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magazine home > archives > fall 2002 > features

Could Memphis be a Mecca for the hotel and resort industry? With The U of M's new Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management, you can rest easy that it will.

Wilson School Checks In
by Benjamin Potter

Wilson family

Wilson's children re-create a ribbon-cutting ceremony they performed in 1952 as kids.

For now, it's just another sweltering day in July. The dust has barely settled from the construction of the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management. And for the time being, Wilson School's director, Bob O'Halloran, is the only one holding down the fort.

The school is just budding, with three professors (O'Halloran is one of them) and about 30 students currently on board, but the newly formed Wilson School already is on the verge of blossoming into a program that supports several hundred students, multiple research efforts and numerous partnerships across the country.

The road trip that changed the world

The Wilson School opened its classroom doors to students in August, but its true roots stretch back to the summer of 1951,
when Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson had a lousy vacation.

Wilson, with his wife and five children in tow, set out for Washington, D.C. Often stopping at motels that had poor quality or charged extra for kids, Wilson dreamed up a hotel chain where guests would enjoy things like free ice, television and air conditioning. Then he turned his dream — Holiday Inn — into a reality. Later, the hotel chain would dub Wilson's lousy vacation "the road trip that changed the world."

Now a hotel industry icon, Wilson's good name is just as valuable as his $15 million gift that made the Wilson School possible. A fund-raising effort headed by Frank Flautt, co-founder of Sandcastle Resorts, has drummed up an additional $2.8 million, with hopes of hitting the $3 million mark soon. Flautt and other hotel entrepreneurs say they feel indebted to the foundations Wilson laid.

"Quite frankly, there wasn't a hotel industry when Kemmons Wilson started," Flautt (BS '63) says. "The whole industry as we know it today was created by Kemmons. He's phenomenal."

The 'inns'and outs of Wilson School

The influx of donations has given the Wilson School a tremendous leg up; it has an excellent chance of being an immediate top-tier program among those in the United States.

"We really are in an enviable position," O'Halloran says. "A great thing we have going for us is to have the resources dedicated to the program up-front. Many schools aren't that lucky."

The newly built Holiday Inn at The U of M will let students learn by immersion. The fully functioning hotel, which is managed and operated by professionals, will give Wilson School students plenty of shadowing opportunities and hands-on experience.

"The students are entrenched in the hotel environment," says Lorna Brown-Ray, marketing director of Fogelman Executive Conference Center and Holiday Inn. "Their classrooms and the hotel share the same building — it's like osmosis. And the more they learn in the classroom, the more they'll ask and see when they're observing in the hotel."

There will be much to see at the campus facility. The building spans 138,000 square feet and contains 82 two-room suites. There is enough banquet space to accommodate 1,000 people.

Further, a spare-no-expense approach makes the hotel more valuable to the students — not to mention to hotel guests. Amenities include an exercise room, full-service restaurant and snack bar. There's also a demonstration kitchen and brand-new computer labs, chairs and desks. As Brown-Ray puts it, "Our students are getting the opportunity to learn with the same high-quality equipment that top executives use."

O'Halloran says the fact that Wilson School is situated in Memphis is another advantage. "You've got a cross-section of hospitality places where students can work while they're here," he says. "There are hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, country clubs and casinos a short distance from here. Our students will integrate academics and real-world experience before graduating."

The city of Memphis does more than provide students with internships. Area hotels and restaurants will be the source of field trips and guest speakers — even jobs after graduation.

Taking care of business

Much learning takes place in the University's Holiday Inn, but students will have their noses to the grindstone across Central Avenue in the Fogelman College of Business and Economics. That's because the students' major will be in hospitality and resort management, but their degree will be a BBA.

"Students who take this major will have the same business courses as other Fogelman students," says Dean John Pepin ('62 BBA, '64 MBA). "They're going to learn business concepts in an academic setting as well as hands-on experience in a hotel setting."

In total, students must complete 48 credit hours of general education classes, 45 credit hours of business core curriculum, 22 credit hours within the major and 13 credit hours of electives. Cross-campus possibilities also are being explored. O'Halloran cites one example: A food lab class for consumer science students could also be relevant for Wilson School students.

Dr. Pepin says a lot of planning has gone into making sure the curriculum will remain relevant for years to come. "We sent faculty to numerous hotel schools for data-gathering purposes so we could design the best possible set of courses," he says. "Our curriculum is a living document that will change from time to time to stay ahead of the industry's demands."

O'Halloran and a board of industry advisers have been installed to keep a finger on the industry's pulse. "A good curriculum typically is fluid," O'Halloran says. "We want to make sure our students graduate and get a job. We also want to prepare them for the changes they might see."

A comfortable future

Make no mistake about it — Pepin and others at The U of M say the curriculum may be fluid, but plans for the future remain solid.

"We're a business school," Pepin says. "You know we can't just ride the tide; we have to be prepared for changing business trends."

Student recruitment is an ongoing process, and those involved with Wilson School expect to see the enrollment of 30 swell to 300 in just three years.

"We need to get the name of the school out there," O'Halloran says. "With Kemmons Wilson's name, we should be able to attract students from all over the country, even internationally."

The Holiday Inn at The U of M has already contracted 50 percent of business needed for fiscal year 2003. Profits from the hotel filter back into The U of M — Wilson's donation literally is the gift that keeps on giving.

"Alumni who use this facility should know it's another way of supporting the University," Brown-Ray says.

Opening the School of Hospitality and Resort Management was a fitting way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Holiday Inn and the life's work of an industry icon. It looks like the town that launched Wilson's successful career is about to launch thousands more.

For more information about the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management, visit

see also: An Exercise in Goodwill

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