Brand building through storytelling

My life with Holiday Inn

I had just moved in with my soon-to-be husband when I applied for a summer job at Holiday Inn. They needed another perky voice on the phone at their reservations office, and what they could pay was about what I needed to cover my share of the rent on a faded one-bedroom walkup. My interviewer led the phone crew and she sized me up within minutes: no office experience, pitiful typing and, most tellingly, a single reference (occupation “shipper”). Of course she zeroed in on the shipper. “This Paul Jones… He’s not your boyfriend, is he?”

My boyfriend was a shipper/receiver who’d advised that “shipper” would sound more impressive. Had I blown the interview? Whatever I murmured to the Keeper of the Phones, it didn’t seem to matter with road-trip season coming up. She just smiled as if my amusing little half-truth would be our secret. In that moment we settled for each other.

I started work in my favorite outfit, a mini-dress so short that heads turned when I picked up a dropped piece of paper. Not that I’d be getting up very often–the Keeper of the Phones made that clear. Her name was Gail and she trained me herself. To Gail a ringing phone was like a starting gun to an Olympian. At Holiday Inn Reservations, we did not keep the customer waiting. When phones trilled all over the office, we were there, a chorus of poise and good cheer: “Holiday Inn reservations, may I help you?”

I aced the “may I help you?” part. The hard part was everything else. I had to sparkle and correct my innumerable typos while mastering the terminal linking me to one of the faraway mainframe computers that had catapulted Holiday Inn to the top of its industry. This game-changing system, called Holidex, let you book a whole road trip with one call to a minion like me. By the time Gail showed me the ropes in 1970, Holidex was five years old–and other hotel chains still hadn’t caught up. At my desk in Toronto, I had my fumbling fingers on a network so vast and powerful, only military systems could compare.

Holidex was not the only mystery I faced. Unlike most young women of my time, I had reached the age of 20 without serving a single customer–not one cup of coffee poured or sale rung up. As the voice of Holiday Inn, which had pioneered a slew of once undreamed-of innovations from in-room TVs to free accommodation for kids, I served a fiercely loyal clientele that could not imagine bedding down anywhere else. To decline a request was to shatter someone’s vision of roadside comfort–someone who might snarl, “Don’t bullshit me, young lady! I know you’re holding rooms for the big shots! Get your supervisor and make it quick!”

I have to hand it to Gail: she knew customer service the way Julia Child knew egg whites. She could calm an angry caller without selling out an underling. And she was not about to see her staff abused. When she heard me pleading and sighing to a road-weary salesman in a rage, she told me to hang up and stop wasting my breath on a drunk. Oh. So that explained it. Gail looked puzzled by my puzzlement. “Rona! Couldn’t you tell?”

Gail must have been in her 30s, which to my mind made her a fogey. I figured she listened to Mantovani and thought that “dope” had to do with stupidity. Summer students like me were as close as she had come to higher education, and she looked to be on track for at least another 25 years at Holiday Inn. She radiated pride in keeping customers happy and her team up to speed. Looking back, I see her exemplary management skills, but what I saw back then was a woman without options, lavishing her intelligence on a bourgeois icon with no more character than a mass-produced seascape. I never stopped to wonder if she had ambitions that she might fulfill at Holiday Inn, nor did I attach any significance to the trust she inspired in the big boss who occupied the corner office–that rarest of creatures, a female executive, Mary Woodward.

We didn’t see a lot of Mrs. Woodward (no one called her Mary although Gail, also married, was never anything but Gail). She was too busy touring new Holiday Inns or rushing off to management meetings in shades of cream that coordinated with her honey-blonde hair. Even so, she made time to host a staffer’s bridal shower in her home, during working hours. And when the bride-to-be made a slighting remark about second marriages (if you’d already failed at marriage once, you’d surely never get it right), Mrs. Woodward set her straight in the most thoughtful way. “Oh, I don’t know about that. My husband and I were both married before, and we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes.”

Some people work all their lives without encountering one manager who can advance a business agenda without sacrificing the employees. That summer at Holiday Inn, I met two. They understood that it takes friendly people to put a friendly face on a brand. They were role models, not that I knew it. More than 30 years later, as Editor of Chatelaine, I set out to strengthen the ties between an iconic women’s magazine and its audience. We echoed the tone of the pages with the tone of reader interactions–every call returned, every letter answered. No editor I’d known set much store by all this. I was channeling Gail. But when she was my boss, I didn’t care enough to see her through the summer.

Around about August, I decided I’d had enough of “Holiday Inn Reservations, may I help you?” When I told Gail that I was quitting, she looked a bit deflated but not entirely surprised. “I’m getting married,” I said (true but not for months and at City Hall, no gown or caterer required). She wished me well.

When I made my last booking, I thought I was through with Holiday Inn. What could it possibly have to do with me? I’d never been on a road trip that did not involve sticking out my thumb. My future husband and I had once been stranded for the night by the side of a highway in Vermont, with just enough money for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and a phone call to my parents beseeching them to pick us up. The lights of Holiday Inn might as well have been a continent away. Of course that changed soon enough.

On road trips far and wide, we’ve stayed at plenty of Holiday Inns, but only if Trip Advisor doesn’t give the edge to a competitor. These days one mid-priced brand is pretty much like any other (same useless scrap of fabric at the food of the bed, same overcooked scrambled eggs at the breakfast buffet). The conglomerate that now owns Holiday Inn has ditched the mighty Holidex, an industry legend for 47 years and still mourned by some old-timers. But of all the hotel chains vying for our business, only Holiday Inn has a place at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan–home of the bus where Rosa Parks took her stand and the presidential limousine in which John F. Kennedy was shot.

When we visited The Henry Ford on a road trip south, I knew the bus and the limo would touch me. What surprised me was the shiver of emotion that stopped me at the Holiday Inn room from the early 50s, when other roadside hotels still connoted sex on the run. The exhibit featured all the homey touches that set the brand apart–the soothing earth tones, the in-room phone, the gleaming furniture the Cleavers might have owned. I could imagine climbing into one of those beds after a day on the road, and ordering pancakes downstairs in the morning. I thought of the squadron of staffers who’d taken reservations for rooms just like that one. What they were building was not just a brand but a communal experience: the great North American road trip. I’d been part of that. And now, a road tripper myself, I was reaping the rewards.

Posted by Rona

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