside the nondescript four-story building, White's cheery greeting was worthy of a four-star lodging. She checked that the room and its location were acceptable (a $61 single on a high floor away from the elevator) and suggested spots for dinner.

Room 412 was small but spotless. A 26-inch flat-panel TV and modern nature print hung on stucco-like walls, done up in soothing shades of chocolate and butterscotch. A pillow for back support sat on Microtel's signature window seat. Energy-saving fluorescent bulbs were hidden and softened by a cheap-chic Japanese-style light box over the bed.

The small bathroom boasted a granite counter and a curved shower rod to make bathing less claustrophobic. Only old-fashioned plastic cups and lack of minibar screamed "budget hotel."

There was one truly jarring note: the maddening drip, drip, drip of a leaking bathtub faucet.

A minute after that discovery, the phone rang.

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