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A Father Wanted A Clean Hotel For His Family... So He Created Holiday Inn

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 6, 2023 3:04 am

A Father Wanted A Clean Hotel For His Family... So He Created Holiday Inn

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 6, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Kemmons Wilson Jr. tells the story of how his father (Kemmons Wilson) created a hotel chain that established the modern hotel industry.

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Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we continue with our American stories. And now it's time for our American Dreamers series, which is sponsored by the great folks at the Job Creators Network.

And they work hard to help small businesses grow into bigger ones by fighting for public policies that effectuate such things. And today we bring you the story of someone who likely, his name you don't know, and his name is Kemmons Wilson, but you definitely know the iconic brand that he brought us. Here is his son Kemmons Wilson Jr. with the story. In 1951 we took a family vacation to Washington D.C. and we had a big station wagon and my father was going up there. I think, you know, again this was a dual family vacation business trip. My two brothers, two sisters, all piled in the car, no air condition, and in a funny story we had a luggage rack on top. And part way through the trip a suitcase flew off and my brother Bob said, hey dad, he said, don't bother me I'm driving. And dad, be quiet. And they just kept driving. Hey dad, I need to be quiet. So we get to some, I guess the next gasoline station and he looked up and like what is wrong?

What, what, where is this? So my brother Bob said, well I was trying to tell you that the suitcase fell off. So we drove back and our clothes were all over the road. They had tar all over them. Back in those days, you know, the road had a lot of tar. And so we basically had to throw them away and buy some new ones. But the real story there was that back in those days, they were mostly sole proprietor and mom and pop motel cabana cabin owners that had motel type rooms.

Now the big cities had the aristocratic downtown hotels that were very expensive. So you would, the situation was such that you actually had to go in and inspect a room before you agreed to stay there. And that was for a lot of reasons. You know, you wanted to see how big it was. Was it clean? I remember I was six at the time sitting in the car. My dad would walk up to the little office and then he and the manager may walk out to see a cabana. And then many times he just walked straight back to the car and said, hey, it's, it wasn't big enough.

It was too dirty. And we're going to have to just keep driving. And you know, back in those days, you didn't know how far the next place was. So and anyway, we finally got to a place and of course as children, we all wanted to stay at one had a swimming pool because it was a summer. It was hot, but we got to this one property and my dad went, looked at the room, came back and said, okay, kids, this is good. So we all piled into one single room and my brothers and sisters, we had sleeping bags.

So we slept in the sleeping bags. And the deal he had made with the hotel owner was the room would cost $6. So the next morning he goes to check out and the guy charged him $16. And he said, wait a minute.

Now we, you know, we agreed yesterday. It's $6. Why is it 16? He said, well, I charged $2 extra for every child. And of course there were five of us.

So the $6 turns into 16. And that was the spark that was in my father's head when he said, you know, this is just not fair. We didn't use any more water or towels or linens or, and the guy said, well, buddy, that's the way it is. And he realized at that moment that this was a huge untapped market. And he made a determination then that he was going to come back to Memphis and build a chain of hotels.

And he told my mother that day that he was going back to Memphis to build 400 hotels across the country, mostly a day's drive from one another. And he said, furthermore, they're all going to have some standardization. They're all going to be the same size.

They're all going to be clean. We're going to have a restaurant in every one. We're going to have a lounge in every one.

We have a swimming pool in every one. We're going to have a get in Bible in every one. You know, we're going to have a pastor on call. We're going to have a doctor on call. Cause he felt like, I'm just a normal guy.

And you know, if, if I like this, I think everybody ought to like this. And so my mother laughed at it and obviously that gave him great incentive to prove her wrong. So sure enough, he came back to Memphis and he started, he was a frustrated architect. He loved drawing. So he went to a guy named Eddie Bluestein. He was a draftsman, not technically an architect.

And my father knew exactly what he wanted in a hotel. And one of the reasons for that was he had the background in construction. So he knew that lumber comes in 12 foot lengths and carpet comes in 12 foot lengths of west. So it's not surprising that the room that he designed was 12 foot in width, because that was the lumber. You didn't have to cut the lumber. You know, if it was 13 feet, you'd have to add some.

