Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, Arkansas, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with his mother after his father died when Kemmons was 9 months old. He quit school at 14 to work as a delivery boy to support his mother. Later, he operated a popcorn machine at a movie theater, became a builder, ran a pinball-machine business and owned and operated several movie theaters. When he took his wife and five children on a trip in 1951, he found overpriced, unattractive and cramped accommodations along the way and returned home with the idea of building a motel.
In 1952, he opened his first Holiday Inn, the name taken from a Bing Crosby movie. By the end of 1964, Wilson had opened more than 500 Holiday Inns; and within 20 years he and partner, Wallace Johnson, were operating the largest hotel-motel operation in the world, with 1,600 Holiday Inns.