“The best surprise is no surprise” has been the highly effective slogan of Holiday Inn hotels for decades. Unpleasant surprises were the norm in the 1950s when it came to traveling by car on the new interstate freeway system, especially when looking for a place to stay.
Kemmons Wilson was more than unpleasantly surprised – he was downright furious – on a trip from Memphis to Washington, DC, with his family in 1951. The New York Times recalled: “On his fateful vacation, Mr. Wilson, already a millionaire homebuilder, was appalled at the misery of many guesthouses, but his anger was piqued by the fact that he had to pay an extra $ 2 for each of his five children. his wife that he was going to start a chain of hotels, a chain that wouldn’t charge extra for children. His wife laughed and asked how many motels he was planning. He thought 400 for newbies.
The name Holiday Inn was given to the original hotel by Wilson architect Eddie Bluestein jokingly. He had written the name at the bottom of the shots in reference to the 1942 Bing Crosby film of the same name which introduced Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas”. The first Holiday Inn motel opened in Memphis in 1952, and Wilson quickly spread across the country.
In 1957 Wilson franchised the chain, standardizing properties as clean, predictable, family-friendly, and easily accessible from the highways that now crisscross the country. His formula would transform the hospitality industry in the same way McDonald’s had the restaurant business. And like the golden arches that mark every McDonald’s, Wilson installed what he called the “big sign” at every location. The sign featured an editable billboard and a tall tower topped with a neon star.
The New York Times continued, “Mr. Wilson’s vision went beyond simple cleanliness – there would be air conditioning, swimming pools, hallway ice machines, kennels and cots. The children would stay and eat for free. Travelers had to be reassured by the promise that the best surprise isn’t a surprise and were ultimately guaranteed the exact same thing the next night thanks to the industry’s first computerized reservation system.
The first Holiday Inn in California was built in the desert at a cost of $ 1.5 million by Milt Hicks and his partners at 4200 Palm Canyon Drive. The Desert Sun reported on its opening in 1961: “One of the largest and fastest growing motorized hotel chains in the country is entering the booming California travel industry this month.” here with the opening of the 200th Holiday Inn of America in Palm Springs today. The opening features a series of gala celebrations attended by … National Headquarters Channel officials … (and) sports and entertainment notables … Baseball star Mickey Mantle, who operates the The Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri is just one of the growing chain’s many successful franchisees and will be in attendance for the opening of the new Palm Springs Inn.
With moderate rates, the new hotel was billed as occupying “spacious and exotic landscaped grounds near picturesque Araby Point along the palm-fringed freeway that leads to this famous playground” and featured a large recreation area. The imposing two-story structure with its curved entrance leading to the canopied lobby was designed by Lundgren & Maurer, AIA, and boasted a specially designed giant swimming pool.
“Each spacious room has coordinated furnishings and decor with queen size twin beds, free TV and radio, telephone service, full bathroom and shower with walk in closet, free ice service, carpeted, soundproofed and air conditioned, full view sliding glass doors onto the pool or private patio. Special services available to clients include bonded babysitters, pet care, home doctor services, all at moderate rates.
Soon after, Gene Autry bought the property and turned it into his Melody Ranch where he hosted the Angels baseball team during spring training. In March 1965, Holiday Inn moved to the upscale neighborhoods from 104 rooms to 500 by purchasing the Riviera Hotel from original developers Irwin and Mark Schuman for some $ 8 million.
The Desert Sun followed the story with a headline that read: “Holiday Inn Great Sign Like Iceberg”. The story continued: “The familiar green and yellow Holiday Inn ‘big sign’ that goes up on the corner of Indian and Vista Chino is actually like the top of an iceberg. What you are seeing is only an indication of a vivid imagination, of a company the Wall Street Journal has called “the General Motors of Innkeeping.” Holiday Inn of America is much more than a parent company … ”touting the incredible growth of the business.
In 1965 there were some 600 Holiday Inns across the country, and by 1968 there were 1,000, demonstrating the chain’s enormous appeal to people. In June 1972, when Wilson made the cover of Time magazine, there were over 1,400 Holiday Inn hotels around the world. But the explosion of sites was only the tip of the iceberg. Standardization had prompted Holiday Inn to embark on related activities of hotel management, hotel room amenities such as shampoo and coffeemakers, and the development of a centralized, computerized reservation system.
The average traveler can count on Holiday Inn and know what to expect without surprises. “He knows he’ll be staying in a room that’s about 12 feet by 18 feet, with carpeted floors, a TV, and laundry and valet service if needed.” On site, there is a swimming pool, restaurant and, if national and local laws allow, a cocktail bar. He even knows there is a kennel for his dog. These are promises made by Holiday Inn and backed by the rigid assurance of management with integrity. … These are just a few of the reasons Holiday Inns of America has been so successful, but basically it all comes down to customer satisfaction. Because after all, the traveler who recognizes the great familiar sign, whether or not he realizes his comparison with an iceberg, has helped in the construction of this iceberg, by the satisfaction of what he has found that the sign announces.
Wilson’s New York Times obituary referred to this business success: “Mr. Wilson, whose Southern accent was often described as thick enough to confuse Southerners, was renowned for his pithy aphorisms about business. The Atlanta Constitution said… he gave franchise advice to his friend Ray Kroc, who turned McDonald’s into a billion dollar empire. Despite all his success, Mr. Wilson admitted to making a mistake or two … Mr. Wilson advised Sam Phillips of Sun Records, also in Memphis, to sell Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA for $ 35,000, a move that Phillips estimates cost him $ 100 million. Mr. Phillips, to be sure, made a killing on the shares of Holiday Inn.
Elvis would also come to Palm Springs, but he rented a house for his honeymoon rather than staying in a hotel. Wilson, to his surprise, was wrong about Elvis’ call.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected]