Kemmons Wilson, 90; Holiday Inn Chain’s Founder

From Associated Press

Kemmons Wilson, who founded the Holiday Inn chain of hotels and revolutionized the industry by bringing affordable and comfortable lodging to millions of travelers, has died. He was 90.

Wilson died at home in Memphis on Wednesday night. The cause of death was not announced.

Widely viewed as the father of the modern hotel, Wilson started with a single hotel outside Memphis and built his company into a worldwide behemoth. Travelers could expect comfort, cleanliness, quality service and good food at moderate prices.

“The typical hotel room of the 1950s was cold and drab,” Wilson once said. “We wanted rooms which were bright and airy with friendly, warm colors.”

His formula for innkeeping changed travel habits in America.

“Kemmons Wilson has transformed the motel from the old wayside fleabag into the most popular home away from home,” Time magazine said in a 1972 cover story about Wilson.


A millionaire by his early 40s from real estate deals, a jukebox franchise and popcorn machines, Wilson devised the idea for Holiday Inns during a family vacation to Washington. Unhappy with the lack of reasonably priced accommodations, he said he wanted a chain of motels where children could stay free.

“My $6 room became a $16, or my $8 room became $18,” Wilson recalled in a 1996 interview.

“I told my wife, Dorothy, that wasn’t fair. I didn’t take many vacations, but as I took this one, I realized how many families there were taking vacations and how they needed a nice place they could stay.”

Charles Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, Ark. His father died when Wilson, an only child, was 9 months old. The family moved to Memphis, where his mother, Doll Wilson, got a job as a dental assistant.

During the Depression, she lost her job and Wilson quit high school to work. With a $50 loan from a friend, he bought a popcorn machine and set it up in a movie theater lobby. By 1933, he had made enough profit from the popcorn business to buy a house for himself and his mother.

He then mortgaged the house to buy the local Wurlitzer jukebox franchise.

After the trip to Washington with his late wife, Dorothy, Wilson built the first four Holiday Inns in the Memphis area before turning his company into a national and then international corporation.

The business empire that followed was a handshake deal in 1954 between Wilson and the late Wallace E. Johnson -- a homebuilder with a national reputation and tremendous success in the post-World War II housing boom.

Johnson’s contacts and ability to raise money fueled the chain’s growth. At its peak, a new Holiday Inn opened somewhere in the world every 2 1/2 days.

Today, there are more than 1,000 Holiday Inns across the United States, and more in other countries.

Wilson also designed the Holiday Inn sign, using his experience in movie theaters as a guide. “I knew the value of a marquee. I said I want a sign at least 50 feet tall and have a marquee on it,” Wilson said in 1989.

The name Holiday Inn was taken from the 1942 musical of the same name, which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film featured the song “White Christmas.”

Wilson was hardworking and down-to-earth. Even after acquiring considerable wealth, he often answered his own phone and traveled without a publicist to handle press inquiries.

One of the famous “Kemmons Wilson’s 20 Tips for Success” reads: “Only work half a day. It doesn’t matter which half you work -- the first 12 hours or the second 12 hours.”

After suffering a heart attack in 1979, Wilson retired from the chain. But he didn’t stay retired long, buying land in Florida for a time-share resort and later starting another chain of motels called Wilson World.

Last August, the Kemmons Wilson School of Hotel and Resort Management opened at the University of Memphis.

His wife died in February 2001. He is survived by his children Spence, Bob, Kemmons Jr., Betty and Carole; 14 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis.