Kemmons Wilson

"A person has to take risks to achieve." – Kemmons Wilson

Kemmons Wilson (January 5, 1913 – February 12, 2003) was an American businessman and entrepreneur who founded the Holiday Inn chain and is widely regarded as the father of the modern-day hotel. By bringing affordable and comfortable lodging for travelers, most especially for business travelers and families traveling with children, he revolutionized the lodging industry. Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inn brand was synonymous with affordability, comfort, and cleanliness, and differentiated itself by allowing children to stay for free – something that was unheard of in the early 1950s. Throughout his more than 50 years in the hospitality industry, he grew the Holiday Inn portfoliio into one of the most recognizable lodging brands in the world.

Charles Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, Arkansas to parents Kemmons and Ruby "Doll" Wilson. His father, an insurance salesman, passed away when Charles was nine months old.  His mother, Doll, moved the two of them to her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee where she raised Charles (known as Kemmons throughout his life) on her own. Their bond would be one that would remain tightly interwined throughout Kemmons’ adult life, marriage, and career.

Kemmons dropped out of high school at age 17 in order to support his mother and himself. Possessing a tireless work ethic, a entrepreneurial spirit and relentless determination, Kemmons embarked on a wide variety of money-making jobs throughout his teenage years and twenties.

In 1941, at age 27, he married his girlfriend, Dorothy Elizabeth Lee.

By the time Kemmons was 30 years old, he had become one of Memphis’ most prominent young businessmen, with enterprises in real estate, pinball and cigarette machines, jukebox sales and movie theatres.

By 1949, Kemmons and Dorothy had five children. It was a 10-day family vacation in the summer of 1951 that forever changed the focus of Kemmons’ already-booming career.

With his mother and five children in tow, staying in hotels/motels along the way was expensive for Kemmons and his wife. At that time, parents had to pay for their children to stay in the same room with them. Becoming frustrated with the high cost of lodging a family in a single room, coupled with the poor accommodations and inconsistent amenities, Kemmons told Dorothy that he was going to build a chain of 400 quality motels where kids would stay free in the same room as their parents.

He borrowed $325,000 to build his first Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee; it officially opened on August 1, 1952 -- almost exactly one year after the Wilson family’s infamous vacation trip. 

This first property was barely open before Wilson was aggressively and ambitiously moving forward with building more Holiday Inn properties throughout the Memphis area. By the time his 4th hotel was built in Memphis, he realized that he’d need to take on a business partner in order to realize his goal of establishing 400 hotels at the swift pace he wanted; he couldn’t continue to borrow money on his own.

As a result of his partnership with Wallace Johnson and Bill Walton, the 400th Holiday Inn opened in December 1962 in Vincennes, Indiana. Kemmons had achieved his grandiose goal of establishing 400 Holiday Inns, and had done so in an astonishingly short 10 years.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Holiday Inn Corporation grew, and offered franchising opportunities around the world. Its success was largely due to catering to business travelers and families traveling on a budget who didn’t want to forsake modern conveniences and comfort. In 1970, Holiday Inn became the first food service and lodging chain to top $1 billion dollars in sales. In 1971, with the opening of a Holiday Inn in Anchorage, Alaska, the company was the first hotel chain with properties operating in all 50 states in the USA. By 1972, there were more than 1,400 Holiday Inn hotels globally, vastly exceeding Kemmons’ original goal of 400. Kemmons appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1972 under the heading "Man with 300,000 Beds".

In 1979, Wilson retired from Holiday Inn; at that time, there were  1,759  Holiday Inn locations across 50 countries world wide. 

Not one to let retirement slow him down, Wilson’s next venture was to redefine the timeshare industry with the creation of the Orange Lake Country Club (OLCC); at that time, OLCC was the largest single-site timeshare resort in the world. Upon selling his Holiday Inn shares, he went on to form a new hotel chain called Wilson World.

In 1991, Kemmons was interviewed for the Living Legends series conducted by the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Watch the 30 minute interview here to learn more about his life and his business ventures in his own words. 

In 1996, his autobiography, Half Luck and Half Brains, was published, which tells the story of Holiday Inn and shares intimate details of his extraordinary business and personal life.

