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Holiday Inn's Image Makeover

A rendering of Holiday Inn’s guest-friendly Social Hub lobby.

Photo: Courtesy of Continuum Innovation

But the idea succeeded too well. Holiday Inn changed the industry. Between 1965 and 1970, 75 percent of the motels in America belonged to one of three chains: Howard Johnson, Ramada Inn, and Holiday Inn. Eventually, the adversary turned from fear to familiarity, a mind-numbing sameness that made wherever you’d slept last night feel like it could have been anywhere else. To help overcome that ennui, Holiday Inn’s competitors added Jacuzzis and pay TV, free breakfasts and name-brand toiletries. Holiday Inn stayed the course, from sign to soap. “We’d put down new carpet every few years, but that was about it,” says Tracy Johnson, the hotel’s general manager in Duluth.

This wasn’t lost on IHG, which acquired the brand in 1990 and watched market share dwindle. By the time Andy Cosslett arrived as CEO in 2005, some of the grungiest Holiday Inns were being decommissioned. “We needed to up the quality and make it more relevant,” he says. And because he’d come from the packaged-goods industry—he’d run Cadbury Schweppes in several continents—Cosslett (who recently retired) understood that design could be both the means for change and also a symbol of it.

Such insight constituted a paradigm shift at Holiday Inn, where designers had previously occupied themselves with reordering televisions and cataloguing furniture. “I would sit there signing papers all day,” Nicolas says. With his Beatles-length hair and a suit coat worn over a black zip-up jumper, Nicolas looks different from everyone else at IHG’s Atlanta offices. A former ski instructor from Grenoble, France, he moved to the United States with $1,000 in 1989, reinvented himself at design school, then landed at Holiday Inn, where even the slightest shift in sofa fabric needed to be validated by a tidal wave of market research. But that isn’t how innovation happens. “It’s a messy business,” Nicolas says. “It’s not black-and-white, like market research. Sometimes you must accept failure in the pursuit of success.”

After six years on the job, Nicolas found himself with a mandate to actually design. He absorbed the piles of data that IHG gave him, then used it like Picasso used the bull’s head: less as a blueprint than a starting point for inspiration. The first revision of the lobby, launched in 2008, featured a backlit wall, square lamps, and a low, rounded front desk that was “actually a piece of furniture,” as Nicolas describes it. In guest rooms, showers were given curved rods and curtains with translucent tops so light could enter. Property-specific prints adorned the walls. At each hotel, a Guest Experience Champion was empowered to speak with the consumer’s voice.

To herald it all, a new sign—bearing a jaunty H that might be mistaken for the logo of a small college’s football team—was awarded to each hotel once the process was complete. “It was the seal of approval,” says Chris Bruch, who runs three Holiday Inns in the Washington, D.C., area. “If the Holiday Inn 20 miles away had the new sign and you didn’t, you’d drive by it and say, ‘Oh, God, they have it. What do I need to do to get one?’”

Most Holiday Inns are owned by franchisees, so to ensure their buy-in, an ultimatum was issued: invest the necessary $250,000 or lose the right to call yourself a Holiday Inn. From 2005 to 2010, more than 1,100 properties were decommissioned. That means if you stayed in a Holiday Inn before 2005, there’s a one-in-four chance that it isn’t a Holiday Inn anymore.

Sitting down for breakfast earlier this year at a hotel that had undergone the first phase of renovations, I was surprised to find a television embedded in the wall of each banquette. I ate a fresh omelette and blueberry pancakes while watching Scarborough and Brzezinski interrupt each other on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The lobby was filled with more coats and ties than I’d ever recalled seeing at a Holiday Inn before.

But success will come only when guests, instead of just admitting that they’re staying at a Holiday Inn, boast about it. That’s the idea behind the Social Hub, which will create a hotel like founder Kemmons Wilson would never have imagined. This transformation will be bolstered by the fact that spending wisely is now in vogue among executives. And the same retro vibe that has the young and affluent quaffing Eisenhower-era cocktails and watching Mad Men and Dick Van Dyke Show reruns is enticing a new generation to discover the brand. Might old, reliable Holiday Inn actually be on the verge of becoming trendy?

Recently, an investor in a hotel near Denver stopped in and didn’t recognize what he saw. “He said, ‘Wow, if I hadn’t seen the logo outside, I’d have sworn this was a Marriott,’” says Adam Dexter, the hotel’s GM. “And that’s perfect. That’s exactly where we want to be.”

Bruce Schoenfeld is the wine and spirits editor at Travel + Leisure.

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