Hotels, Jet Blue-Style

Style on the cheap has never been easy to find on the road. Expense a stay at a pricey W hotel, and the pitbulls in accounting route it right back to you. If you do find a low rate on a boutique brand, it usually means giving up precious frequent-guest perks and dodging air kisses in the lobby.

But two hotel companies are launching new brands to appeal to the design- and budget-minded set. In June, InterContinental Hotels Group will open its second Hotel Indigo location in Chicago. (There’s also an Atlanta outlet; hotels in Sarasota, Florida; Houston; and Miami are expected by year’s end.) And Choice Hotels — yes, the folks behind Econo Lodge and Comfort Inn — plans to introduce its own plasma TV-loaded Cambria Suites chain by mid-2006. Call it trading up, hotel-style: Per-night stays for both brands are expected to be just north of $100.

Hotel Indigo’s goal is that cheap-chic feel — think Target design meets midpriced hotel. The pseudo-spa bathrooms will have glass-walled shower stalls rather than beige plastic curtains; hardwood floors replace mauve paisley wall-to-wall carpeting. That’s the goal, anyway. You may still find a shower curtain lurking in Atlanta. And its plans for seasonal signage — pumpkins, holly berries, etc. — appear more hokey than hip.

Service, of course, is the X factor. Hotel Indigo seeks a friendlier feel, encouraging its staff to get out from behind the check-in desk. Although there’s no room service, guests can call in an order and pick it up minutes later, saving the awkward gratuity moment in the room. While it all sounds promising, these design-friendly chains will be challenged to meet customers’ expectations. Inevitably, those will be traded up, too.FCS