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Learning Consistency the Kemmons Wilson Way:
The Best Surprise is No Surprise
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By  Michael Schubach, MBA, CHTP, Februay 2008

There are lots of people who have not much nice to say about consistency.  Here is just a smattering of samples, drawn from the Columbia World of Quotations:

  • “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”  (Oscar Wilde) 
  • “… Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”   (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
  • “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life.  The only completely consistent people are dead.”       (Aldous Huxley) 
  • “Consistency is a virtue for trains…”      (Stephen Vizinczey)
Odd, isn’t it?  Literary minds praise creativity and decry consistency as the enemy of civilization.  However, those of us who practice the business of hospitality technology love consistency and the ease of support that comes from standardization.  IT wonks aren’t alone in these feelings – masters of the business world in both the industrial and information ages understood that the magic of consistency is that it reduces cost, make luxuries affordable and gives the world predictable, repeatable results.  For better and for worse, consistency makes our fast food fast, our technology reliable (or at least repairable), and hotel clerks sound more professional when they answer every request with “it would be my pleasure.” 

One early believer in the beauty of consistency was a man named Kemmons Wilson, who, in 1952, opened the first Holiday Inn in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.  His product was clean, accessible, priced fairly and operated with family friendliness – but that wasn’t his “hook,” as our marketing friends like to say.  His hook came with the second and subsequent Holiday Inns, which bore a startling resemblance to the first one.  Inherent in the design concept of Holiday Inns were the principles of standardization and consistency. 

Wilson’s vision of the world was that each and every guest would know for certain what was waiting on the far side of the guest room door before the key went into the lock.  The room would be of a certain size and furnished in a certain style.  Each unit would have one or two beds, a desk sandwiched between and supported by two dresser units (known in the day as a “triplex”), a telephone, a television, lamps and a side chair (in the one-bedded rooms).  The accommodations, while not necessarily luxurious, would always be clean, neat and presentable; to quote the company’s 70s advertising campaign, “the best surprise is no surprise.”  Holiday Inns may have been the antithesis of grand hotels, but they were also the antithesis of the roadside rip-offs.  They were created to provide reassurance in an unpredictable world and they thrived because they satisfied the human need for certainty when you were a stranger in a strange town.  They were the sensible shoes of hospitality. 

One of my first real jobs after college (and the obligatory backpack tour of Europe that every liberal artist makes) was with a company that owned and operated a dozen franchised Holiday Inns.  The franchise aspect of Wilson’s empire began in 1957, and by 1958 had grown to an astounding 50 Holiday Inns nationwide – just fifty scant years ago.  The chain went international in 1960 and in 1968 the 1,000th Inn opened its doors.  By the time I showed up in 1976, there were more than 1,700 locations “in the worldwide system of Holiday Inns” as the company used to say. 

There were some amazing consistencies back then.  All Inns participated in a worldwide information network, and each location housed a good-sized communications station known as the HOLIDEX®.  HOLIDEX was amazing technology for it’s time – back in those pioneering days it was a telex terminal made up of an IBM Selectric typewriter embedded in a black metal stand-up desk with a control console full of buttons and levers.  Every Holiday Inn had a terminal number, which was conveniently listed in the Holiday Inn Directory.  To contact another property you merely indexed the target location’s call number on a row of keys numbered from 0 through 9 followed by an “A” or “B” suffix.  (For example, my first Inn was 0469A.)  You could check availability in Cairo (1 RM  1 BD  1 PR  1 NT  ARR 03 FEB 77) and you got your answer in less than 30 seconds when either the red or the green light lit up on the console.  If you got a green light you could sell that combination by adding a guest name and credit card number (yes, we typed in all the digits and no one’s identity was stolen).  More fun than making reservations was using ADMIN mode, which allowed you to simply chat from one location to another.  HOLIDEX was a reservation system, a reporting mechanism and a medieval e-mail system.  After I left the Inns, it would be more than a decade before I would receive an internet-based e-mail. 

Most amazingly consistent of all were The Rules of Operation.  When both the Earth and I were young, every service you could imagine a hotel providing was carefully spelled out in the Rules of Operation – a mighty pair of yellow three-ringed binders that ranked in importance somewhere between the Bible and the dictionary.  (Someone once showed me a copy of the Rules from the late 50s; it was mere 25 pages of guidelines sent out in that purple mimeograph ink that high school students of the era could identify by scent at 50 paces.) 

When I joined our franchise company, I would take the Rules home and study them so that I could spot infractions before the Holiday Inn Inspector arrived.  Back then, failure to abide by the rules could cost you your franchise and flag; operators were meticulous about their consistency.  The Rules called out furniture, fixtures, light bulb wattages, logo sizes and colors, and the quantities of pens, notepads, ashtrays and matches that were to be found in each room.  Today, when we talk about what guests expect, we owe a debt of gratitude to one of the industry’s pioneers who was perhaps the first to qualify, quantify and inventory those expectations. 