If it was 11, you'd have to subtract something. And really even today, that's, that's still the standard size room. You'll find some a little bigger, some a little smaller, but he really set that in motion. So Eddie Bluestein drew the plan that my dad told him.

And you know, all architectural plans on the bottom left or bottom right, they have the name of the project. And it just so happens that he had watched the movie Holiday Inn the night before. And so he drew on the plans, Holiday Inn. And he brought them to my dad the next day. And my dad said, this is great.

I like it. He said, what in the world was this on the plans? He said, well, I don't know.

He said, it was just, I saw the movie. I liked the name. And he said, you know, Eddie, I liked that too.

And so sure enough, that's how it happened. And, and one of the things that really kind of has always impressed me in a sense was, it may tell you a little bit about my dad's ego that Mr. Hilton called his Hilton ends, Hilton's and Mr. Marriott calls his Marriott's. And dad, he was happy with Holiday Inn's. And, you know, probably 30 years later, after the company was sold, they became the Promise Company, P-R-O-N-U-S. Promise was how they pronounced it. And dad had long since retired.

And we found out that they paid a half a million dollars for some think tank to come up with that name. And here Eddie Bluestein, you know, gives him an iconic name. And you're listening to Kemmons Wilson Jr. tell the story of his dad.

And by the way, so many of our American dreamers stories are just this story. An ordinary guy trying to solve a problem. Here he is checking in a hotel and not even knowing what he was going to get. And then he finally picks one he likes on this trip and finds out he's being charged 10 extra bucks.

$2 an extra kid meant something. And he said, that's not fair. And then he went home and he designed a business to solve a problem. Standardization, same size, same cleanliness, a pool in everyone, a Bible in everyone, a pastor on call, a doctor on call. In other words, what he'd want for his own family. When we come back, more of this remarkable American story, an American dreamer story, the story of Holiday Inn and the story of one guy trying to solve a problem for his family and families, particularly working class families across this great country. Our story continues here on Our American Stories.

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So grab your headphones, raise your tray table and relax with iHeartRadio and Southwest Airlines. And we continue with our American stories and with the story of Holiday Inn and its founder, Kamens Wilson. And by the way, this is a Memphis story too and a great Southern story.

And we broadcast here in Oxford, Mississippi, just an hour South of Memphis and a beautiful small college town. Let's return to his son, Kamens Wilson Jr. on the story of his dad and the iconic brand he created called Holiday Inn. Somebody asked my dad one time, why did you decide on sort of the market for Holiday Inn, which is really, you know, moderate price, you know, family or, you know, rather than be upscale or whatever.

And my dad would always say there's more people in the middle than there are at the top. One of the interesting things that my father wanted to do too, was to make a statement with the sign. And he had a friend named Harold Bolton who was in the sign business and he and Harold designed this, what some would call iconic, some would call gaudy, huge neon sign with the arrow pointing to wherever the hotel was. And my dad felt that, you know, that was important. If you could see the sign, you knew what it was. And the sign had a little marquee on it where you could change the message out every day, you know, like buffet tonight or kids stay free. And that was one of the gifts that my dad said he wanted to give to the industry.

And that is that kids stay free if they stay in the same room with their parents. And he sort of forced all the other hotel change to kind of do that at the time. But y'all, you've certainly seen, and especially back in those days, just about every hotel and motel had a vacancy, no vacancy sign.

He did not want that. He wanted that totally eliminated because he wanted a person to stop, to actually get out of the car, come in to the hotel. And if they didn't have a room at that particular hotel, the desk clerk was to call around to all the other hotels and find that person in the room because he felt that he could win, while he may lose a customer for that night, he may win a customer for the rest of his life. So he builds this one successful hotel in Memphis, and he went and built three more three more. Now this was way before the interstate system. So he built them on the north, south, east, and west entries into town. So if you were coming to Memphis, Tennessee, you had to pass a Holiday Inn.

And they were all done very well. And so he went to build number five, and the banker said, hey you're tapped out. You know, you're out of credit. We can't lend you any more money. And so his dream of the hotels across the country was jeopardized. I could not even build the fifth Holiday Inn, much less the 400th.

What are we going to do? And that's when that's when he sat down and came up with the theory of franchising, where they would license a person and that person had to adhere to a certain set of standards. And if you didn't, they could take your license away. So he started the franchise business. Even today, you know, it's about 80% franchise and about 20% company owned, so to speak. You know, one of the things he was most proud of and all of his life was, he said, that he's created a lot of millionaires. And he really had. I mean, at one time in the 60s, they were building a hotel, was opening every two and a half days. And I think a room was open every 20 minutes or something. So it was incredibly explosive. And then when the interstate system hit, you know, the timing was, you know, perfect and right. And my father probably personally inspected every Holiday Inn site.

I don't know, maybe the first 500 of them. Well, one of the funny things was early on in Holiday Inn, they didn't have much representation in the west coast. It was mostly in the south.

When it started growing, it, you know, went northeast and a little midwest, but not much on the coast, so to speak. And so dad got a call from Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's. And McDonald's was flourishing at the time.

They were still young. He had bought it from McDonald Brothers. And he had visions of, you know, how do I expand that business? And Holiday Inn was already actively in the franchise business. So dad was really excited when Ray Kroc said, I'd like to come to Memphis and talk to you about getting a Holiday Inn franchise. And so he did. And of course, they, you know, rolled out the red carpet and gave him all the franchise agreements, explained everything to him about the ins and outs of it. And of course they would say, look, you know, we sure hope you got some sites out there that, you know, me talk about how I can build a Holiday Inn here and put a McDonald's here.

And so they thought, look, we may have hit the jackpot. And so he goes back to California and it just goes silent and there's no dialogue, no nothing. He never calls back. My father calls him and everybody in the organization is trying to get a hold of him. And they literally found out really all he wanted was the actual franchise agreement. So they could, I mean, I'm sure they didn't copy it verbatim, but you know, they get wiped out to Holiday Inn and put McDonald's in there. But obviously we know the history of that.

So we joke around and we say, well, my dad gave Ray Kroc his start, which is kind of neat. And, you know, jumping back, you know, the biggest success for Holiday Inns in my mind was the standardization that nobody until that time, everything, every hotel, room, place was different. By standardizing this and as you expand, people knew exactly what to expect when they went to Holiday Inn. They didn't have to go in and look at the room. You know, they just went in, checked in, went to their room and there was a great advertisement years ago.

They said the best surprise is no surprise, stay at Holiday Inn. And that was really to me captured the essence of what he did. Well, you know, I think about the, he told us one day long after this, we were quizzing him about kind of growing up and stuff. And he said he and his mother ate bread and beans for an entire year back during the deep, deep depression.

Her husband, my dad's father died when he was nine months old. So he was completely raised by his mother. She got a job as a bookkeeper, just to kind of, you know, have some money to come in. But, well, you know, he had to drop out of high school when he was in his senior year. And he had to drop out because his mother had gotten terminated at her job. So he was basically the breadwinner.

He had to go hustle. But what she did, she was his biggest encourager, his Barnabas. She told him there was nothing in the world he couldn't do. I mean, she absolutely adored him.

He could do no wrong. And again, I mean, you know, she was the one whispering in his ear, you know, you can do it when the world says, no way you can do this. And really her life, you know, became his life. And, you know, today we would call her a helicopter mom, right?

We would call her a helicopter mom, right? That she was just all over him. But I, you know, I'm sure she saw in him a leader, someone who can make things happen, someone who's aggressive and can be successful.

So she just undermined that with daily, you can do it, hang in there, there's nothing you can't do. So it was, that springboarded him into his life of having confidence and being able to just be successful. And the thought of not even graduating from high school and going on to be the founder and CEO of one of the largest iconic companies in the world is just amazing to me. And great job as always to Alex for all the work he does on these pieces. And a special thanks to Kemmons Wilson Jr. for sharing the story of his father and what a story it is.

And by the way, for more of this great American story, make sure to pick up Kemmons' book, Half Luck and Half Brains, the Kemmons Wilson holiday and story, a father-son story, a family story, and a working class family turning, well, hard work into success here on Our American Stories. features and much more. Roku TV is more than a smart TV, it's a better TV. Learn more today at Happy streaming.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-07 02:43:31 / 2023-03-07 02:52:12 / 9

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