“The best surprise is no surprise” was the highly effective slogan of the Holiday Inn Hotels for decades. In the 1950s, unpleasant surprises were the order of the day when driving on the new autobahn, especially when looking for an apartment.
Kemmons Wilson was more than unpleasantly surprised – he was downright angry – when he drove with his family from Memphis to Washington DC in 1951, was appalled at the misery of many guest accommodations, but his anger was piqued when he paid an extra $ 2 for each of his five children had to pay. He told his wife that he was going to start a hotel chain that didn’t charge extra for children. His wife laughed and asked how many motels he was planning. He thought 400 to start with. “
The name Holiday Inn was jokingly given to the original hotel by Wilson’s architect Eddie Bluestein. He had the name written at the bottom of the blueprints based on the Bing Crosby film of the same name from 1942, in which the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas” was introduced. The first Holiday Inn Motel opened in Memphis in 1952. and Wilson expanded rapidly across the country.
In 1957, Wilson franchised the chain and found the properties to be clean, predictable, family-friendly, and easily accessible from the highways that now run across the country. His formula would change the hospitality industry just as McDonald’s changed the restaurant business. And like the golden arches that marked every McDonald’s, Wilson installed what he called the “big sign” at each location. The sign featured an interchangeable billboard and a large tower with a neon star.
The New York Times continued, “Mr. Wilson’s vision went beyond mere cleanliness: there would be air conditioners, swimming pools, ice machines in the hallways, dog houses and cots. Children would both stay overnight and eat for free. Travelers should be comforted with the promise that the best surprise is no surprise and that exactly the same was guaranteed the next evening with the industry’s first computerized reservation system. “
The first Holiday Inn in California was built in the desert for $ 1.5 million by Milt Hicks and his partners at 4200 Palm Canyon Drive. On its opening in 1961, The Desert Sun said: “One of the largest and fastest growing motor hotel chains in the country is joining the booming California travel industry this month with the opening of the 200th Holiday Inn of America in Palm Springs this month. The opening will include a round of gala celebrations that included … representatives of the chain from national headquarters … (and) sports and entertainment leaders … baseball star Mickey Mantle, who runs the Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri, is just one of many successful franchisees in the rapidly expanding chain and will be present at the opening of the new Palm Springs Inn. “
The new, moderately priced hotel was touted as “spacious, exotic landscaped grounds near picturesque Araby Point along the palm-lined freeway that leads to this famous playground” and featured an extensive recreational area. The “imposing two-story building with its curved driveway to the roofed lobby” was designed by Lundgren & Maurer, AIA, and had a specially designed huge swimming pool.
“Each spacious guest room has coordinated furniture and decor with twin queen-size beds, free TV and radio, telephone service, full bath and shower with changing rooms, free ice service, wall-to-wall carpeting, soundproofed and air-conditioned, unobstructed views, sliding glass doors that lead onto the pool or private terrace. Special services offered to guests are bonded babysitting, pet care, family doctor services, all at moderate prices. “
Soon after, Gene Autry bought the property and turned it into his Melody Ranch, where he housed the Angels baseball team during spring training. In March 1965, Holiday Inn moved downtown and expanded from 104 rooms to 500 by buying the Riviera Hotel from original developers Irwin and Mark Schuman for about $ 8 million.
The Desert Sun followed up on the story with a headline that read, “Holiday Inn Great Sign Like Iceberg.” The story went on: “The famous green and yellow Holiday Inn ‘big sign’ on the corner of Indian and Vista Chino is actually like the tip of an iceberg. What you see is just a hint of a huge imagination, a company the Wall Street Journal calls the General Motors of Innkeeping. Holiday Inn of America is much more than a parent company … “and praises the incredible growth of the company.
In 1965 there were around 600 Holiday Inns across the country, and in 1968 there were 1,000, which shows the enormous attractiveness of the chain for the people. In June 1972, when Wilson appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, there were more than 1,400 Holiday Inn hotels worldwide. But the site explosion was only the tip of the iceberg. Standardization had led Holiday Inn to move into related areas of hotel management, in-room hotel amenities such as shampoo and coffee makers, and the development of a centralized, computerized reservation system.
The average traveler can count on Holiday Inn knowing what to expect without surprise. “He knows he’ll be living in a three-by-six-foot room with carpeted floors, a television, and laundry and valet parking when needed. On the premises he will find a swimming pool, a restaurant and, if state and local laws permit, a cocktail lounge. He even knows that there is a kennel for his dog. These are promises made by Holiday Inns, backed up by the rigid assurance of integrity management. … These are just a few of the reasons Holiday Inns of America is so successful, but it’s basically about customer satisfaction. After all, the traveler who recognizes the well-known large symbol, whether he is aware of the comparison with an iceberg or not, has helped build this iceberg by being satisfied with what the symbol advertises. “
The New York Times obituary for Wilson reflected this business achievement: “Mr. Wilson, whose southern accent was often called thick enough to confuse southerners, was known for succinct aphorisms about the business. The Atlanta Constitution said … that he gave advice on franchising to his friend Ray Kroc, who was turning McDonald’s into a billion dollar empire. For all his success, Mr. Wilson admitted he made a mistake or two … Mr. Wilson advised Sam Phillips of Sun Records, also in Memphis, known to sell Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA for $ 35,000 Step that Mr. Phillips estimates cost him $ 100 million. Mr. Phillips committed a murder on Holiday Inn stocks. “
Elvis would be coming to Palm Springs too, but instead of staying in a hotel, he was renting a house for his honeymoon. Wilson was, to his great surprise, wrong about Elvis’ appeal.
Tracy Conrad is President of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears in The Desert Sun on Sundays. Write to her at [email protected]