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.

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."