Travel & Leisure
updated 9/7/2011 7:49:46 PM ET 2011-09-07T23:49:46

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.

Copyright © 2012 Amex


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