INTERVIEW: Holiday Inn's father figure

Spence Wilson, son of HI founder, reflects on the brand's evolution

Spence Wilson spoke to Hotelier Middle East during his recent trip to the region.
Spence Wilson spoke to Hotelier Middle East during his recent trip to the region.

Spence Wilson, son of Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, reflects on the evolution of the brand on a recent visit to the Middle East to celebrate its 60th year, and 35 years in the region

To mark six decades in business and 35 years since entering the Middle East, the founding family of Holiday Inn recently embarked on a tour of the region, where seven hotels are planned to open within several years.

As part of InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG), today there are 25 operational Holiday Inn properties in the Middle East, many of which are franchised. In fact, the hotel brand was the world’s first to be franchised in 1954.

Globally there are 3414 Holiday Inn branded properties with another 682 due to open in the next three to five years.

On his UAE stop, Spence Wilson, the eldest son of founder Kemmons Wilson told Hotelier Middle East the group’s expansion was driven by his dad’s “love and passion” for developing Holiday Inn.

Kemmons Wilson came up with the idea for the brand after a family road trip to Washington DC in which he was disappointed by the lack of quality and consistency provided by roadside motels.

“Back then it was a case of turning up, walking into a hotel, getting a key and going to inspect your room. Every now and then we wouldn’t accept one because it wasn’t clean or ready,” recalls Spence Wilson.

“We took the road trip in 1951, and a year later we had our first Holiday Inn,” he said, adding that the name was inspired by the 1942 film starring Bing Crosby called the Holiday Inn.

60 years on
Asked how the hotel business has changed over the years, since the first Holiday Inn established in 1952 in Memphis, US, Spence said: “In general, the quality of all the hotels is as high as it has ever been, within the Holiday Inn brand and our competitors.

“More importantly is the emphasis on quality and service,” Wilson added.
Furthermore, Wilson said advancements in technology had shaped the industry over the past 60 years — but Holiday Inn has always been a pioneer in that field.

In the 1950s, the popular family-focused Holiday Inn hotels were the first to offer televisions and air conditioning in every room as standard. The group also pioneered the world’s first computerised booking engine.

“Even the Holidex Reservation system is having a massive upgrade to catch up with new technologies. Then you have changes to the way rooms are sold with social media and online search engines, it’s a very complex business today,” said Wilson.
“Revenue management is a much more central factor than ever before,” he added.

At the end of the tour, Spence Wilson addressed delegates at an IHG leaders meeting. He said the Middle East visit had “highlighted that Holiday Inn’s core values are still very much part of the brand” today.

Entering the Middle East
Crowne Plaza Kuwait celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, having opened in 1982 as the Holiday Inn Kuwait — one of the first Holiday Inn hotels in the Middle East.

A testament to owner Jawad Bukhamseen’s pioneering spirit, the signing of the contract in 1977 with Kemmons Wilson, helped to kick-start the growth of the brand in the region.

“Through the years we’ve continued to expand, grow and develop, always with our guests’ interests at heart. We have kept our loyal guests and attracted new ones, and built an enviable reputation,” said Jawad Bukhamseen, founder and owner of the hotel and chairman of Bukhamseen Group Holding Company.

“It’s an honour to have Spence Wilson and his wife Becky here to share this milestone with us. When I signed the contract with Spence’s father, the family values of the brand were a key part of my decision to put the Holiday Inn name above the hotel door. I welcome them back here today as members of our family,” he added.

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