The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis is named in his honor.

Wilson built a diverse portfolio of businesses and properties under his Kemmons Wilson Companies (KWC). He worked nearly every day of his life until his death. Wilson died at age of 90 on February 12, 2003. He is buried alongside his wife and mother in Memphis, TN

Kemmons’ entrepreneurial spirit lives on through the third generation of the Wilson family who now lead various holdings of the KWC.

"Put opportunity ahead of security." – Kemmons Wilson

During the Great Depression, Kemmons’ mother, Ruby "Doll" Wilson, lost her job, and Kemmons dropped out of high school at age 17 in order to support his mother and himself.

Possessing a tireless work ethic, and relentless determination, Kemmons’ money-making jobs throughout his teenage years included delivering newspapers, selling magazine subscriptions, working as a soda jerk, bagging groceries in a grocery store, and more.

His entrepreneurial spirit kicked in when he saw an opportunity to sell popcorn outside of a local movie theatre, eventually outselling the popcorn the theatre itself was selling inside in their lobby! Still a teenager, Kemmons went on to gain agreements with several movie theaters to place his popcorn machines in their lobbies, and eventually branched out into vending machines (cigarettes) and pinball machines, splitting the money with the store/movie theater owners.

By age 20, Kemmons had enough money to buy a house for him and his mother to live in.  

A few years later, he used their home as collateral to borrow money to purchase a regional jukebox distributorship for Wurlitzer. Learning that a house could be used as collateral to borrow more money than it cost to build changed Kemmons’ life forever and launched his career in construction that continued until his death.

Kemmons served in World War II as an Air Force pilot. In 1941 he married his girlfriend, Dorothy "Dot" Elizabeth Lee. By 1949, Kemmons and Dot had five children.

By the time Kemmons was 30 years old, he had become one of Memphis, Tennessee's most prominent young businessmen with enterprises in real estate, pinball and cigarette machines, jukebox sales and movie theatres.

A 10-day family vacation in the summer of 1951 to visit Washington, DC forever changed the focus of Kemmons’ already-booming career. With his mother (Doll),  and five children in tow, staying in hotels/motels along the way was expensive. At that time, parents still had to pay extra for each child to stay in the same hotel room with them. With their five children, that added nightly expense doubled or tripled the room rate.  Frustrated with the high cost of lodging a family in a single room, coupled with the poor accommodations and inconsistent amenities, Kemmons told Dorothy that he was going to build a chain of 400 motels where kids would stay free in the same room as their parents, and offer a quality experience for guests of all ages.

It’s interesting to note that a 1951 Wall Street Journal article estimated there were only about 20,000 roadside lodging facilities across the USA , and that many of them were “unappetizing”. Kemmons set a goal to create a lodging chain with a brand name that folks could trust, with modern comforts and conveniences, like air conditioning, on-site dining, and a swimming pool. He envisioned a motel that would attract the business traveler, as well as families on driving vacations. He immediately set about designing his inaugural motel when they returned home from vacation.

He took out a mortgage on his home and was able to borrow $325,000 to build his first Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee which officially opened August 1, 1952 -- almost exactly one year after the Wilson family’s infamous summer vacation trip.

The first Holiday Inn motel was built at 4941 Summer Avenue on the outskirts of Memphis, TN. Kemmons chose that location primarily because he already owned the empty lot at that address, but also because Summer Avenue was also known as Highway 70; the main highway running from Nashville to Memphis at that time.

This first property was barely open before Wilson aggressively and ambitiously moved forward with building more Holiday Inn properties throughout the Memphis area.

By the time his 4th hotel was built in Memphis in the early 1950s, Wilson realized that he would need to take on a business partner in order to realize his goal of establishing 400 hotels at the swift pace he wanted; he also couldn’t continue to borrow money on his own. He approached a successful local business acquaintance, Wallace E. Johnson, to partner with him in growing the Holiday Inn portfolio of properties. Johnson and Wilson shared similar business interests and creative, scrappy business strategies and tactics. Their Holiday Inn business partnership led to a lifelong, close friendship.

In 1953, Wilson and Johnson embarked on an aggressive growth strategy through the concept of business format franchising. They knew that the franchising business model could offer the scaling and rapid growth Wilson was seeking for the Holiday Inn brand.

"Remember that we all climb the ladder of success one step at a time." – Kemmons Wilson

In 1953, Kemmons Wilson understood that he needed a new approach in order to reach his goal of building 400 Holiday Inns. He realized that he could achieve his goal faster if he could persuade large homebuilders to build a Holiday Inn in each of their hometowns. Kemmons reached out to Wallace E. Johnson, a successful builder and businessman who was Vice President of the National Homebuilders Association. They partnered together to  launch one of the first business franchise systems in the United States. Beyond their business partnerships, they became life-long friends.

 

The concept of business format franchising in the early 1950s was still new to America, and it was new to Kemmons and Wallace. However, they made for a very successful partnership:; Kemmons possessed the business strategy, and Wallace had the homebuilder contacts and relationships. Letters co-signed by Kemmons and Wallace were sent to builders all over the country inviting them to come to Memphis (traveling at their own expense) to learn about an opportunity that Kemmons and Wallace claimed would be important to their futures as builders. More than 60 homebuilders accepted the invitation and met with Wallace and Kemmons in March 1953. For a $500 down payment and 5 cents per night royalty per room, a Holiday Inn franchise could be purchased. These initial agreements required the franchisees to pay their own construction costs while also requiring that Holiday Inn architectural plans be followed.

A year later, on June 14, 1954, builder William Holcomb opened the first Holiday Inn franchise. It was located in Clarksdale, Mississippi, his hometown. In August 1954,  Wllace and Kemmons received their first-ever franchise fee check: $115.60.

Although only three of the builders who came to Memphis actually ended up building hotels, Kemmons later felt fortunate for the low turn-out given that the royalty return on the original Holiday Inn franchise offer since was so low. Later franchise agreements would specify a healthier return. Kemmons broaden his target list to include seek out affluent business professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) with capital to become franchisees, even those with no hotel management experience. He offered turn-key packages as part of the franchise deal.

By the end of 1954, there were 11 Holiday Inns , and Kemmons was able to hire a team to sell franchises. An operating manual specified all of the requirements every franchisee had to meet. Soon, training for the franchisees in the “Holiday Inn Way” was developed whereby new owners would participate in a 5-week training course.

In 1957, with approximately 50 Holiday Inns in his chain, Kemmons Wilson took his lodging company public. In December 1962, Kemmons fulfilled his 400 inn promise with the opening of a Holiday Inn in Vincennes, Indiana. Demand was so strong for Holiday Inn franchises that a Wall Street Journal article  stated that Holiday Inn was really selling knowledge of how to make money with a Holiday Inn more so than a franchise property.

In short order, the number of franchised properties grew throughout the rest of the decade and beyond, with many franchisees operating multiple properties. The Holiday Inn company was the darling of the Wall Street throughout the 1960s. An average of one Holiday Inn hotels opened every week in 1960.

The explosive growth and success of their franchising efforts in the 1960s was due to rigorous franchisee training, quality enforcement, and national advertising. As an example, in 1962, an average of two Holiday Inns opened every week.

In 1965, an historic breakthrough in Holiday Inn’s history also revolutionized the entire hotel industry: the introduction of the Holidex Reservation System. This system connected every franchisee's room availability information with a central reservations office in Memphis where desk clerks could make reservations at any Holiday Inn property in the chain. When it launched, it was the largest civilian computer network in the world.

On August 1, 1968, the 1,000th Holiday Inn opened in San Antonio, Texas, and the first European Holiday Inn opened on March 25 of the same year in Leiden, Holland. With the international expansion of Holiday Inn hotels, the corporate name was changed from Holiday Inns of America, Inc., to Holiday Inns, Inc., and the familiar slogan, “The Nation’s Innkeeper” was more accurately revised to “The World's Innkeeper.”

