Kemmons Wilson and Holiday Inn

In 1951 Kemmons Wilson, his wife, and five children drove from Memphis to Washington, D.C., for a vacation. Appalled by the uncomfortable and cramped rooms with no air conditioning in the motels in which they were forced to stay, as well as the lack of restaurants and swimming pools, Wilson returned home determined to build a better lodging for travelers. A year later, he opened the first Holiday Inn in Memphis. It featured 120 air conditioned rooms and had a restaurant and swimming pool for the guests. Children under twelve years of age stayed free in their parents’ room. The rooms were spacious and carpeted and were equipped with a television, a telephone, and sturdy all-steel furniture. A distinctive bright green and orange “Great Sign” invited travelers to a night’s rest; it quickly became one of the most recognized advertising signs of the twentieth century.

In 1953 Wilson formed a partnership with Memphis builder Wallace E. Johnson and invited other investors to join them to build a chain of motels. A year later, Wilson and Johnson formed Holiday Inns of America and began franchising motels. The predictable comfort of the rooms made it a first choice for travelers, and in 1967 the company began trading its stock publicly.

Wilson promoted standardization and quality control. To ensure operational uniformity he opened the Holiday Inn Innkeeping School and employed inspectors to grade each motel. Franchisees with low or failing scores had to bring their motels up to system standards or lose their business.

Wilson quickly recognized the potential for computers in the motel business. In 1965 he contracted with IBM to develop and install a “Holidex” reservation system that allowed guests or travel agents to check the availability of rooms anywhere in the system and place reservations. By 1968 there were one thousand Holiday Inns in the United States, and the international market was growing. The “Nation’s Inn Keeper” became the “World’s Inn Keeper.” In 1972 Holiday Inns became the first food and lodging chain to pass the billion dollar mark in revenues. In the same decade the company acquired Harrah’s casino/hotel firm, making it the nation’s largest gaming company. Wilson retired from the company in 1979.

Suggested Reading

Eugene J. Johnson and Robert D. Russell Jr., “Royal Oaks Motel,” Memphis: An Architectural Guide (1990): 289-90

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Kemmons Wilson and Holiday Inn
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018