The "Great Sign" combines with a rooftop sign to form a powerful image, 1972.
Rarely has a commercial icon been so appropriately named as “The Great Sign” of Holiday Inn. It was “great” in multiple senses of the word. Great in size - the standard version stood a titanic five stories tall and sixteen feet wide. Great in impact – striking green, orange and yellow colors by day, a blaze of multicolored neon tubing and chasing lights by night. Great in presence – a fixture at over 1,200 Holiday Inns the world over by 1970. And a great part of childhood memories for so many of us.
For us, Holiday Inns played a part in key events and everyday moments alike. We stayed there on vacation trips or on the way to visit family. For large gatherings – weddings, anniversaries, etc., we put up out-of-town family members there. We celebrated graduations, engagements and other milestones with dinner at the local Holiday Inn restaurant. And of course, our Dads got their shop towels there.
...and it was pretty appealing during the day as well. 1963.
The story of Holiday Inn’s origin has been told over and over to the point of becoming a part of American folklore: It was the summer of 1951. A Memphis businessman drove his family halfway across the country on a sightseeing vacation trip to Washington DC. The accommodations along the way were substandard at best – dilapidated motor courts, broken-down motels and the like. These places were dirty, uncomfortable, poorly maintained and offered no conveniences – no food service, no air-conditioning, no phone, pools or pets, no cigarettes. Worst of all, they charged extra per person – and he and his wife had five kids! Upon their return home, he dreamed up an idea for a new type of accommodation that would right all of the aforementioned wrongs. Plans were drawn up, financing was secured, and the first Holiday Inn opened up about a year later. The rest, as they say, was history.
I wonder who changed the rolls on that player piano.1961.
By any standard, Kemmons Wilson was a successful man - long before his family’s fateful vacation trip and the resultant idea for Holiday Inn ever came about. He was the true embodiment of an entrepreneur, with boundless energy, curiosity and decisiveness, qualities that made him a millionaire at a young age. Born in 1913 in Osceola, Arkansas, and losing his father months later, Wilson and his resourceful mother, Ruby “Doll” Wilson, who installed a lifelong sense of self-confidence in her son, moved 55 miles away to Memphis before his first birthday. Wilson got his first “job” as a baby, when an image of his smiling face was used in advertisements for the local Sunbeam bread baker. A series of part-time jobs led to his first business venture before the age of twenty – he bought a popcorn machine for fifty bucks and convinced an area movie theatre operator to let him sell popcorn to the theatre patrons. When Wilson’s concession stand began to net twice as much as the theatre itself, the manager tossed him out, with little choice but to sell the machine for what he originally paid for it.
Wilson stayed in the amusements business, using the proceeds from the sale of the popcorn machine to buy a small group of used pinball machines, placing them in various local establishments, reinvesting the profits to continually add more machines. Within two years, he had saved enough money to try his hand at another venture – home building. Building his first house in 1933, Wilson was able to borrow enough against it to build more homes, and by the eve of Pearl Harbor he had assembled impressive holdings in apartment buildings and theatres (holding fast to the popcorn concessions, of course) as well. He also picked up the area selling rights for Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and soon built up their highest sales volume in the entire country. Wurlitzer dispatched a special representative to Memphis to present Wilson an award for top sales performance – up-and-coming bandleader Lawrence Welk. A few years afterward, Welk would be given a national television show, and in time all America would become familiar with his "A-one, an-a-two" song count-offs and the famous “bubble machine”.An early 60's Holiday Inn room. The TV set is a Philco Predicta. Reportedly, they didn't work very well, but they looked fantastic.
After the U.S. was plunged into World War II, Wilson, who was already an experienced pilot, joined the U.S. Air Transport Command, flying transport missions over the treacherous Himalayan route from India to China. Not wanting to burden his new wife, Dorothy, and his mother with debt should the worst happen, Wilson sold off his business interests for $250,000 prior to leaving the country. While in the service he made an acquaintance that led to one of his few business flops. An Army buddy of his owned the Orange Crush distributorship in Chicago and his enthusiasm convinced Wilson to buy the Memphis Orange Crush bottling company, which had done well during the sugar-rationed war years, when he got back home. Once sugar supplies returned to normal and soft drinks were in plentiful supply again, however, Memphians expressed their overwhelming preference for Coca-Cola, rendering Wilson’s $100,000 investment a bomb. (Reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a work friend from Connecticut where we somehow got on the subject of soft drinks. He said “It’s like this - Pepsi is a Yankee drink. Coke is a Reb drink. There ya go.” I’m not sure it’s that simple, but I admired the way he had this squared away in his own mind.)
