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

It was White, asking, "How do you like the room?" Informed of the drip, the fresh-faced brunette raced up to show alternative quarters, all more spacious and none with a feisty faucet. She volunteered that she had called the manager of her favorite restaurant and there would be no problem getting a table.

"I want to make sure guests are comfortable," she said, because some are hesitant to voice their concerns.

Such staff behavior is no surprise to Flora.

New employees get his "Recipes for Success" pamphlet containing such mantras as "we are only as strong as the reputation our customers remember from their experience with us."

Flora, 64, ticks off other reasons for the two decade-old chain's popularity with consumers. New construction is a hallmark, he says. "We will bring no conversions (of other branded lodgings) into the system." Thirty Microtels are under construction.

Competitors, including Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn, also are renovating. It's a "boutique approach to economy lodging," says Red Roof CEO Joe Wheeling. Guests like fresh and modern rooms, hospitality experts agree.

And what do analysts think of Microtel, acquired by the Wyndham Hotel Group in July ?

It's a "lean, consistent" operation, "and the profit margin for this type of hotel is the highest in the industry," says lodging specialist David Loeb of Robert W. Baird & Co. He does question whether Wyndham will be "more concerned with growth than maintaining brand standards."

Meanwhile, travelers are increasingly seeking bargains, which bodes well for economy lodgings.

November and December were rough on every segment, says Jan Freitag of hotel-tracking Smith Travel Research. But "economy properties are not losing occupancy as quickly, and rates aren't dropping as precipitously" as in other segments.

The start of 2009 looks to be "tough all around," he says. "But economy properties are prepared to weather the storm a little better."

Back in the cocoon of Room 402 at the Canton Microtel, sleep comes easily on a comfortable mattress (though no Starwood Heavenly Bed) and 200-thread-count cotton/polyester sheets that are smooth (but no match for the bliss of Egyptian cotton at luxury brands).

In the morning, after the included spread of cereal, bagels, waffles, juice, yogurt and coffee in a modern breakfast room, general manager Adrienne DeMarco leads this now-unmasked reporter on a tour of Microtel's rooms for guests with disabilities.

They include door peepholes at wheelchair level, strobe lights that flash to warn hearing-impaired guests of an emergency (or that someone is at the door) and roll-in showers with handrails and seats.

Explaining a housekeeper's earlier, spontaneous "have a nice day" to this guest, DeMarco says she has "told everyone to picture yourself in their shoes and do what you would want someone to do (in that situation). After all, we are all people."

As budget-minded travelers trade down when booking — 81.6% are downscaling in 2009, says a just-released Travel Leaders survey of 547 travel agents — Microtel and other chains look to benefit.

"I challenge everyone in the economy segment to raise the bar," Flora says. "Let's make the segment a more attractive proposition" to travelers of all sorts.

"That helps us all."

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