Holiday Inn is a multinational brand of hotels, part of the LSE-listed InterContinental Hotels Group. Originally a U.S. motel chain, today it is one of the world’s largest hotel chains, with 435,299 bedrooms in 3,463 hotels globally hosting over 100 million guest nights each year. The hotel chain is based in three cities: Atlanta, London and Rio de Janeiro.
Kemmons Wilson, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, was inspired to build his own motel after being disappointed by poor quality and inconsistent roadside accommodations during a family road trip to Washington, D.C. The name Holiday Inn was given to the original hotel by his architect Eddie Bluestein as a joke, in reference to the 1942 Christmas-themed, musical film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The first Holiday Inn opened at 4925 Summer Avenue in Memphis, the main highway to Nashville in August 1952 as Holiday Inn Hotel Courts. In the early 1990s, it was demolished, but there is a plaque commemorating the site.
Wilson partnered with Wallace E. Johnson to build additional motels on the roads entering Memphis. Holiday Inn’s corporate headquarters was in a converted plumbing shed owned by Johnson. In 1953, the company built its next three hotels which, along with their first hotel, covered each approach to Memphis. The second motel was built on U.S. 51 South. It was followed by two more in 1953, one on Highway 51 North, and another on U.S. 61. On the occasion of Johnson’s death in 1988, Wilson was quoted as saying, “The greatest man I ever knew died today. He was the greatest partner a man could ever have.”
Together they started what Wilson would shepherd into Holiday Corporation, one of the world’s largest hotel groups.
By the beginning of 1956, there were 23 Holiday Inns operating with seven more due to open by year’s end. In 1957 Wilson began franchising the chain as Holiday Inn of America, mandating its properties be standardized, clean, predictable, family-friendly, and readily accessible to road travellers. The chain grew dramatically as a result, with 50 locations across the country by 1958, 100 by 1959, 500 by 1964, and the 1,000th Holiday Inn, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.
In 1965, the chain launched Holidex, a centralized reservation system where a visitor to any Holiday Inn could obtain reservations by teleprinter for any other Holiday Inn location. The only comparable systems at the time were operated by airlines (Sabre made its debut in 1963). Promoting itself as “your host from coast to coast”, Holiday Inn added a call center after AT&T’s introduction of +1-800 toll-free telephone number service in 1967 and updated its systems as desktop microcomputers, an invention of the 1970s, found their way into travel agencies.
Branded as “The Nation’s Innkeeper”, the chain put considerable financial pressure on traditional motels and hotels, setting the standard for competitors like Ramada Inn, Quality Inn, Howard Johnson’s, and Best Western. By June 1972, with over 1,400 Holiday Inns worldwide, Wilson was featured on the cover of Time magazine and the motto became “The World’s Innkeeper”.
In the 1960s, Holiday Inn began franchising and opening campgrounds under the Holiday Inn Trav-L-Park brand. These recreational campgrounds were listed in the Holiday Inn directories.
In 1963, Holiday Inn signed a long-term deal with Gulf Oil Corporation where it agreed to accept Gulf credit cards to charge food and lodging at all of its US and Canadian hotels in return for Gulf building service stations on many Holiday Inn properties, particularly near major U.S. and Interstate highways. The arrangement was copied by competing lodging chains and major oil companies during the mid-to-late 1960s, but fell out of favor following the 1973 oil crisis. The Gulf/Holiday Inn arrangement ended around 1982.
The company later branched into other enterprises, including Medi-Center nursing homes, Continental Trailways, Delta Queen, and Show-Biz, Inc., a television production company that specialized in syndicated country music shows. Wilson also developed the Orange Lake Resort and Country Club near Orlando and a chain called Wilson World Hotels. The acquisition of Trailways in 1968 lasted until 1979, when Holiday Inn sold Trailways to private investor Henry Lea Hillman Sr of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the years during which Trailways was a subsidiary of Holiday Inn, television commercials for Holiday Inn frequently showed a Trailways bus stopping at a Holiday Inn hotel. Wilson retired from Holiday Inn in 1979. As of 2014, Wilson’s family still operates hotels as part of the Kemmons Wilson Companies of Memphis.