In any event, Wilson’s construction career kicked back into high gear, and it wasn’t long before he became one of the most celebrated businessmen in Memphis. And then came the fateful summer 1951 vacation trip, referred to above. Immediately upon returning home, Wilson set about conceptualizing his new “hotel court” idea in great detail, “siz(ing) up the ideal (room) dimensions for efficiency and comfort”, according to Wilson’s 1994 autobiography “Half Luck and Half Brains”. Interestingly, the dimensions Wilson arrived at, 12 by 18 feet, became an industry standard that remained in place for decades. Once his brainstorming was complete Wilson called upon Eddie Bluestein, a draftsman he frequently hired, to formalize his ideas in blueprint form. As it turned out, Bluestein’s contribution would be far greater than a mere clean-up of Wilson’s already well-thought out plans. The evening Bluestein drew up the plans, the 1941 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, happened to be airing on television. (I’ve loved that flick since I was a kid. To this day, we never fail to watch it at Christmastime.) Bluestein watched as he worked, and on a lark he wrote the name “Holiday Inn” on the finished drawing. Wilson loved it.An early Holiday Inn front desk. The Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris cover of the Life magazine on the rack dates this to 1961.
A steaming Saturday afternoon in August (is there any other kind in Memphis?) of 1952 saw the grand opening of the world’s first Holiday Inn, on Summer Avenue (U.S. Highway 70), the main road leading into Memphis from the east. Among the dignitaries scheduled to be present was Frank Tobey, the mayor of Memphis, who would cut the ceremonial ribbon. As luck would have it, the mayor showed up late, and Dorothy Wilson convinced her husband to let their kids perform the honors instead. The press photo of that moment – the five Wilson kids all dressed up and lined up by age, about to cut the ribbon while the very first Great Sign looms in the background – stands today as an iconic American image.
Within just over a year, Holiday Inns were opened on the other three main thoroughfares into Memphis, on U.S. Highways 51 South, 61 North and 51 North. It was a fitting first example of one of Wilson’s key strategies for Holiday Inn – to build on the edge of a city, on every major route into town, on the right side of the street to catch inbound travelers. “So you couldn’t come into town with passing one of my places”, he later put it.
From the beginning, Wilson set a goal to develop a national chain of motels. 400 units would be the ideal number, he told his wife and others in early conversations, based on locating the motels at “day’s drive” intervals across the Lower 48. He soon realized the need for help to accomplish this goal, from both a financial and a management standpoint. In late 1953, Wilson called on an acquaintance of his, a fellow Memphis area builder named Wallace E. Johnson, “the biggest thinking man I knew” as Wilson later described him in 1971 Saturday Evening Post profile, who specialized in homes for middle and lower income families. Nearly twelve years older and possessed of a lower-key demeanor than the ebullient Wilson, Johnson rose from similar hardscrabble origins to become one of the nation’s top homebuilders by the early fifties.The Chicken Dinner was a Holiday Inn staple in the 60's, as was "Cheddar Apple Pie". The Holiday Inn Directories were close at hand.
Johnson’s understanding of the role of showmanship and bold moves mirrored Wilson’s own. Years earlier, he’d had 5000 cardboard signs printed up that read “Let Wallace E. Johnson Build Your Home On This Lot” and proceeded to put the signs up on vacant lots all over town, irrespective of the lots’ ownership. The publicity was worth its weight in gold, and more than a few stunned property owners proved willing to let Johnson build on their lots on a spec basis. Wilson realized that Johnson’s financial acumen and his strong ties within the National Home Builders Association (an eagerly-anticipated potential source of Holiday Inn franchisees) would be invaluable to Holiday Inn’s future, so he arranged to visit Johnson at home one evening, where he laid out his dreams and plans for the company. Impressed by Wilson’s thoroughness, enthusiasm and the Holiday Inn idea itself, Johnson was in – the start of a 25-year long partnership and a company that would impact the world.
Wilson and Johnson hoped, and had every reason to expect, that the Home Builders Association would yield an ideal pool of franchising candidates for their fledgling chain, but it proved to be slow going. Many members were well-heeled, respected in their local communities and had good access to construction financing. Understandably, the two men went all out in promoting their new venture within the organization – they had an elaborate model built of a Holiday Inn prototype and set it up at the nationally-renowned Home Show in Chicago. They invited a nationwide group of them to Memphis for a VIP presentation of the Holiday Inn program. Sixty-five builders attended, but amazingly there were only four takers. Despite Wilson and Johnson’s marketing efforts and their ridiculously low franchise costs - a $500 initial fee and a seven-cent per night fee (five-cent royalty and two-cent advertising co-op charge) per room – only a relative handful of their fellow home builders ever bought in. Eventually, it was obvious that they would have to widen their efforts.
