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McDowell: American vacation nostalgia amid COVID fatigue

McDowell: American vacation nostalgia amid COVID fatigue

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"And you ain't seen nothing till you’ve been...

in a motel, baby, like the Holiday Inn."

"Holiday Inn" as performed by Elton John

How much fun would it be, right now, to pile the family into a road-worthy car, sojourn to a scenic destination, and stay in a nice resort without fear of contracting a disease? Sixty-nine years ago, in 1951, Kemmons Wilson did just that, taking his family from Memphis to Washington, D.C., to visit historic monuments and museums. Because of the difficulty he experienced in locating reliable, clean lodging, he made the decision during the family vacation to build a hotel chain.

What he saw on the American road frustrated him: establishments with poor lighting and security, unclean rooms, facilities that charged extra for children, and hotels with no restaurant on site. Even if he found a good place to stay (after driving 300 miles that day), he was forced to load the family back into the car and search for a place to have dinner.

He decided to build a hotel chain that did not charge extra for children, that offered a decent dining experience, and where rooms were comfortable and clean. Wilson measured the rooms they stayed in and decided that the perfect size was 12' by 30', plus a bathroom. According to late author David Halberstam in The Fifties, Wilson said, "I like to think that I'm so...normal that anything I like, everybody else is going to like, too." Halberstam notes that Wilson's decision "was the beginning of the modern American motel chain, a phenomenon made inevitable by America's growing love and dependence on the road." Of course, the chain's success was buoyed by the nation's interstate system project shortly thereafter.

Wilson's father died when Wilson was nine. He sold magazine subscriptions and popcorn at movie theatres in his hometown of Osceola, Arkansas. Though he dropped out of high school, his pinball machine business was so successful that he was able to build his mother Doll a new home before he was 20. Eventually his Mom would work for her son's motel chain until she was in her late sixties.

Wilson was 38 when he started Holiday Inn. He began his adult working career as a jukebox salesman and took his wife to a Wurlitzer convention on their honeymoon. Eventually he became a very wealthy builder. But few knew how successful he had become because he lived so unpretentiously.

A draftsman named Eddie Bluestein was asked to draw up plans for the chain, which he did. Bluestein saw Bing Crosby in the movie Holiday Inn on television while working on the plans and wrote "Holiday Inn" at the top of the drawings. Wilson liked it, and the name stuck.

Finding someone who hasn't stayed in a Holiday Inn is like locating an American who hasn't eaten at McDonald's. Wilson's success story is classic Americana: find a niche or need from one's own personal experience and fill it with professionalism and enthusiasm.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC®, AIF®, author of the syndicated economic column “Arbor Outlook,” is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 –, a fiduciary, “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Destin. This column should not be considered personalized investment advice and provides no assurance that any specific strategy or investment will be suitable or profitable for an investor.

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