When he was a kid, Rob Blood often traveled with his parents to the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. The family always stayed at a motel—probably a classic Howard Johnson’s—with a giant domed indoor pool.
But even more than that amazing pool, Blood treasured the drive from Marblehead with his parents and sister piled into a wood-paneled Jeep Grand Wagoneer. “I remember those times with great nostalgia,” recalls Blood, founder of Lark Hotels, which operates dozens of properties throughout the Northeast, Florida, and California. Choosing the cassette tape to listen to on the car stereo, license plate games, and especially the stops at places like Old Sturbridge Village to break up the trip, all have a permanent place in his heart.
“Those drives are a foundational, fundamental travel memory,” Blood recalls. And now he wants to build similar treasured experiences for his three kids—and everybody else—by updating classic roadside motels to create a budget-friendly alternative for travelers. Gathered under sister brand Bluebird by Lark, the new concept currently boasts six properties, stretching from Bluebird Spa City Motor Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York, to Bluebird Dennisport on Cape Cod, with three more on the way this year.
“We built Bluebird around the idea of the road trip, and the stops along the way that create the whole journey, rather than just the notion of traveling to a destination for that destination,” the Newburyport resident says. “We’re trying to create discoverable moments for our guests.”
All of the new properties began life as classic motor lodges in the last century—with good bones, great locations, and a uniformity that does not exist in the historic inns that are a hallmark of the upscale Lark brand. This makes them less costly to renovate. “When you’re designing or updating a historic home, almost every room is different, so there are fewer economies of scale,” Blood says. With Bluebird properties, the identical rooms make it easier to predict and contain renovation costs. “If we can keep the amount of money we spend buying and building low, we can pass that savings on to our guests and create a more accessible price point,” he explains.
While the bones are the same, these are not the roadside motels of Blood’s youth. Outdated carpeting has been replaced by clean hardwood floors, the mattresses are the same Serta Presidential Pillowtops found in boutique Lark-branded properties, and the public spaces have been reimagined.
“A lot of the motels we buy and renovate have a space for a continental breakfast, a huge front desk, and a big, soulless function room,” Blood says. “We transform those into very livable spaces.” At Bluebird Sunapee, for example, the breakfast room from its former life as a economy motel is now a comfortable lounge, with wood floors and walls, a fireplace, grouped seating, and even a record player. One of the property’s two windowless meeting rooms became a ski and bike locker for guests to store their equipment—complete with a boot dryer in the winter, and spots to hang mountain bikes in summer. The second meeting room is now a rec room, intended to echo a cool hang-out room that lucky kids had in the basement back in the day.
And guests are now hanging out in areas that were little used and bland. One secret? “Definitely anywhere you put a fire, people gather around,” Blood says. “So we try to build one in almost every case, whether adding outdoor fire pits or indoor fireplaces, to create gathering centers.”
Just like the boutique Lark brand, every Bluebird design project is finished with cool local finds, giving each property a unique sense of place. So in the months before Bluebird Sunapee opened, for example, Blood found himself foraging in the far reaches of nearby antique stores. “I was up in the attic of this uninsulated barn on a blistering hot summer day, and I saw these five taxidermied fish way up in the eaves—like they were never going to sell them, ever,” which of course immediately caught Blood’s imagination—and became the focal point for one of the walls in the living room at Sunapee. “The local finds always bring out the character of the hotel,” he says.
Blood is the first to admit this expansion of the Lark brand follows his own personal journey. He opened his first property in Kennebunkport, Maine, with an eye toward creating luxurious getaways for two—a homey environment that emphasized local history and culture without all the strictures of a classic bed and breakfast.
“When I first started out, I was single and thinking about all of the great places that I wanted to travel as a young person,” he recalls. “Now, I’ve got a family of five, and I’m really thinking about how can a family travel and have great experiences along the way.”
Prioitizing the journey is especially easy for those of us fortunate enough to live on the North Shore, Blood says. “In New England, we have such great opportunities to take the winding road, or what Robert Frost calls the path less traveled, because there’s so many discoverable moments along the way.”
So if you’re considering a stay at Bluebird Ocean Point, opening this summer in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, or perhaps a romantic getaway at Lark’s Blind Tiger in Portland, Maine, a personal favorite of Blood’s, he’d urge you bypass I-95 in favor of Route 1.
“All the stops along the way are so compelling—even the ones that we all know about,” Blood says. “Think about how much you miss if you don’t stop along the way.”