The Home Builders’ group yielded one major plus, however. In late 1955, William B. Walton, the staff attorney for the group’s Memphis chapter, was persuaded to leave a comfortable job there on the strength of the Holiday Inn dream (and very little in the way of salary initially), joining the company the following January. The addition of Walton completed a management trio that would prove to be formidable indeed – Wilson the builder, ever scouting out new locations and pushing the frontiers, Johnson the financial liaison and sage advisor and Walton the operations man, responsible for developing and maintaining the Holiday Inn experience. Among the first things they did was to hire two salesmen and put them on the road to push the company’s franchise plan, with “job number one” being to get in front of any and all qualified franchising candidates. Interestingly, as Johnson noted in his autobiography Together We Build, when they doubled the franchise fee to a thousand dollars, “it was easier to find purchasers at that price”. As Holiday Inn grew, the fees went up significantly from there.Typical early Holiday Inn restaurants. Perhaps the "Space Age" isn't the best way to describe the 1960's. The "Sconce Age" might be better.
By the summer of 1957 there were 25 Holiday Inns, seven company-owned and eighteen franchised units. On August 20th of that year, in order to facilitate expansion and to help relieve the tremendous personal financial burden on Wilson and Johnson, Holiday Inns, Inc. held its first public stock offering. It was a smashing success, and was soon followed by a second one that was equally successful. By the end of the 1950’s Holiday Inn was well on its way to becoming a national brand, and the development opportunities were flowing in heavily. In order to take full advantage of those opportunities, which coincided with unprecedented growth of the economy and the explosion of the American roadside culture (in which Holiday Inn would play a seminal role), huge amounts of borrowed capital were needed. Later on, when President Eisenhower convened a meeting of business leaders in Virginia, Wilson attended and was able to make contacts with investors that eventually resulted in another $4.5 million in capital investment, which certainly helped. By the end of 1962, five years after the initial stock offering, there were over 300 Holiday Inns operating and nearly 180 more in the construction or planning stage.
Charleston, South Carolina, Mid 1960's.
The next couple of years saw two events that played an unequaled part in fueling Holiday Inn’s rocket-ride to the top. In 1963, Holiday Inn struck a long-term agreement with Gulf Oil Corporation, a petroleum giant with a near-national reach at the time. For some time the company had been interested in setting up a joint venture with an oil firm. The benefits were self-evident – the Holiday Inn locations “on major highways, catering to the traveling public, would be strategic locations for service stations”, Johnson noted in his book. They’d even tried it once before with another company (that Johnson declined to name) whereby Holiday Inn would receive royalties on each gallon of gas sold, once thirty of their stations had been co-located with Holiday Inns. “But we never did get the required thirty”, Johnson wrote.An early Holiday Inn/Gulf combination. At one point, Holiday Inn actually published a book featuring pithy sayings from the Great Sign marquee boards.
The Gulf agreement supplied a much-needed financial bonanza for Holiday Inn. Under it, Gulf agreed to loan the company $6 million outright and to buy five percent of Holiday Inns, Inc. preferred stock to the tune of $15 million. They also agreed to provide a 100 percent guarantee on Holiday Inns’ mortgage loans up to $25 million. On top of that, Wilson, in his never-ending quest for prime property for new Holiday Inns, was frequently able to sell the corner portion of the new properties for 25 percent of the total land cost to Gulf for construction of a new service station. As a result, hundreds upon hundreds of Gulf stations opened up next to new Holiday Inns throughout the 60’s and 70’s - a big win for the oil company, given the high quality of the locations. Most importantly, from a customer’s viewpoint at least, the Gulf Travel Card could now be used to pay for rooms and meals at Holiday Inns. The first arrangement of its kind, it was significant in an era when American Express, Diners Club and Carte Blanche cards were generally carried only by executives or upper-income families and bank cards (the forerunners of MasterCard and Visa) were in their infancy. Many Americans had gas cards, though, and sales went through the roof. Within a few years, Gulf cardholders were racking up more than $100 million dollars a year in charges at Holiday Inns. Eventually the design of the card itself was modified to depict a Holiday Inn.The Holidex control center in Memphis, circa 1965. Somehow I find this comforting.
The second major catalyst came with the launch of the “Holidex” computerized reservation system. By the early 60’s, most of the largest American companies were wildly enthusiastic customers of IBM, Burroughs or one of their competitors, and huge mainframe computer systems were popping up like mushrooms. Early on, most of these systems dealt strictly with accounting functions, but the frontiers were expanding rapidly. In 1964 a keenly interested Kemmons Wilson hired an IBM consultant to look into ways to connect and keep track of Holiday Inn’s increasingly far-flung empire. “At first, negotiations were stormy”, Wilson’s book states, with IBM reluctant at first to develop a custom system for Holiday Inn, then agreeing to do it at too high a cost. Wilson walked away and threatened to take the project to a competitor, spurring a visit by IBM’s legendary chairman, Thomas F. Watson, Jr., to Holiday Inn’s Memphis offices. An 8 million-dollar price tag was agreed upon (personally guaranteed by Wilson and Johnson in those still-fledgling days), and the following year, the Holidex system, employing two IBM System/360 mainframes in Memphis and a terminal at every single Holiday Inn front desk, became a reality.
