Kemmons Wilson's life was a true rags-to-riches story.
His father died when he was just nine months old, leaving
his mother single and penniless. After moving her young
family to Memphis, Tennessee, she worked as a dental
assistant, but as the Great Depression wore on, "Doll"
Wilson found herself out of work. Kemmons' only choice
was to drop out of high school and become the sole
breadwinner for the family. Wilson had always been an
industrious young man, but faced with the prospect of
abject poverty, his success was essential to the survival
of the family.
He began with a popcorn machine which he set up in a
movie theater lobby. It proved so lucrative that the
theater manager confiscated the machine. "I lost my
popcorn machine because it got to where I was making
more money than the theater manager," Kemmons once
recalled. "I went home that night and told my mother
that I was going to build my own theater, and no one
was going to take it away." Within a short time he'd
purchased the local Wurlitzer jukebox franchise. The
income from his pinball machines, a chain of popcorn
machines and his jukebox franchise allowed him to move
into residential and commercial construction. And yes,
he did what he promised his mother, and went on to
build a total of 11 of his own movie theaters. His
work as a real estate developer laid the groundwork
for the lodging revolution he was about to initiate.
It was a Wilson family trip to Washington, D.C. taken
the summer of 1951 that changed the future of
American travel accommodations. On the road, they
were very disappointed in grimy, over-priced, cramped
sleeping accommodations that frequently charged extra
for each child. That common practice sometimes would
double or even triple the cost of a room for a family.
Kemmons said of this experience, "Well, I told my wife
I didn't think this was fair. It wouldn't encourage
people to travel with their children. I told her I
was going to build a chain of motels, and I was never
going to make a charge for children as long as they
stayed in the same room as their parents." He wanted
to build a brand name that you could trust with clean,
spacious, and affordable accommodations. By allowing
children to stay for free, providing swimming pools,
telephones, television, air conditioning, and free
ice, he brought reasonably-priced, comfortable
accommodations to middle class American road travel.
Although all the extras Holiday Inn Hotels offered
are now commonplace, these services were actually
revolutionary at that time and set the standard for
all future hotels and motels.
His first Holiday Inn opened its doors the next year,
on August 1st, 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee. He built
Holiday Inn into the world's largest hotel chain, by
initially building along the new U.S. interstate highway
system as it expanded across the country. By the early
'70s, Holiday Inn became the first food and lodging
chain in U.S. history to have facilities operating in
all 50 states. At its peak in the 1970's, a new Holiday
Inn was built every three days. Before long, travelers
saw the familiar green-and-yellow Holiday Inn signs
popping up in foreign locales such as Argentina,
Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, England,
Fiji, France, India, Italy, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Lebanon,
Russia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Taiwan, Zimbabwe and
dozens of other countries.
Wilson retired as head of Holiday Inn in 1979. Just
three years later, he founded another chain of hotels
called Wilson World Hotels and Wilson Inns. 1996 saw
the publication of his autobiography Half Luck and Half
The charitable foundation he helped establish in
1960, has continued to benefit organizations in
the Memphis community for over half a century.
The Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation has given
millions of dollars in grants to hundreds of
groups in five categories: advancement of education;
enrichment of youth; faith-based ministries;
community outreach; and health and research.
As father of the modern hotel chain, Wilson offered
vacationing families, and businessmen alike, a brand
name they could trust in roadside accommodations. He
revolutionized the lodging industry by transforming the
old wayside fleabag motel, into roomy, clean, comfortable
accommodations at affordable and consistent prices.