One day during the trip, a very frustrated Wilson told his wife he was going into the motel business. Most everyone in America had a car and a family and Wilson saw the demand for roadside motels in his absolute frustration. Wilson envisioned 400 motels, and kids would stay free . . . it was the beginning of the modern American motel chain.
Wilson took out a loan for that amount, and built his first motel/restaurant for $280k, using the remaining $45k as carryover for his next venture. The first Holiday Inn was built in just 90 days, and it opened in August 1952, a year after Wilson's immensely frustration vacation. The first Holiday Inn had a restaurant, gift shop, swimming pool, and in each room there was an air conditioner, as well as a rent-free television. Wilson charged $4 an night for single occupancy, and $6 for double, and children stayed free. Within two years Wilson built three more Holiday Inns, all on the main approaches to Memphis. Wilson wanted a large, highly visual sign for his motels, and the soon-to-be-famous sign soared to a height of 50 feet.
Wilson realized that most of his fellow builders didn't see America changing as he did, so Wilson became the head of Holiday Inns, and he would franchise to others. Instead of homebuilders, Wilson contacted investors, such as doctors and lawyers (one of his investors was his friend Sam Phillips, who first recorded Elvis Presley). Wilson started building Holiday Inns for $3000 a room, and he franchised them out for $3500 a room, making a clean $500 per room during the construction phase. From the start, Holiday Inns were a success; the rooms always seemed to be filled. In 1954, eleven Holiday Inns opened, and that was also the year that the first franchised Holiday Inn was built.
Wilson wanted a highly visible venue that was on the right side of the highway leading into a city, with a lot of additional land just in case he wanted/needed to expand. Wilson had tremendous fun selecting locations and choosing franchises. When Wilson started to fly his own airplane, his ability to see traffic patterns greatly enhanced his selection of sites . . . Wilson's eye became a legend within the industry.
Eventually Wilson's Holiday Inn chain reached 1500 motels. At his peak, Wilson was building a new Holiday Inn every 2.5 days, and a new room every 15 minutes. By the early-1970s, Holiday Inns had triple the rooms of its nearest competitors, Ramada and Sheraton, and Wilson was receiving 10,000 requests each year for franchises.