Kemmons Wilson (1913 – 2003)

The Father of the Modern Hotel Industry

Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, Arkansas in 1913 and before he was a year old his father had died, leaving only his mother to take care of him.  She picked him up and the pair moved to Memphis, Tennessee.  Wilson grew up there and went to school but dropped out at 17 to help support his family during the Great Depression when his mother lost her job.  And support it he did!

A natural salesman, Wilson took to entrepreneurship like a fish to water. Borrowing $50 from a friend he bought a popcorn machine and he was off, selling popcorn in front of movie theaters!  Within three years he had saved $1,700 ($31,000 in today’s dollars) which was extraordinary in the middle of the worst depression America had ever seen.  Through his career he sold popcorn, ice cream, cigars and more, later installing pinball machines, jukeboxes and vending machines in movie theaters and other establishments.  And he did construction too! 

He always poured his profits back into his businesses and was so successful that before he was 40 years old he had become a millionaire, primarily from owning movie theaters and profitable real estate investments. 

In 1951, while taking a vacation with his family he was disgusted by the lodging offerings available to travelers.  Aside from the typically poor conditions, he was particularly annoyed by the fact that motels would charge more if children were staying in a room with their parents. 

With that trip as a catalyst, Wilson decided to do something about it.  He opened his first Holiday Inn hotel in Memphis in 1952.  The name came from a friend who happened to be watching the popular 1942 Christmas movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn.  Wilson immediately liked it and it stuck.  He would also design the green and gold Holiday Inn sign, seeking to recreate the excitement of a movie theater marquee.

Wilson’s goal was to create a motel where travelers could stay in a room that was comfortable, clean, with amenities like TV, air conditioning, ice machines and a pool and possibly a restaurant.  And of course, the rooms were reasonably priced and kids stayed free.  As America was increasingly a nation on the move, assisted by Ike’s new Interstate Highway System crisscrossing the country, Wilson was there to make travelers’ stays pleasant ones.   

His goal was to build a chain of standardized hotels where rooms and colors and amenities were the same so that customers would know what to expect when they pulled into a Holiday Inn parking lot whether they were in Memphis, Chicago or Los Angeles.  Beyond standardization Wilson brought a number of other important innovations to the industry, particularly the centralized reservation system and franchising. 

After the first location Holiday Inns started popping up across the country.  Within a year there were four locations, five years later 30 and 100 by the end of the decade.  By 1975 there were 1,700 Holiday Inn hotels around the world. 

Wilson continued his entrepreneurial ways long after finding success.  He left the company he founded in 1979 and went on to start a record company, a country club and another hotel chain.  He even got himself involved in a professional basketball league!  He also became a philanthropist, founding the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation in the 60’s and focusing on helping the people of Memphis. He also started the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis.

Kemmons Wilson, whose given name was Charles Kemmons Wilson, died in 2003 at the age of 90. Finding success in business is almost always a challenge, but finding it in the midst of the worst depression in American history is something on a completely different level. But Kemmons Wilson did, and he built on that early success to change the way the world vacations.  His legacy goes far beyond just the Holiday Inn hotels.  He was responsible for pioneering the concept of the standardized, franchised hotel system that is used today around the world and includes value chains and 5 star chains and everything in between. And it all started with a $50 loan and some popcorn…