Meet the couple exploring America's forgotten theme hotels

For Margaret and Corey Bienert, the weirdest hotels are the best hotels.

Travel

For the last few years Margaret and Corey Bienert have been traveling the country, documenting theme hotels, love hotels, and vintage romance resorts for their video series A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour. The types of hotels that pique the married couple’s interest are the sorts of kitschy themed places that exploded in popularity during the 70s and 80s. Think heart-shaped tubs, mirrored ceilings, and rooms themed after Egyptian temples, caves, and jungles.

According to the Beinerts, these places have been a huge draw for travelers during the pandemic. When they first started uploading their videos to Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, they would often find themselves the only guests in the hotels they were visiting. “The reason we got to tour so many of these rooms when we first started this series is we would show up and they would literally give us a key and go, ‘This opens every door. Go ahead, no one’s here,” Margaret told me. “Now, some of these places we have to book out a couple of months in advance.”

The couple believe this is because pandemic travel restrictions have forced people to look for escape in their own backyards. “People aren’t like, flying to Italy for a wedding or flying to France for a vacation,” explained Margaret. “People have started looking around their own cities more for places where they can get away.”

I spoke with Margaret and Corey about their project, the sketchiest hotel they’ve visited, and the rise of new, Instagram-ready themed experiences.

Mic: How did this project start?

Margaret: We were traveling for work, staying at a lot of hotels and, three or four years ago, we stayed at Cove Haven Resorts, which is in Pennsylvania. I just booked it because I’d seen photos of a heart-shaped tub there. We didn’t realize it was an entire resort that’s still very retro, still very 70s pink, heart-shaped tubs, champagne [glass] tubs. And we basically ended up extending our trip because we were so shocked. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. After that I was like, “It would be really great if we could find more of these.”

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What would you say it is about these places that appeals to you?

Margaret: We were staying in hotels so often and they all looked so similar. It was so rare to come across hotel rooms that are really memorable. But if you stay at a love hotel or a theme hotel, it’s like every room is just so unexpected. It’s not like you can walk in and just be like, “Alright cool, let’s take a shower.” You have to be like, “What is going on in this room? Who thought of this? Why is this what they did?” It just shook us out of our day-to-day regular travel into having these really interesting experiences in each hotel. That’s what I want in a hotel experience — being in another world.

Would you say the feeling of staying in them has changed during the pandemic, when you’re not really able to travel to the sort of far-flung locations that these rooms are themed after?

Corey: For sure. When the pandemic slowed down the ease of travel, it definitely gave us an excuse to do something that still felt like we were traveling to some more obscure places than just traveling down the street.

Margaret: It’s so interesting, the pandemic kind of scared me because I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, are all these hotels that we haven't seen yet going to shut down because no one is traveling?” But then this interesting thing happened where theme hotels started to blow up a little bit this summer because people couldn’t travel abroad as easily. People weren't flying to Italy for a wedding. We’ve actually talked to a lot of theme hotel owners who’ve said the busiest they’ve ever been was this summer.

What would you say the overall state of the market is for these sorts of places? Are a lot of them disappearing?

Margaret: It’s an interesting time. When we started this project, I had never even heard of a theme hotel or retro hotel that was still very functional and well kept. The first year or so we were sharing them, a lot of the people who were saying, “Oh yeah, I know about that” were people my parents' age or older, and all the people our age had never heard of them. I think there have been a couple hotels within our career of doing this that have either remodeled or shut down. I literally say to them, “Please wait, I promise you’re about to get busy. This is just starting to get popular.” There are hotels that have noticed this is actually getting popular again and then put work into refurbishing their theme rooms or getting new theme rooms or even just getting a website.

I do think we’re going to see a lot of hotels opening in the next couple of years that are along the lines of like, The Museum of Ice Cream. Kind of experiential travel. And I think that’s both good and bad. I think those tend to be a little bit cheap because they can be like, “Quick, get a good Instagram photo and then get away and the next person will get in line.” They don't feel as exciting to me. There are all sorts of people who want a basic five star Airbnb where like, the owners know exactly how to get a good review, but then there are people like us and a lot of people who might be ok with a two star hotel as long as it’s kind of a weird experience.

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Corey: I would say a pretty solid percentage of the places that we’re going to, they’re not priced to price out normal people. It feels a little more authentic that everybody can go.

Margaret: When we were first staying at these places a lot of people were like, “Don’t share these places, it’s gonna be full of rich influencers.'' And I'm like, “Trust me, a rich influencer is going to see the front door and not even turn the key. Like, they won't go. Because I've talked to them and they can’t understand why we do.”

What type of people do you generally see staying in these places?

Margaret: There’s a pretty wide variety. In the places that are still really kept up and have good customer service I feel like we meet people who have been going there for 20 to 40 years, especially the romance-focused resorts in the Midwest. Now, when we’re [in theme hotels] a lot of the guests are our age or a little older. It’s definitely become a little more of an older millennial thing.

You mentioned in one of your videos that you stopped reading hotel reviews? Why is that?

Margaret: I usually read the reviews after. I was reading reviews on the way to hotels for a while and I would get so freaked out I would be like, “I don't know if I even want to go. This is sounding really gross.” But now that I read them after I can kind of laugh and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s gross but we had fun.” It would ruin the experience a little bit if I heard too specific of a story. We do check for bed bugs and luckily we’ve never had any issues. If I see anything that looks like it is a bed bug or could’ve been a bed bug we just don't stay overnight, we just leave.

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Is there a sketchiest hotel you’ve been to?

Margaret: Oh, absolutely. In Maryland. We went because I saw photos online and the photos looked great, but it had a pretty low star rating. It looked like things had definitely not been updated in 30 years, but also every room had just like, a lot of broken things, visible black mold, and a lot of furniture that looked like it was being stored. When we were in the room getting photos I was like, “Don’t touch the bed, don’t sit down. I just don't want to walk away with bugs.” So literally Corey just stood in the middle of the room while I got photos and stuff. Then we walk out of the room and there is an exterminator van right outside and he is waiting for our room — literally, he was just waiting for us to come out so he could go in and spray the room.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.