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Kemmons Wilson

Kemmons Wilson was an award-winning American businessman and lodging pioneer who founded Holiday Inn Hotels, which he built into the world's largest hotel chain.

He was also the founder of the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management (KWS) at the University of Memphis. The school offers education specific to the hospitality industry, including marketing and sales, beverage and food management, and human resource management. They balance hands-on experience with academics in hotel management, hospitality, resort business, and tourism stressing global awareness, diversity and sustainability.

Kemmons Wilson
Kemmons Wilson
Biographical fast facts

Full or original name at birth: Charles Kemmons Wilson

Date and place of birth: January 5, 1913, Osceola, Arkansas, U.S.A.

Date, place and cause of death: February 12, 2003, Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. (Following surgery)

Spouse: Dorothy Lee (m. December 2, 1941 - February 10, 2001) (her death)

Sons: Spence Wilson (b. November 10, 1942)
Robert Wilson (b. August 17, 1944)
Charles Kemmons "Kem" Wilson, Jr. (b. September 22, 1946)

Daughters: Betty Wilson and Carol Wilson

Father: Kemmons Wilson (in the insurance business)
Mother: Ruby "Doll" (Hall) Wilson (a dental assistant)

Burial site: Forest Hill Midtown Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A.


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 Brains.

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.

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