Kemmons Wilson, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, was inspired to build his own motel after being disappointed by poor quality and inconsistent roadside accommodation during a family road trip to Washington, DC. The name "Holiday Inn" was coined by Wilson's architect Eddie Bluestein as a joke during construction of the first hotel, in reference to the 1942 Christmas-themed, musical film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Their first hotel/motel opened in August 1952 as "Holiday Inn Hotel Courts" at 4925 Summer Avenue in Memphis, the main highway to Nashville. In the early 1990s it was demolished, leaving behind a plaque commemorating the site.
Wilson partnered with Wallace E. Johnson to build additional motels on the roads entering Memphis. At the time 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 the roads that led 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. Upon 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." What they started together, with Wilson later helming the project, became the 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 the year's end. In 1957, Wilson began marketing the chain as "Holiday Inn of America", mandating its properties be standardized, clean, predictable, family-friendly, and readily accessible to road travelers. 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) opening 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 franchise's 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.
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, Florida 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.
The Great Sign
The "Great Sign" was the roadside sign used by Holiday Inn during its original era of expansion from the 1950s to 1970s. It was perhaps the company's most successful form of advertising. It was extremely large and eye-catching, but was expensive to construct and operate. The manufacturer of the sign was Balton & Sons Sign Company, and it was originally designed by sketch artists Gene Barber and Roland Alexander. Wilson wanted a prominent sign, desiring that it be at least 50 feet high and visible in both directions. He also wanted a changeable marquee to welcome different groups. The original sign cost $13,000. It is said that the sign's colors were selected because they were favorites of Wilson's mother. The popularity of the sign led to many imitations, some of which remain to this day.
In 1982, following Wilson's departure, the Holiday Inn board of directors phased out the "Great Sign" in favor of a cheaper back-lit sign. The decision essentially signaled the end of the Wilson era, and Wilson considered it "the worst mistake they ever made". He loved the "Great Sign" so much that it was engraved on his tombstone, with the marquee reading "FOUNDER" and the arrow aimed at his name. The majority of the signs were sold as scrap metal and recycled.
Several intact fragments of the famous sign have been restored and relit, mostly the Holiday Inn top section of the sign and the marquee box. In 2006, a complete sign was found. The disassembled sign, complete with star, marquee box, and the sign base, was discovered in a backlot in Minnesota. On June 3, 2007, it was purchased by a neon sign restoration expert, in order to restore it to its 1950s appearance. It would be displayed at the National Save the Neon Signs Museum in Minot, North Dakota. An intact sign that came from a Las Vegas location stands outside of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another intact and operating Holiday Inn Great Sign is at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and yet another is with a private collector in Park Hills, Kentucky.
1980s - Present
Although still a healthy company, changing business conditions and demographics saw Holiday Inn lose its market dominance in the 1980s. Holiday Inns, Inc. was renamed "Holiday Corporation" in 1985 to reflect the growth of the company's brands, including Harrah's Entertainment, Embassy Suites Hotels, Crowne Plaza, Homewood Suites, and Hampton Inn. In 1988, Holiday Corporation was purchased by UK-based Bass PLC (the owners of the Bass beer brand), followed by the remaining domestic Holiday Inn hotels in 1990, when founder Wilson sold his interest, after which the hotel group was known as Holiday Inn Worldwide. The remainder of Holiday Corporation (including the Embassy Suites Hotels, Homewood Suites, and Hampton Inn brands) was spun off to shareholders as Promus Companies Incorporated. In 1990, Bass launched Holiday Inn Express, a complementary brand in the limited service segment.