In 1971, with the opening of a hotel in Anchorage,  Alaska, Holiday Inn became the first food and lodging chain in history to have operations in all 50 states. The company reached the 200,000-room mark in 1971, duplicating in under 5 years a growth level that had originally taken 15 years , and the company built and opened Holiday Inn University and Conference Center, a teaching hotel for training new employees, in Olive Branch, Mississippi. The world’s largest* Holiday Inn (*at that time) opened in Toronto, Canada in 1972 consisting of 719 guest rooms, twenty years after the Kemmons Wilson opened the first Holiday Inn.

By the time the Wilson retired from Holiday Inns in 1979, the company’s annual revenues exceeded $1 billion, with 1,759 Holiday Inns in more than fifty countries. This amounted to twice as many rooms as the company's closest competitors.

"The important thing is to take your idea and see it through." – Kemmons Wilson

transforming the lodging industry

Kemmons Wilson is widely regarded as the father of the modern-day hotel. By bringing affordable and comfortable lodging to travelers, including those with small children, he revolutionized the industry. The Holiday Inn brand was synonymous with affordability, convenience, comfort, and cleanliness, and differentiated itself by allowing children to stay for free in the same room with their parents– something that was unheard of in the early 1950s.  The Holiday Inn name came via his architect Eddie Bluestein who had seen the 1942 musical film "Holiday Inn" starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire film.

Holidex, a centralized reservation system whereby a visitor to any Holiday Inn could obtain reservations, by teleprinter, for any other Holiday Inn location, was launched in 1965. The only comparable systems at the time were operated by airlines.

Branded as "The Nation's Innkeeper", the Holiday Inn chain put considerable financial pressure on traditional motels and hotels, and set the standard for competitors like Ramada Inn, Quality Inn, Howard Johnson's, and Best Western. Wilson started with one hotel outside of Memphis, Tennessee in 1952; by 1972, there were more than 1,400 Holiday Inns worldwide. In June 1972, Wilson was featured on the cover of Time magazine and the franchise's motto became "The World's Innkeeper".

The wilson family foundation

The Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation (KWFF) was founded in 1960 by Kemmons Wilson and his wife Dorothy as a result of their financial success, and their desire to give back. The Foundation serves to transform the Greater Memphis, Tennessee community through grantmaking and programs driven by faith and family leadership. Learn more about the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation here.

The Kemmons wilson school of hospitality & Resort management

A quiet, generous benefactor, Kemmons donated several million dollars to the University of Memphis. In August 2002, almost exactly 50 years after the first Holiday Inn opened, the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management opened on the university campus. The $15 million training facility includes an 80+ suite Holiday Inn hotel with meeting/event space. The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management offers a balance of academics and experiential learning in the hospitality, resort, and tourism industries while stressing global awareness, sustainability, and diversity.

The GREAT SIGN

A critical construction element of the very first Holiday Inn that Kemmons Wilson built in 1952 was the design of the motel’s sign. Based on Kemmons’ earlier years in the movie theater business, he understood the value of an attention-grabbing marquee. When it came time to design the first roadway sign for Holiday Inn, he wanted something prominent that would stand alone in front of the building and be easily viewable by folks driving by. That meant the sign would need to be large, and it would need to light up. Wilson also wanted the sign to have changeable letters to welcome different groups and to announce other important messages. That first sign, known as “The Great Sign”, was at least 50 feet tall and cost around $13,000 back in 1952 (that’s about $126,000 in 2020 dollars). The Great Sign became one of the most recognizable symbols in the United States and iconic to the Holiday Inn brand for three decades until the early 1980s when the company streamlined their signage. View a photo of the original 1952 Great Sign here.

Books:

Half Luck and Half Brains:  The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story by Kemmons Wilson with Robert Kerr (1996)

 

Websites |  Blogs  | OnLine Articles:

 

1972 Time Magazine: Cover with Kemmons Wilson 

1986 FamousInterview.com:  Q&A written interview with Kemmons Wilson

1991 Living Legends Interview:  Watch a video of Kemmons Wilson's interview 

2002 Salon.com: The Holiday Inn Sign

2003 NYTimes.com: Kemmons Wilson Obituary   

2003 Hotelbusiness.com: Kemmons Wilson Obituary 

2005 WSJ.com: The Holidome Returns: Slumping Holiday Inn Expands to Water Parks