With the Holidex system, inn operators had “instant knowledge of room listings open in any other Inn”, as Holiday Inn Magazine (“The Magazine for Travelers”) put it in 1965, and could make reservations for their customers at any of the company’s (then) “72,000 rooms in 608 locations” as a free courtesy service. Prior to that time, customers who lived outside major cities had to place a long-distance call to the specific hotel they were interested in to reserve a room. At that time, when even a quick long distance call could easily cost two or three bucks ($10-12 in today’s dollars) and 800 numbers were still a few years away, the appeal was obvious. Holiday Inn had double-jumped the competition, and from then on the company was besieged with franchise applicants, as Wilson says in his book – “from the day we got (Holidex), it was no longer a matter of selling franchises, it was a matter of taking orders for them. They stood in line waiting to get a Holiday Inn franchise…because nobody else had anything like it”.Somewhere in California, next to "the freeway".
And the growth came, like wildfire, with Wilson, Johnson and Walton spending much of their time surveying America’s various sprawling metropolises (metropoli?) by air, usually with Wilson himself at the Cessna’s controls. A particular obsession of Wilson’s, understandably, was Southern California, that wonderland of growth, and it reached the point where he was spending “two or three months a year” there scouting sites. Ultimately he assigned an assistant to track down the landowners near every single freeway interchange in the greater Los Angeles area. (For those of you unfamiliar with the area, they really are called “freeways” there. In other parts of the country we would say “Interstate 10” or “I-10”, but in L.A. it’s “The 10 Freeway.” Now when you visit there, you can impress the heck out of people - with my compliments.)
At the same time, Holiday Inn began to introduce additional hotel formats as a means of broadening their appeal. The company’s mainstay, as mentioned in their 1964 annual report, was the “dependable two-story highway side Holiday Inn” on the edge of town, but according to Johnson, they now realized “the need for at least one downtown Inn in big cities and are trying to fill it”. They began to fill it in a big way with high-rise hotels – an 18-story, 600-room hotel in Manhattan (440 West 57th Street), for starters, that opened on November 12, 1963 and was nearly twice the size of their largest existing unit, a Dallas location.Late 60's view of the Holiday Inn-Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago. The blue-peaked building in back of it is the American Furniture Mart. The John Hancock Center is under construction in the distance.
Two years to the day later, a 33-story Holiday Inn, complete with a top floor revolving restaurant (offering diners a striking panoramic tour of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan over the course of an hour) opened on Lake Shore Drive. This magnificent hotel was a point of pride for Holiday Inn for many years after opening, and could ostensibly be considered the company’s “flagship” at the time. I remember this one well, because it was next door to the historic American Furniture Mart building, which housed plush showrooms for all of the major furniture manufacturers, including the one my Dad worked for. Twice a year, retail chain furniture buyers and designers would converge there for the Midwest Furniture Show, but it was open year round. His office was there until the late 70’s, and he would often take my brother and I downtown on Saturdays to catch up on some work. We were usually the only ones there and had the run of the place - sitting in all the new recliners, drawing up org charts on Dad’s company letterhead (“No, I’m the president!”), and the like. Of course, when we had lunch at the Holiday Inn there it was in the main floor restaurant instead of the revolving one up top. Still felt like a big deal, though.A little Holiday Inn next to a little Gulf station. This sort of cuteness doesn't occur today.
High rise hotels would become a vital part of the Holiday Inn mix, but the company explored the other end of the spectrum as well. A limited service concept first called “Holiday Inn Compact” was launched as “Holiday Inn Jr.” in 1963. These were intended “to attract the economy-minded traveler” and at only 32 rooms in size would be ideal for “hospital parking lots, congested downtown areas and similar sites where space is at a premium”. The Holiday Inn Jr.’s had no pool, and a small coffee shop took the place of the standard restaurant and bar. Only a handful of these were ever built, and the company wouldn’t revisit the limited service idea until much later. But take a look at the Holiday Inn Jr. photo – is that cuteness personified, or what? (Maybe the phrase should be “cuteness objectified”, but I think you know what I’m trying to say.)Architectural renderings of early high-rise Holiday Inns from the firm of W.W. Bond.
For many of us, the enduring image of Holiday Inn is somewhere between the two extremes mentioned above – a medium-sized, four to six-story hotel flanked by the “Great Sign”, on whose marquee board might be congratulations to a newly-married local couple or one celebrating their 50th anniversary, or a welcome message to some group or organization arriving in town for a special event. Aside from the signs, the Inn exteriors reflected a distinctive image – brick and ornamental “screen block” on typical Inns, precast concrete slab on the high-rise behemoths. Much of the credit for the Holiday Inn “look” can be credited to W.W. (Bill) Bond Jr., their preferred architect. Memphis-born and Notre Dame-educated, Bond, like his most important client Kemmons Wilson, worked at a furious pace and was early to adopt computer technology, using it to develop a database of standardized designs for the multitude of Holiday Inns being built at the time. “Why draw things such as a standard roof expansion joint over and over again?” he told Holiday Inn Magazine in the mid-60’s.A very nice lobby from the mid-1960's.