Two years into my career with the franchise company, I was summoned east to attend a company meeting at our corporate headquarters.  Like Holiday Inns, Inc., our company also based their operations in Memphis.  During our meeting we visited the HII offices.  As you might expect, it was no simple office building or industrial campus; their complex was modestly referred to as “Holiday City.” 

As “The World’s Innkeeper,” Holiday Inns provided for every aspect of a hotel’s existence.  There was “Holiday Press” for forms, front desk posting vouchers, menus and HOLIDEX paper (which came in huge spools that looked like rolls of logoed paper towels).  There was “Innkeepers Supply” for chairs, tables, beds, NCR posting machines and cash registers, telephone systems and anything else that might be on your list if you had to call up and order yourself a working hotel.  One of the sample restaurants we toured (I kid you not) was a bold and colorful adaptation of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (again, I kid you not).  The hotel paraphernalia that couldn’t be contained in Holiday City or Memphis itself spilled out across the nearby Mississippi border into Olive Branch, an entire new city created to accommodate Holiday Inn’s massive operations.  (It was christened Olive Branch during Holiday Inn’s early international phase, when the company sponsored its “Peace through Tourism” movement.  Those were heady times.) 

Our tour included the Memphis call center for 1-800-HOLIDAY, a multi-leveled amphitheater filled with reservationists whose desks all faced down toward the supervisor in the center.  If anyone had an issue with a guest on the line, a hand popped up and the supervisor began listening in on the call.  We were all given headsets so we could patch into any sale in progress.  Everyone was pleasant and courteous but more importantly, they all knew the drill.  The consistency of service was palpable. 

We were taken to the executive offices and our guide, a vice president of something, had been cleared to take us into the sanctum sanctorum – Kemmons Wilson’s personal office.  Our guide flung the door open and ushered us into an office large enough to accommodate an NBA playoff.  We turned toward the massive desk at the far end of the office and we were all somewhat surprised to see it occupied by its owner, who was talking on the phone.  (Apparently, no one had cleared our tour with him.)  He waived us in and we stood quietly waiting for him to finish up his call; I passed the time looking at the pictures on the wall.  There were dozens of shots of Mr. Wilson with presidents, kings, and prime ministers, as well as one shot of him with the Pope.  (I remember thinking that although there were some very nice Holiday Inns, I sincerely doubted that the Pope had stayed at any of them.)  After he finished his call, Mr. Wilson came over to greet us, possibly the least important people who had ever graced his office.  He asked us which company we worked for, and when he heard the name he peered at me and asked, “You folks got a Holidome?”  (The Holidome was a new design concept that enclosed a swimming pool into a central courtyard, creating an indoor water-park out of a roadside motel.) 

“No, sir, we don’t.”
“Get one.  It’s the coming thing.”
“Yes, sir.” 
I had my instructions and the audience was concluded.  I wasn’t exactly certain how I was going to go about getting a Holidome, but I understood the importance of the mission. 

One year later, in 1979, Kemmons Wilson retired from the company.  He continued to make many contributions to hospitality, both professional and philanthropic, until his death in 2003.  I think about that extraordinary chance meeting and how my Holiday Inn experience helped cement me into an industry for a lifetime.  Today it’s a different company serving a clientele in a world with different needs, but it was begun with both a promise and a revolution.  Although I understand Oscar Wilde’s misgivings about consistency, when it comes to our vendors, coworkers, and the expectations of our guests, I would still side with Kemmons: the best surprise is no surprise. 



 
Michael Schubach is vice president of information technology for Pinehurst Resort, located in the Village of Pinehurst, N.C.  Pinehurst has been selected as the site of the 2014 US Open golf championship.  Please feel free to contact him at michael.schubach@pinehurst.com.   

 
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Contact:

Michael Schubach, MBA, CHTP
 Vice President, Information Technology
 phone:  910-235-8173 | efax:  910-255-3201
Pinehurst Resort
P.O. Box 4000
Pinehurst, NC  28374
Michael.Schubach@pinehurst.com
 

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Also See: Kemmons Wilson Dies at Age 90; Established First Holiday Inn Hotel in 1952 / Feb 2003
Kemmons Wilson Gives $15 million Hotel and Hospitality School to the University of Memphis, No Strings Attached / April 2002
20 Tips for Success from Kemmons Wilson / Kirby D. Payne, CHA
Two Next Generation Holiday Inns Under Construction in Georgia; New Prototype Relies on Heritage and Innovation, Updated “Great Sign” and Kem’s Café, New Restaurant Concept Named after Kemmons Wilson, Features Comfort Food / October 2004
IHG Making the First Major Change to the Holiday Inn Logo in More than 50 years; Will Replace More than 11,000 Signs Around the World by 2010 / October 2007
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