The idea was hatched by Norfolk, Virginia developer Vernon Myers and his son, Vernon Jr. in 1969 as Econo-Travel. They were intent on creating a new business category-the discount business hotel. They worked in the same office building as Lloyd Tarbutton, a Norfolk businessman, who was also investigating the idea. Myers Jr. had drawn up a prototype for the motel, and was intent on selling the plans for $2,000. The initial motel had 48 rooms, a small lobby and a small manager’s apartment. Myers had been trying to get investors interested in this, to no avail.
Tarbutton still took on the project, finding investors and money, and doing extensive market research to see if the concept would work. The company simplified the costs of a hotel room and created many innovations now standard in the industry. For instance, most hotels at the time had beds on legs. They put the mattresses on boxes, so maids wouldn’t have to clean underneath and customers wouldn’t lose belongings. Telephone switchboards were automatic, maid closets were close to rooms and managers could shut off electricity to empty rooms. Later, Tarbutton even dared to try out an extreme innovation—an early non-smoking room. The chain’s mascot in the early days was “Sandy,” a girl in a short Scotch skirt and tam.
The initial hotel, still operating at 865 Military Highway in Norfolk, was built for $275,000, and was profitable within 21 days. It sold rooms for $7 single, $9 double and $11 for four. Today, the hotel is owned by Hampton, Virginia based Allen Management, which owns 13 Econo Lodges across Virginia. Investor Lou Allen, got involved in the Econo-Travel business early on as one of the first franchisees, building a motel on Mercury Boulevard in Hampton and later acquiring the original.
Tarbutton sold the chain in 1983 for $36,000,000. He had 309 locations. He had begun to change the name on all locations to Econo Lodge in the latter 1970s. The brand went through ups and downs and a number of owners after the initial founders sold out, including a Charlotte, North Carolina investor, Ben Douglas. Between its founding and growth, tensions grew between the company and franchisees. It fell into the hands of investor Paul Wallace, whose fund bought the brand, refurbished it, mended relations with franchisees and then sold it to what is now Choice Hotels International in 1990. It is Choice's lowest-priced offering, as its sister brand, Rodeway Inn, typically has a few more amenities and features at its properties.
Today's Econo Lodge has comfortable but functional guest rooms. Standard features include free local calls, 24-hour front desk service, free high-speed internet access, and a complimentary continental breakfast, called "Breakfast by Econo Lodge." Swimming pools are available at selected locations.
At the 2007 Choice hotels international convention the new Econo Lodge Logo was unveiled.