Holiday Inns were noted for their interior designs as well, which became increasingly eclectic as the 1960’s progressed. In their earliest years, most of the company’s decorating was handled by none other than Ruby “Doll” Wilson, Kemmons Wilson’s mother, who held the title of Vice President of Design. Eventually, the job of “chief interior decorator” went to Tom Wells, a graduate of the University of Alabama and the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. Wells had done the interior designs for a franchised Holiday Inn in Montgomery, Alabama, and Wilson fell in love with his work. Wells would go on to decorate nearly 500 Holiday Inns, becoming highly influential in the industry. Wilson’s book cites an article by a Memphis reporter that outlined Wells’ modus operandi and philosophy – “(Wells) mixes all styles and periods and colors…using one or two predominant colors and then bringing in all the jewel tones”. “There’s too much matching in decorating”, Wells told the reporter. “We never match anything.”
By the early 1960’s, the inns themselves were merely the center of a wide-ranging empire. In fact, one would be hard pressed to come up with a better example of “vertical integration” (when a company makes most things it uses or sells itself rather than buying them from outside sources) than Holiday Inn in that era. They made their own tables. They made their own lamps. They made their own hot dogs and note pads and stamps.
(They didn’t make their own stamps. I was just trying to write like Dr. Seuss there and needed a rhyme. Sorry.) They did make just about everything else, though. A longtime Holiday Inn executive was quoted in Wilson’s book – “if it took wood to build something, Kemmons wanted to own the forest.” For Wilson himself, it was a matter of control and the economy of scale – “And back then, we were building so many Holiday Inns, it was really worthwhile. We could get that stuff out when we wanted it. We saved an awful, awful lot of money.”
Examples were Holiday Woodcraft, makers of “custom counters and display cases”, Johnson Furniture - “stereo and television cabinets, living-room and dining-room suites”, Modern Plastics – “lamps and shipping containers”, Bianco Manufacturing – “all types of commercial seating”, Master Kraft Manufacturing – “facilities for refrigeration units” (?!), Inn Keepers Supply Company – room furnishings and cleaning chemicals (Maybe these were the origin of the “Holiday Inn scent”. Does anyone other than me remember that? It was clean but very distinctive. The sense of smell is a very powerful memory trigger.),Holiday Press – forms, stationery, Holiday Inn directories, Holiday Inn Magazine , and “a national business in commercial printing” according to Johnson’s book, General Data Corporation – Holidex and other computer-based systems, and General Innkeeping Acceptance Corporation to finance it all.The carpet department at the Instutional Mart of America. Holiday Inn owned the carpet mill as well.
To display these wares, Holiday Inn built a two-story, 300,000 square foot showroom named the Institutional Mart of America adjacent to their new corporate headquarters in Memphis. Time Magazine described a typical offering – “One popular item is a “$25,000 Club Escadrille bar, complete with World War I flying décor, wing emblems, portraits of Rickenbacker and Von Richtofen, and a muted sound track of planes landing and taking off.” (This kind of thing was big in the late 60’s-early 70’s, trust me.) Although the primary purpose of the IMA was to supply hotel furnishings to Holiday Inn franchisees, who flocked there en masse, they had no qualms whatsoever about selling to competitors. “A dollar made that way is worth just as much as a dollar made renting a motel room”, Wallace Johnson said in his book. The Time article cites a billionaire hotelier who “paid (Holiday Inn) a $250,000 consulting fee for help in planning his princess Hotel in Acapulco. ‘We saved him millions’, boasted Wilson.”With awesome packaging like this, I'd eat the stuff every day!
There was an aviation subsidiary called HI-Air that “sold small planes, operated a repair station and provided aircraft storage, leasing and rental (even today the Wilsons are big players in the general aviation business), a record company, of all things (featuring “Larry and the Accommodations” among their artists), a late-night easy listening radio program, “The Dolly Holiday Show”, broadcast on stations all over the country (“Dolly Holiday” in real life was long-time radio personality and vocalist Dotty Abbott.), and then my personal favorites, the food divisions – The Nat Buring Packing Company, which made “King Cotton” brand bacon and hot dogs but also sold them under the Holiday Inn name. (With the Great Sign on the package, who would care about nitrites?) There was also a candy division, which also featured the Great Sign on its packaging. (No nitrites, but maybe a few trans fats. Hey, this was the sixties. These weren’t harmful back then.)The famed "Coffee Host". Personally, I think these would go with any decor.
