In 2022, some of Australia's top hotels aren't hotels at all.
TripAdvisor's annual Travellers' Choice awards naming Australia's top 10 best hotels featured no less than three motels this year, with road trip holidays zooming back into vogue.
Dubbo's Orana Motel in New South Wales beat out hundreds of properties to place number-three on the Travellers' Choice list, with Brisbane's Kingsford Smith Motel and Bendigo's Julie-Anna Inn placing fourth and sixth respectively.
South Australia's Lookout Cave Underground Motel was also honoured in a new global category, 'Out of the Ordinary Hotels'.
TripAdvisor compiles its rankings using an algorithm that weighs up traveller star ratings and reviews over a 12 month period.
The results reveal a shift away from 2021's trend towards serviced apartments.
Sarah Mathews, TripAdvisor director of media partnerships APAC, said the pivot towards roadside accommodations indicates a renewed confidence in regional travel.
"At the height of the pandemic, we know consumers were focused on remaining in bubbles, so self-contained, self-catered accommodations like serviced apartments surged in popularity," said Mathews.
Now as travel restrictions lift, a motel revival is underway.
"Travellers are slightly less concerned with the health and hygiene factors, instead focusing on exploring new places and getting back out there. Be it through road trips or longer multi-city trips to farther out destinations, Australia's amazing motels are the beneficiaries of this trend."
Tourism Accommodation Australia CEO Michael Johnson said a domestic travel boon, combined with overseas travel hesitancy, is also fuelling the Australian motel's rise.
"Regional locations in every state and territory are being explored. And so these motels that were traditionally 55 per cent occupancy year-on-year are actually having some of the best trading years that they've ever had, particularly in these last 12 months," said Johnson.
"The motel industry has done it really tough, so I think they're in that recovery stage now but there are certainly a lot of green shoots, and they're enjoying that return to business as normal and, even more so, better than it was before."
Kristyn Slattery, co-owner of Julie-Anna Inn Bendigo, said factors such as personalised service and minimal contact with other guests – thanks to direct carpark entry – have given motels an edge in the market.
"There's been a shift in appreciation of what a motel offers, versus a hotel with lifts and corridors, in the current climate of COVID," said Slattery.
"We're fortunate enough to have glass sliding doors and security screens in each room, so we're able to get a lot of fresh air in, which has been another reason I think we've been so successful coming out of the COVID travel slump."
A roster of regional events is also powering the return of the great Aussie road trip, with sporting, art and culinary events drawing visitors from every state.
"The Elvis Direct from Graceland exhibition is on at the Bendigo Art Gallery until July 17, so we're seeing a significant increase in leisure travel at this time," Slattery said.
"That's what hurt most during COVID, lots of events weren't able to happen. This weekend there are three or four events happening, and accommodation is at capacity."
Additionally, an increasingly competitive motel market is seeing many operators up their game.
Managing director and co-owner of Coober Pedy's Lookout Cave Underground Motel, Sami Kambouris, said platforms like Airbnb have forced motel operators to raise the bar.
"It has kicked the backside of many operators that had become complacent, and many tourism industry bodies have been helping kickstart regional accommodation providers to renovate or rebuild with much needed grants, support and funding," Kambouris said.
The fierce competition has led some Australian motels to embrace their cultural cringe and functional low-block design with a retro revamp.
Kambouris, who acquired the underground outback motel in 2010, has forgone the trendy procession of decorative flamingos and mid-century furnishings for an overhaul true to its opal mining roots.
"We were newbies to the game and just saw a motel ripe for renovation," Kambouris said of the unconventional site, carved into the sandstone foothills.
"While it has been long, hard and costly, the rewards have been exceptional. When you know you have made someone's holiday or experience that much better, you can't put that satisfaction into words."
The top 10 hotels in Australia according to TripAdvisor
- Mount Lofty House Adelaide Hills - Adelaide Hills, South Australia
- Treasury On Collins - Melbourne, Victoria
- Orana Motel - Dubbo, New South Wales
- Kingsford Smith Motel - Brisbane, Queensland
- Quest South Perth Foreshore - South Perth, Western Australia
- Julie-Anna Inn, Bendigo - Bendigo, Victoria
- Element on Coolum Beach - Coolum Beach, Queensland
- COMO The Treasury - Perth, Western Australia
- Pinetrees Lodge - Lord Howe Island
- The Reef House Boutique Hotel & Spa - Palm Cove, Queensland