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Monday, September 5, 2011

Kemmons Wilson ~ Holiday Inn

Charles Kemmons Wilson (January 5, 1913 – February 12, 2003) was the founder of the Holiday Inn chain of hotels.

Personal Life

He was born in Osceola, Arkansas, the only child of Kemmons and Ruby "Doll" Wilson. His father was an insurance salesman who died when Kemmons was nine months old. Shortly thereafter, his mother, Doll, moved the two to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was raised solely by her.

In college Wilson was a member of Chi Psi Fraternity

Wilson was married to Dorothy Lee.

They had five children: Spence, Robert, Kemmons Jr, Betty, and Carole.

Wilson died in Memphis aged 90 and is interred there in Forest Hill .


Wilson initially came up with the idea after a family road trip to Washington, D.C., during which he was disappointed by the quality and consistency provided by the roadside motels of that era. The name Holiday Inn was given to the original hotel by his architect Eddie Bluestein as a joke, in reference to the Bing Crosby movie.

The first Holiday Inn opened on Summer Avenue in Memphis, the main highway to Nashville, in 1952. The motel was demolished in the early 1990's, but there is a plaque commemorating the site.

The First Holiday Inn

He opened the first Holiday Inn motel in Memphis in 1952, and quickly added others to create an entire hotel chain. Holiday Inn went international in 1960.

The first four roofs put on the Holiday Inn were by James Edwin Murphy.

Wilson partnered with Wallace E. Johnson to build additional motels on the byroads entering Memphis. Holiday Inn's corporate headquarters was in a converted plumbing shed owned by Johnson in 1953, when the company built its first four hotels, one covering each approach to Memphis. On the occasion of Johnson's death, Wilson was quoted as saying, "The greatest man I ever knew died today. He was the greatest partner a man could ever have." Together they started what Wilson would shepherd into Holiday Corp., one of the world's largest hotel groups.

In 1957, Wilson franchised the chain as Holiday Inn of America and it grew dramatically, following Wilson's original tenet that the properties should be standardized, clean, predictable, family-friendly and readily accessible to road travellers.

By 1958, there were 50 locations across the country, 100 by 1959, 500 by 1964, and the 1000th Holiday Inn opened in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968. The chain dominated the motel market, leveraged its innovative Holidex reservation system, put considerable financial pressure on traditional hotels and set the standard for its competitors, like Ramada Inns, Quality Inn, Howard Johnson's, and Best Western.

By June 1972, when Wilson was featured on the cover of Time magazine, there were over 1,400 Holiday Inn hotels worldwide. Innovations like the company's Holidome indoor pools turned many hotels into roadside resorts.

Great Sign

The Great Sign

The "Great Sign" is the roadside sign used by Holiday Inn during their original era of expansion in the 1950s-1970s. It was introduced by Kemmons Wilson when he opened his first motel on August 1, 1952. The signs were extremely large and eye-catching, but were expensive to construct and operate. The sign, including the script logo, was originally designed by Memphis, TN artist, James A. Anderson, Sr., a commercial artist who later became known for his oil paintings of Mexico and the American southwest. The manufacturers of the sign were members of the Balton family, whose ancestor D.F. Balton founded Balton & Sons in Memphis in 1875. The story goes that the sign’s colors were selected because they were favorites of Wilson’s mother. In 1982, following Wilson's departure, the Holiday Inn board of directors made the decision to phase out the "Great Sign" in favor of a cheaper and less catchy backlit sign that still maintained the original script logo. The decision was not without controversy as it essentially signaled the end of the Wilson era and removed a widely recognized company icon.

In 2003, in a program of hotel redesign, the company brought back a revamped version of the Great Sign that showed up the company's advertising under the slogan "Relax, it's Holiday Inn." The makeover came with a new prototype hotel that included photography of the sign and a retro-style diner named after founder Kemmons Wilson.

Wilson retired from Holiday Inn in 1979. In 1988, Holiday Corporation was purchased by UK-based Bass PLC, 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.

Wilson was the founder of many different kind of companies such as Holiday Inn Records. After selling his shares of Holiday Inn, he formed Wilson World, another hotel chain.

Basketball Team Owner

In July, 1974, Wilson, along with Isaac Hayes, Al Wilson (singer), Mike Storen and others, bought the Memphis Tams franchise in the American Basketball Association. They changed the team to the Memphis Sounds. They quickly built a strong roster, obtaining players such as Mel Daniels and Rick Mount. The team was the most successful pro basketball team that Memphis ever fielded; it finished fourth in the ABA's Eastern Division, advancing to the 1975 ABA Playoffs before losing the Eastern Division semifinal series four games to one to the eventual 1975 ABA champion Kentucky Colonels.

Following the season, the Sounds were sold to a group in Baltimore, Maryland where they moved to become the short-lived Baltimore Claws.


His 1996 autobiography, Half Luck and Half Brains, tells the story of Holiday Inn.

Wilson was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1982.


Kemmons Wilson Companies



The Telegraph (London)

Source: Internet