In 1952, Kemmons Wilson, grandfather of McLean Wilson T’07, founded Holiday Inn, a hotel brand that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever sleepily scanned the lateral horizons of a U.S. interstate in search of a room for the night. Today, decades after the original Holiday Inn company was sold and resold, McLean and his family continue to play an important role in it as a brand builder, through their Kemmons Wilson Companies. Not only have they advised its present owner, InterContinental Hotels Group, on what made the original enterprise so successful, they were the first to open one of the newly branded hotels.
Why was Holiday Inn originally so successful?
It was founded on the hallmarks of consistency and value. Back in the early '50s, when you went into a motel, you'd have to ask if you could see the room because you were never sure what you were going to get. My grandfather's vision was to create a chain of hotels that were known for meeting a certain quality standard. Additionally, Holiday Inn was born out of the frustration my grandfather felt when a motelier charged him $6 for a room and an additional $2 per child. He had five children, so his $6 room became $16. He was a staunch family man and he felt this would discourage families to travel together. So another Holiday Inn hallmark was that the children stay for "free."
After some ups and downs, the Holiday Inn brand is experiencing a resurgence. Why is this?
Because Holiday Inn was family-friendly and promised value and consistency, it developed a lot of brand equity. Through the '80s and '90s, however, standards that had previously been enforced through site inspections slid. The parent company didn't want to terminate contracts with franchise owners because it would ultimately impact their revenue. InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), who owns Holiday Inn, recognized that they were not realizing the full potential of Holiday Inn's brand equity. Around 2005, IHG decided to put in motion a global rebranding of Holiday Inn. They set new standards, and they pulled my family in to share in what they were doing. We loved it so much that we decided to open the first of the newly branded hotels in Memphis, where the first Holiday Inn was built. Building and operating this hotel was my first responsibility with the family business after Tuck.
What is the state of your family business today?
Our family business—Kemmons Wilson Companies—is actively involved in seven different sectors and industries, including timeshare; hotel development, management and ownership; residential home development and sales; the aviation sector through ownership and management of FBOs; P&C insurance; and investment management. We are very active in the private equity/ investments arena and we have a family foundation. My duties fall mostly under the hotel and residential real estate space and I am actively involved in our private investments work as well. Since Tuck, I have built two hotels, reorganized our real estate department, and assisted in the analysis of a private investment addon company.
What did you learn from Tuck that you apply in your current role?
I approached my Tuck experience as though it were an open canvas—I wanted both to meet people and have an academic experience that would truly stretch and challenge me as a person. I felt this would be the best way for me to create value in who I would be for our family business. I could not have picked a better place to spend two years doing just that. Sure, there are things that I learned at Tuck that I specifically apply to my work—the creation of proformas, the analysis of deals, the operational workings of a hotel. But it is really the people around me, both in the classroom setting and out, that had the biggest impact.
When you visit your favorite vacation destination, are you required to stay at a Holiday Inn?
Well, they don't have a Holiday Inn in Jackson, Wyo., so when I go there to fly-fish, I'm off the hook. However, with my four new Tiny Tuckies (my wife Libby recently gave birth to quadruplets), I'm not vacationing a lot lately.