T+L investigates what Holiday Inn’s makeover means for this important American hotel.

By Bruce Schoenfeld
Updated: February 02, 2017
Courtesy of Continuum Innovation

A buzzer rings. A name is given. A guard unlocks the door of a corrugated-metal warehouse in a Boston suburb and a bulky man in a trench coat slips inside. It feels like a spy movie, and why not? The future of one of the hospitality industry’s most famous brands is hidden there, rendered life-size in white foamboard.

The brand is Holiday Inn, which started in 1952 as an attempt to standardize the American roadside motel and has grown into the world’s largest hotel chain, with nearly half a million rooms spread over 3,000 properties. The secret project is the Social Hub, which will transform lobbies into combination coffeehouses, mini-marts, pubs, and video arcades, presided over by 21st-century innkeepers who will coordinate check-ins, mix drinks, and service Wii consoles. “Everyone else has designed the ground floor to focus on breakfast, and after that it’s a void,” says Craig LaRosa, the man in the trench coat. “This is different.”

A principal in Continuum, the design firm that is helping to implement Holiday Inn’s vision, LaRosa has created a flow-through lobby meant to attract guests day and night. If two couples are headed out for dinner, they’ll meet for a drink and an appetizer. When they return, they’ll hang out to watch football on one side of the room, or have a nightcap and play Scrabble on the other. A grab-and-go area will sell refrigerated and frozen food, such as pesto and grilled-vegetable sandwiches or lemon-pepper grilled salmon. The innkeeper presides over a reinterpreted room-service model that involves guests fetching hot meals at the front desk (and perhaps remaining downstairs to get in on the fun). “Our target guests are social animals,” says Eric Nicolas, director of Global Brand Management for the InterContinental Hotels Group, Holiday Inn’s parent company, and the lead designer for the remodel. “They want to be part of the social fabric wherever they are.” Walking through the mock-up, I can almost see them there: the salesman telling jokes at the bar, the family playing a raucous set of video tennis.

The Social Hub represents the second phase of a redesign that will transition Holiday Inn from competing with Best Western and Hampton Inn to being on the same playing field as Four Points by Sheraton and boutique brands. The concept was completed in June at a property in Duluth, Georgia, that serves the same purpose for Holiday Inn that New Haven, Connecticut, used to for Broadway producers. If this experiment is a success, new builds—about 300 in the pipeline—will feature the Social Hub as a centerpiece, with existing hotels to follow suit.

As with all big ideas, there are risks involved. Holiday Inn is one of the most recognizable corporate names in the country, and its customers believe they know what it stands for. They’ve associated it with comfortable predictability at a bargain price for more than 50 years. Now they’ll step into a space-age lobby and pay some $20 or $30 a night more for the privilege. It’s a jarring concept, like McDonald’s reinventing itself as a steak house. But the idea of this iconic brand fading into irrelevance is equally jarring, and the $1 billion spent by franchisees during the makeover’s first phase makes it clear that they’re not willing to go gently into the night.

Named for the 1942 Bing Crosby musical, Holiday Inn was founded in 1952 by Memphis home builder Kemmons Wilson as a bulwark against a frightening experience. Who knew what unpleasantness might be lurking behind the blinking neon at the Dun Rovin or Dew Drop Inn? At a Holiday Inn, you were sure of what you’d get, down to the rectangular bar of white soap.

Such consistency proved compelling to traveling salesmen, families looking for value, and convention-goers. By 1972, there were 1,405 Holiday Inns sporting the distinctive green sign, one or more in every state and in 20 countries, accounting for four times as many rooms as its nearest competitor. “A catalyst and a reflection of the age of mass travel” is how Time described the brand in a cover story that June. And since road trips are integral to our national character, the hotels became a piece of genuine Americana. Everyone had a Holiday Inn story about a business trip, a festive night at the bar, a family drive out west or back east.

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.