It is fair to say that cars built the New Zealand motel industry. Even to this day, they go hand in hand. It’s typical for motel stays to be booked at about the same time as car rentals in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s car boom of the 1950s has a lot to do with it. In those prosperous times post World War II, when car ownership was an increasingly affordable proposition for many Kiwis, motels began to replace hotels as the accommodation of choice. As cars became more common, it became less important for accommodation to be located in town and city centres, or near railway stations, as hotels typically were. Motels could be built further away from the town centre, where land was cheaper. The first motel (‘motor-hotel’) opened in America in 1926 but motels were not built in New Zealand until that post-war car boom of the 1950s. The first motel to open in New Zealand was the Picton Motel in 1952, followed by Meadowcourt in Papatoetoe, Auckland in 1953 and Motel Rochester in Newmarket, Auckland, in 1954.
New Zealanders embraced motels because they offered holidaymakers and business travellers benefits that hotels couldn’t. Affordability was just one of them. Because motels didn’t provide meals and offered a limited range of services compared to hotels, less staff were needed to operate them. The lower wage bill meant motel owners could keep prices down. However, cheap did not mean nasty. Motel facilities in New Zealand were relatively luxurious with each unit having its own bathroom, a basic kitchenette and even a dining table. At the same time, most hotel rooms were sparsely appointed with most of them not even having a handbasin. It was all about shared bathrooms down the hall, and New Zealand travellers who were becoming used to motels and having their own bathroom found this sharing thing a little hard to stomach.
The self-catering facilities in rooms also became a big selling point for New Zealand motels. Instead of expensive meals in hotel restaurants, holidaymakers could bring in their own food and cook it in their kitchenettes, which made motel living even more affordable.
Motels spread rapidly all over New Zealand, with their popularity increasing even further once six o’clock closing ended in hotels in 1967. As the Licensing Control Commission said in 1968:
‘Travellers simply prefer the privacy, spaciousness and amenities of a motel room and are becoming more and more disinclined to take a room in a hotel, particularly since ten o’clock closing, when they may have to put up with the hubbub from the bars below or nearby.”
By 2008, motels were officially the most popular form of accommodation in New Zealand, making up a third of total guest nights. In recent years, they’ve faced increased competition from private homeowners offering their places as Air BnBs. But with COVID-19 restricting travel to the degree it has, and with the great Kiwi road trip coming back in vogue as a result, expect a resurgence in the New Zealand motel industry. After all, what’s a road trip without a car? And what’s a car without a motel to pull in to? As we said, cars and motels go hand in hand.