And then there was Coffee Host - gigantic, wall-mounted ancestors of the Keurig “K-cup”machines, where guests “could enjoy a delightful 4-ounce cup of coffee at any time of the day.” Not only were these available in many Holiday Inn rooms, but folks could buy the machines for home use! (Of course at 4 ounces each, I’d be enjoying about 37 delightful cups a day, but…)Holiday Inn shows off their new acquisition, Continental Trailways, early 70's.
In 1969, Holiday Inn acquired their largest division outside of the Inns themselves. This was Tco Industries, owners of Continental Trailways, at 2,500 buses the second-largest motor coach company, behind market leader Greyhound. Also included was Delta Steamship Lines, a fleet of 11 cruise ships. As Wallace Johnson said, Holiday Inn now “offer(ed) a service in the accommodation-transportation field that is without equal.”The Gulf station at Holiday City, mid-60's. The Great Sign and the corporate offices are in the background.
As impressive as this collection of enterprises was, the massive corporate center that housed them was equally so. Just seven miles from the original Holiday Inn headquarters (a ramshackle plumbing shed next to Wallace Johnson’s office), it was light years away by any other standard. Spanning an 80-acre tract along Lamar Avenue (U.S. Highway 78) in Memphis and populated by over 2,500 employees at its peak, “Holiday City” was a marvel to behold. Among other structures in the complex were the Holiday Inn world headquarters, four stories tall and faced with Italian marble, a state-of-the-art Holiday Inn hotel (where the service was impeccable, as one would expect), and a gleaming prototype Gulf station, pictured above in a mid-sixties advertising photo. The centerpiece of Holiday City was the aforementioned Institutional Mart of America building, and in front of that was a cylindrical, space-age building with floor-to-ceiling glass – the home of General Data Corporation, the subsidiary in charge of Holidex. Not coincidentally, there were drive-up branches of the National Bank of Commerce and the 1st National Bank of Memphis (later called First Tennessee Bank), two of Holiday Inn’s key lenders, on the property. Across the street were some of the manufacturing divisions referred to earlier."Don't you know we're riding on the Marrakech (Holiday Inn) Express?" With apologies to Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The “Great Sign” was rapidly becoming an international icon as well, with Inns “in places as varied as Greece and Swaziland, Switzerland, and Hong Kong, Morocco and Nassau”, according to a 1972 Time Magazine article. There was already a substantial presence in Canada, of course, and in (West)Germany and the UK. Plans were also underway to build the first Holiday Inns behind the Iron Curtain, with a venture to locate 36 inns in Eastern Europe.A late 1960's Holiday Inn room. The TV is far less interesting then the Predicta, but at least it's color!
One thing that stands out in reading Holiday Inn’s early press, and throughout the 60’s and 70’s there was a ton of it, was the company’s faith-based program, something that would be hard to imagine in an international, publicly held company today. A November, 1970 New York Times article mentioned the chain’s practice of having hotel maids leave the Gideon Bibles out on the dresser, opened, as opposed to inside a drawer. In 1967, Wilson hired Methodist minister W.A. Nance to oversee a program where a local “on call” chaplain was assigned to each Holiday Inn, ready to counsel a despairing Holiday Inn guest by phone should the need arise. In a 1977 Saturday Evening Post article, Wilson said the program had received over 100,000 calls and that “3,000 potential suicides” were averted. I’m intrigued by the “open Bible” aspect, and wonder which verse it was opened to – John 3:16? Maybe just a random verse, or one specified by the company or of the maid’s choosing.
By the early 70’s, of course, the Holiday Inn story was widely known, being featured in lengthy articles in a wide variety of publications including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek and others. Most notable of these was a glowing 5,000 word profile in the June 12, 1972 issue of Time magazine, whose cover featured a striking pop-art image of Kemmons Wilson’s beaming face with the Great Sign in the background.An early Holidome. Shuffleboard is wildly underrated, don't you think?
This era also saw a new Holiday Inn innovation. Just as the Filet-O-Fish, Big Mac and Egg McMuffin sandwiches were developed by McDonald’s franchisees, so this was developed by the Holiday Inn franchisees in Wichita, Kansas. Years earlier, the Wichita owners had built a standard Holiday Inn of the day – Two-story, U-shaped, with a pool in the center of the “U”. One day they phoned Kemmons Wilson to tell him about “the improvements they had made to their hotel”. His interest piqued, Wilson flew there the next day, and saw that they “had covered the space between the two story buildings and, by doing this, created an indoor swimming pool and 20,000 square feet more space which really made the hotel outstanding”. Called a “leisure dome” at first, the “Holidome” as it was soon called, quickly became the standard for new and remodeled Inns. Wilson pronounced it a “near miracle”. They were the perfect settings for late-night mayhem on band trips and youth group outings. (Not that I would know, of course…)Waikiki Beach, late 1960's. The largest Holiday Inn in the system at the time it opened.
