Holiday Inn chain turns 60 years old

8:15 am | August 21, 2012

MEMPHIS (AP) — The story of Holiday Inn could serve as a homegrown business case study of what makes a brand resonate with customers — and what qualities are needed for that brand to endure over time.

This month’s 60th anniversary of the opening of the first Holiday Inn is an obvious opportunity to celebrate the roots of the iconic hotel chain. And on the same day hotel representatives and representatives of its parent company re-created the first ribbon cutting at a Holiday Inn near Wolfchase Galleria mall, Kemmons Wilson Jr., one of the children of Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, reflected on the secrets to the chain’s success.

The chain’s legacy is so pervasive that Jim Anhut, senior vice president of Americas Brand Management for Holiday Inn parent InterContinental Hotels Group, said, “You can’t help but lovingly note that all of this industry’s roads lead back to Holiday Inn.”

Wilson, principal and executive vice president of Kemmons Wilson Cos., listed a few necessities off the bat that contributed to the chain’s success.

They included great leadership and adaptability to change, traits he said helped steer the company from its humble beginnings — with the opening of the first Holiday Inn in 1952 at 4941 Summer Ave. — to vast expansion through the years up to this month’s opening of the 60th Holiday Inn in China.

An early innovation that Wilson’s father also decided was needed was standardization across a chain’s properties, something that wasn’t widespread at the time. Additionally, he wanted more customer-focused price simplicity.

“At the time, you actually had to go and visibly see a room you wanted to buy,” Wilson recalled. “There was no standardization. We were five young kids, and we always wanted to stay somewhere with a pool. I remember dad would go in and check it out. It might be dirty, and if it was then it was on to the next one.”

Sleeping bags in tow, the Wilson clan would pile into a single room. On one occasion, the elder Wilson was told he’d be charged $2 extra for each child in the room — a billing matter that bedeviled the businessman.

“He just didn’t understand it,” Wilson said. “We weren’t using more towels or other services, so it didn’t cost extra from that perspective to have us in there.

“That was the spark. That was the day he told my mother he was going to build hotels.”

All these years later, Anhut describes Holiday Inn as “still a growth brand.” A $1 billion relaunch of the brand wrapped up in 2010.

“On the list of our strategic priorities, Holiday Inn is No. 1,” Anhut said. “It’s still the bulk of our earnings, and there’s still a lot of room to grow.”

Early features customers loved when the chain launched included ice machines and kids staying free. And Wilson described his father’s early interest in standardization this way:

“The best surprise is no surprise,” Wilson said. “That’s what put Holiday Inn on the map.”

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