LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD

by Drew Smith, Austin Motel Front Desk Manager

Man, are things ever changing at the Austin Motel! In the seven-and-a-half years I’ve worked here, things have never changed like this. The motel, along with its famously suggestive sign, has long been a kind of time capsule in the middle of South Congress Avenue. And not just the exterior—which, thankfully, has been maintained as a classic motor court. The interiors were a time capsule too, decorated like a cross between grandma’s cluttered attic and Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride, overflowing with throw pillows. (See: the Safari Room, the Great Wall of China Room, etc.)

Had our motto not been “So close, yet so far out,” it might have been “Nothing much changes around here.”

The stability—the reliable sameness of the place—was one of the things I once loved most about working at the Austin Motel. Even when Dottye Dean, our remarkable longtime owner, died in 2011, the shift in ownership was practically imperceptible. Dottye’s son Mark inherited the motel, took over operations, and ran it more or less exactly as it had been run, even throwing mandatory birthday parties at work so he could give us a card with $20 and a potted plant, just as his mother had done before him.

Mark did make one big change. He installed computers with modern—well, semi-modern—hospitality industry software. Until then, we checked everyone in writing longhand on carbon paper slips. Same for taking reservations! Believe it or not, we at the front desk actually rebelled against the idea of computerization, even just five years ago. It just seemed so…un-Austin Motel. Why, after all, should things be fast and efficient? Why should people be afforded the convenience of online booking? But we soon grew accustomed to it, then reliant upon it. Soon we were laughing at our former resistance. So it goes with change.

There’s just something special about the Austin Motel. That lobby, with its phantom aromas and huge, simi-circular 60s sofa was a zen retreat for my shift from 3 to 11pm every weekday. Or, if not a retreat, exactly, a site of real productivity and personal expression. Alone at the desk, I spent most of my evenings writing and reading and listening to music—at least when I wasn’t checking guests in, plunging toilets, or trying to get the wifi working on people’s cellphones. 

So when, a few months ago, Mark Dean informed the staff that he had decided to sell, I experienced a tremendous surge of anxiety quickly followed by the acceptance that it was time to look for another job. That impression was somehow strengthened when I learned that we were to be purchased by the owners of the Hotel San José down the street. Though I had been working one block away from them for all those years, they were shrouded in mystery.

I had never spoken to anyone who worked at the San José or Bunkhouse, the parent company that now employs us all. However grateful I was that they were the buyers, and that that they wouldn’t raze the place to the ground, I was still reluctant. They so were different from us…weren’t they? They were certainly fancier. They had a sophisticated brand and a unified look, a signature scent, and a reputation for great customer service. What were they going to make of us? They were sure to change everything.

I’m here to tell you, I was not incorrect about changes to come. Since the completion of the sale, so many things have changed, from software to pool furniture to bedding to soaps to notepads to towels to vastly improved customer service, and…well, all sorts of things. But, you know what? All of the changes have been for the better. Some are still works in progress, Lord knows—especially when it comes to the renovation of the property and grounds. But there’s an end in sight, and things are getting better all the time.

Best of all, among all the changes, so many things have stayed the same. My coworkers, for one. Almost all of them have stuck around. The new management has welcomed us, promoted us, invited us to meetings (and more meetings), consulted with us and challenged us. It hasn’t all been easy, but it does feel like a change whose day has come, especially as I see the transformations being made all around the motel.

As glad as I was to be part of the Austin Motel’s preservation as a quirky and weird historic landmark, it’s great being part of its revitalization into a slightly more polished and updated (but still quirky and weird) landmark. Every day, I feel more confident that things are going to turn out ok for all of us: the employees, the guests, and everyone who lives in town who has worried about seeing another part of Old Austin bite the dust. Things are only getting better.