Not long afterward, however, the landscape changed drastically for Holiday Inn, as it did for American business as a whole. The oil crisis of late 1973, which badly damaged the travel industry, hit Holiday Inn particularly hard. In 1974, according to Wilson’s book, Holiday Inn’s profits dropped by 30 percent and the company’s stock was hammered, falling from $56.00 to $4.25 per share. This spurred Wilson to make some big changes, installing new top management. Bill Walton was elevated to Vice Chairman and assigned the new responsibility of representing Holiday Inn (and the tourism industry as a whole) as a “roving ambassador and industry watchdog” in an effort to underscore the importance of the industry to the U.S. economy. Wilson brought in Roy Winegardner, a native of Cincinnati and one of Holiday Inn’s longest-tenured and most successful franchisees, to run the company. Winegardner brought his protégé Michael Rose (who years later would succeed Winegardner as chairman) on board as they “set about reorganizing and streamlining Holiday Inn over the next several years”, Wilson’s book states.The Holiday Inn inspection team stands aside their fleet of 1968 Chevy Impalas. "Remember to keep those jackets buttoned, men!"
The next few years would see the departure of all three of Holiday Inn’s founding figures. In 1977 Wallace Johnson retired, leaving his corporate position to devote full time to Christian ministry. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 86. Bill Walton resigned in 1981 over the company’s decision to acquire the Harrah’s casino interests, and would later become chairman of Park Inns International, a limited service hotel chain. The founder, Kemmons Wilson, stayed on as Holiday Inn chairman until 1979. That year, Wilson found himself outvoted by his board for the first time when they decided to go ahead with the acquisition of Perkins, a 340-unit chain of family restaurants, against Wilson’s strong misgivings. (“We didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, and we had never made any money off restaurants”, Wilson said. They later dumped the restaurant chain.) No longer able to control his board, and acknowledging to a friend that “...it just isn’t fun anymore. It’s time to move on”, Wilson resigned. It was the end of a great era, one fortunately captured in excellent autobiographies by all three men, Wilson’s Half Luck and Half Brains, Johnson’s Together We Build and Walton’s Inn Keeper.
Two versions of the larger metropolitan Holiday Inn - the "round" hotel (location unknown, but several were built) and a conventional version in Oakland, California, near the Bay Bridge.
The leadership transition at Holiday Inn was hardly unique in the annals of American business. The mantle had been passed from the founding generation – the entrepreneurs, the visionaries – to professional managers. Mike Rose, who succeeded Roy Winegardner as chairman in 1983, is quoted in Wilson’s book – “Kemmons could do things I could never do…On the other hand, there comes a point in a company’s development where it needs a less entrepreneurial style of managing and more of a systems approach as it gets bigger and bigger. And I think with Holiday Inn, that was the time where people like myself were brought in to add more value to the company.”Near the Atlanta Airport, early 1970's.
And at the end of 1982, they began to come down...the Great Signs, that is, replaced by conventional internally lit rectangular signs atop wide, black columns. The multi-colors of the neon star gave way to an orange and gold symbolic version, and the trademark “Holiday Inn” script logo was updated and softened – the snappy downstroke of the “y”, for example, replaced with a nice, safe curve. There were ‘good reasons’ for this, of course, as cited in a lamenting October 1982 article by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene – for one thing, they cost 35 grand apiece to build and $6000 a year to operate, whereas the new ones would be far more economical. Also, public taste was apparently becoming more sophisticated - “Holiday Inns has commissioned research that shows its customers now consider the old signs – the ‘Great Signs’ – to be tacky. Tacky and cheap and old-fashioned.” the article goes on to say. (I’d like to have a little talk with these particular survey respondents.) I didn’t happen to read the Greene article or any others that may have appeared on the subject at the time, and from my perspective the Great Signs disappeared in a flash – here one day, gone the next. Like the Baltimore Colts. In any event, the signs were completely gone within a couple of years, and with them a significant piece of Holiday Inn’s identity and an American roadside icon. Kemmons Wilson, who almost never criticized his successors, summed it up best: “It was a hell of a mistake.”
Shining bright at night, circa 1972.
In August 1989, Holiday Corporation (as it was now known) shocked the business world by selling off its flagship brand, Holiday Inn (and the upscale Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza), to British conglomerate Bass PLC, the famous brewer, which also held extensive real estate holdings. Bass would later change its name to InterContinental Hotels Group after one of its upscale brands. Bass paid Holiday Inn shareholders $125 million in stock and assumed $2.1 billion in debt, which would render Holiday “a vastly smaller but healthier company that will concentrate on gambling”, reported The New York Times. The “gambling” referred to here was the chain of Harrah’s casinos acquired in 1978, a deal initiated when Kemmons Wilson was still chairman. Interestingly, the Times article failed to mention the company’s exploding Hampton Inn chain, a limited service chain launched in 1984 that had grown to 300 hotels (there are over 1,700 now), and the Embassy Suites chain. Holiday Corp. management, led by Mike Rose, decided to invest in the new brand rather than undertake the massive chainwide renovations it would take to keep Holiday Inn on top. The new entity was renamed Promus Hotel Corporation. In 1999 Promus, which had picked up the DoubleTree hotel brand along the way, was acquired by Hilton. And for the first time, none of these enterprises would be based in Memphis.
