"We were told to 'wow' the people," said David, who was covering the front desk at the renovated Rockville, Md., property, Red Roof Plus+.
My room also pushed the superlative.
"Adding more WOW to your stay!" read a cheery welcome card on the bureau. The literature bullet-pointed the perks of my room, including 36 high-definition TV channels, free Wi-Fi and in-room coffee.
But were these goodies impressive enough to draw a "wow" from my lips?
In the past, the economy chain usually elicited a response that fell somewhere between a resigned groan and the cry of a wounded animal. For many bleary-eyed travelers, Red Roof was the Last Resort. Check in late, check out early, and catch enough shut-eye to avoid drowsy driver syndrome the next day.
But, starting in January 2012, Red Roof Inn surrendered to the scalpel for a serious makeover. It spiffed up its appearance (out: blue carpeting; in: woodlike vinyl floors) and incorporated 21st-century amenities (multiple-outlet strip, flat-screen TV).
Of its 360 hotels nationwide, 200 properties have unveiled their new faces and bodies, with the remaining inns expected to debut in 24 to 36 months. The ultimate goal of this mad hotelier experiment: to forge a new lodging category called "upscale economy."
"Before, this was a motel. You just slept here," David told me during my stay on a recent weekend. "Now, it's a hotel."
For an extra layer of uptownness, the company recently added the Plus+ label to 16 properties that vaulted higher than the established standard. (Fifteen more will appear by the end of May.) To really take advantage of the "plus" sign, I booked the newest level of room, the premium, which I hoped would be the glittering cubic zirconia in the center of the crown.
From the outside, the changes are elusive. The 189 rooms still occupy a pair of low-slung structures surrounded by parking spots and divided by a swatch of grass more inviting to leashed dogs than to picnickers and cloud-watchers. (The hotel is pet-friendly, and the animals certainly don't use the indoor facilities.) The rooms adhere to the motel blueprint, with each one featuring a large front window vulnerable to prying eyes. The dozen premium rooms inhabit a prime location, near the check-in office, the vending machines, the parking spots and the exit. However, the most convenient area is also the loudest.
The real revolution takes place inside the room. Raise the red roof for the tawny "wood" floors, with an area rug surrounding the bed to absorb the cold shock. And the white vessel sink and cubbyholes stuffed with thick towels. And the one wall painted the exotic color of smoked paprika.
The room's compact size was not a liability but a testament to mouse-house planning. With the hair dryer, iron and TV attached to the walls, I gained additional counter space to make coffee, spread out my toiletries, wash and air-dry laundry (an emergency food spill) and even build a tower of cards out of the literature sprinkled about the room. The L-shaped desk was also spacious enough for multitasking: reading the paper, setting up my laptop, arranging and eating a multicourse dinner. In addition, the desk faced the mirror, so I could check up on myself to make sure that I was working.
I paid an extra $9 for the top-of-the-line sleeping quarters. For those bucks, I received a fifth pillow (much appreciated after I noticed yellowish blotches and black streaks on the other pillowcases), a larger flat-screen TV and a snack box filled with two granola bars, microwavable popcorn, trail mix, a bottle of water and an orange juice. If I were a disciple of Ralph Nader, I would have raced across the street to the 7-Eleven and priced out the items to see whether I'd been hoodwinked. Instead, I loafed in bed and watched two HBO movies. That activity alone saved me $16, the price of a monthly subscription.
I slept soundly until I heard a bump in the night -- a man pushing an empty dolly outside my door at 3:30 a.m. Because of the interruption and the blotchy linens, I knocked the "wow" down a few notches to a "very nice plus."