Smartphones And Motel Chains Are Killing The ‘No Vacancy’ Sign

Image courtesy of Phillip Pessar

There used to be a quick way to tell from the outside of a model whether there were rooms available for the evening as you drove down a highway: either the “NO” on the establishment’s “NO VACANCY” sign was illuminated, or it wasn’t. Plenty of these signs exist and are still in use, but they’re fading (sometimes literally) as travelers would prefer to use a smartphone app to book rooms instead of zooming down the highway looking for signs.

Bloomberg News points out that the signs are now about as useful as a human toll collector or a book of printed maps: maybe something you’d turn to with no options available, but not what most consumers prefer.

The signs probably originated sometime in the 1930s, and boomed along with auto travel in the ’50s and ’60s. Some establishments made a point of not having them, like the once-ubiquitous Howard Johnson chain. Today, the growth of chain motels means that customers who do wander in when the place is full can be referred to empty rooms at a corporate partner just down the road, instead of sending them away as an independent motel would have.

The important thing that changes without the signs is that employees can decide whether a vacancy “exists” or not after a prospective guest wanders in to the lobby or calls on the phone, letting employees look for indicators of age, race, and anything else they feel like using to discriminate.

At least for consumers, booking through an app makes that part of the process a little more fair.

‘No Vacancy’ Signs Are Vanishing From America’s Highways [Bloomberg]