The “remnants of the empire”, the former Holiday City complex along Memphis’ Lamar Avenue, can still be seen, if you know what to look for. The Holiday Inn hotel there has long been boarded up. The Italian marble-faced original headquarters building later became the home of Catherines women’s stores and now sits empty behind a chain link fence, as does the grand Institutional Mart of America, which later became the main headquarters building. The Gulf station still operates as an independent tire shop, and now bears little resemblance to the beauty pictured above. The furniture factories across the street now house other businesses, but hotel note pads are still printed up in the old Holiday Press building, under different ownership. Most of the thousands of drivers who travel that now desolate, desperate strip of road each day haven’t a clue that one of America’s (and the world’s) most vital, vibrant corporate centers once sat there - a place where dreams were hatched.
But Kemmons Wilson had long since moved on. A true “happy warrior”, he remained active as ever after his retirement from Holiday Inn. In early 1980’s he developed one of America’s most successful timeshare ventures, the massive Orange Lake Resort in Kissimmee, Florida, near the gates of Walt Disney World. In the late 80’s and early 90’s he developed a new chain of hotels under his own name – the Wilson Inn and Wilson World properties, with locations in the Mid-South, Florida and Texas. At the time I was frequently in Memphis on business and stayed there numerous times. They were fun, with elegant wall murals in the dining rooms that evoked those of the earlier Holiday Inns, and each hotel featured an old-time popcorn cart - a hat tip to Wilson’s first business of many decades earlier. He continued to maintain a multitude of other ventures in the Memphis area as well – office parks, distribution centers, snack food and printing companies, among others. On February 12, 2003, Kemmons Wilson, a giant of American business who impacted our everyday lives in a way that few could, passed away at the age of 90.
In 2007, InterContinental instituted a re-launch of the Holiday Inn brand – a new logo design, combined with a more aggressive weed-out/ update of older hotels and a stepped-up new building program. The new look represents a final break with the classic Holiday Inn graphic image, to the dismay of some, but it does seem to have been fairly well received by the traveling public. And in recent years, the Wilson family ties to Holiday Inn have been strengthened. Their Orange Lake Resort complex is now marketed under the name “Holiday Inn Club Vacations”, and they also own and operate a number of Holiday Inn hotels, including a new showplace near the Wolfchase Galleria Mall, just a few miles from the site of the original 1952 Holiday Inn. At the grand opening in July 2009, the Wilsons reenacted their famous ribbon-cutting of yore. I visited the hotel recently, and it’s something else – the lobby and ballroom walls throughout are lined with huge, stunning framed black-and-white photos depicting great moments in Holiday Inn history, and the famous Kemmons Wilson/Great Sign Time magazine cover has been recreated as a glass waterfall backdrop. Forget Graceland - this is the must-see next time you’re in Memphis!
Not Rolling Meadows, but Des Plaines will do, right? A fine use of screen block, late 1960’s.
Despite the many Holiday Inns we stayed at on trips, the one that stands out in my memory above all was close to home. I certainly couldn’t say for sure whether it was designed by Bond or decorated by Wells, but the chances are likely as not. It was and is located in Rolling Meadows, a northwest suburb of Chicago, on Algonquin Road near Illinois Route 53, and it opened in 1968. Unfortunately, I don’t have a have a photo of it to show you. The Inn’s restaurant-lounge was called “The Black Fox”, symbolized by a cartoon fox mascot, standing tall, with a top hat, tails, a cane and an “I’ve got the world on a string” look on his face. My grandparents (proud Holiday Inn stockholders, they were) stayed there once or twice on trips to visit us, and when we ate there I can remember the excitement I felt – “Wow, here we are, having lunch at the Black Fox! Is this cool or what?” (It doesn’t take a lot to excite a 7-year old.) The Rolling Meadows location had the good fortune of being just a mile or two from the future site of Woodfield Mall and the plethora of office buildings it spawned , and in the late 70’s the Inn was expanded, doubling the amount of rooms in order to handle the increased business. Many years later I attended a Dun and Bradstreet seminar there, with lunch served in the Inn’s restaurant, and the memories brought a knowing grin to my face. My co-worker was probably thinking “The heck’s up with Dave?” while I was thinking “Wow, here we are, having lunch at the Black Fox! Is this cool or what?” It doesn’t take a lot to excite a 27-year old. Or a 47-year old, for that matter.
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The photos above are from various Holiday Inn publications of the 60’s and 70’s, the one below is a detail from an early 60’s postcard.And remember, friends – here at Pleasant Family Shopping, our posts are always Sanitized for Your Protection!