Athens Holiday Inn marks milestone

Facility is the oldest continuously running Holiday Inn franchise in North America

Richard Hamm/ Morris News Service
This Holiday Inn, which now boasts more than 200 guest rooms and a much larger campus, marks its golden anniversary this month and bears the singular distinction of being the oldest continuously running Holiday Inn franchise in North America
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ATHENS, Ga.  -- When Rentz S. Woodruff, 86, began his 50-year tradition of staying at the Athens Holiday Inn for University of Georgia home football games, the regular room rate was $6 a night.

That was in September 1960, when the Athens Holiday Inn first opened its courtyard motor lodge, a motel complex of about 66 rooms built on property bounded by North Lumpkin Street, White Avenue, South Hull Street and Wray Street near downtown Athens. Guests were able to drive their cars right up to their hotel room doors.

The hotel, which now boasts more than 200 guest rooms and a much larger campus, marks its golden anniversary this month and bears the singular distinction of being the oldest continuously running Holiday Inn franchise in North America. That includes the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to Sarah-Ann Soffer, public relations manager with International Hotel Group, the franchisor for Holiday Inns.

The franchise is held by Motel Enterprises Inc., operated under the umbrella of Benson's Inc., which in turn is owned by the Ed Benson family. In 2007, Will Benson, Ed Benson's son, began overseeing Motel Enterprises Inc. as president of that company as well as the Athens Hotel Co. and the Classic City Hotel Co.

Fifty years after the Athens Holiday Inn's debut, longtime guest Woodruff, who lives in South Carolina, still returns to Athens for UGA home games and takes up residence in the familiar confines of the hotel.

Much has changed, though, including the room rates.

Weeknight rates run between $89 and $105 while football weekends command between $189 and $229 a night with a two-night minimum. Accounting for typical inflation since 1960, the original $6-per-night rate would be the equivalent of $42.98 in today's dollars.

The Athens Holiday Inn also has undergone significant growth, converting to a full-service hotel and expanding from its original footprint to occupy a full block stretching from North Hull, along West Broad, then along South Lumpkin to Wray Street.

A little history

At the time the Holiday Inn opened, two established, old-style, grand hotels - the Holman (current Bank of America building) and the Georgian - served downtown Athens.

Among the movies showing in downtown theaters were "Psycho" and "A Summer Place." The national chain stores catering to downtown shoppers included Davison's, Gallant Belk, JCPenny's and Woolworth's.

Local retailer Lamar Lewis Shoes advertised Chippewa boots for $16.95 a pair and Gunn's department store offered UGA football tickets to the South Carolina, Mississippi State or Tulsa games for $4 each.

The United Methodist Church was using the Georgia Theatre building for its worship hall, and the University of Georgia was not integrated.

Among the top local news stories, the Athens Banner-Herald reported that the Board of Regents approved spending $3 million for a basketball coliseum at UGA, and 1,500 college freshmen had enrolled at university that fall.

At the time, businessman Ed Benson, whose family owned Benson's Bakery in downtown Athens, held some property located southwest of the YMCA building at the corner of South Lumpkin and West Broad streets.

"My father had bought that property for me with money I sent from overseas," said Benson who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

Benson doesn't remember exactly what prompted him to consider buying and building a Holiday Inn franchise in the late 1950s, but one afternoon while having lunch at Athens Country Club, he saw some of his business associates and asked them if they would be interested in joining him in a motel venture, he said.

He teamed up with Gordon Dudley, Jimmy Dudley, Harold Crow and two architects from Atlanta and they acquired the Holiday Inn franchise in 1959. They opened the motel Sept. 15, 1960.

In 1970, Benson's Inc. bought out all the stockholders' interests in the franchise, Benson said.

Evolution of a hotel

Two or three years after the Holiday Inn motel opened, the owners expanded the facility from 66 rooms to 99, said Lewis Shropshire, the semiretired former president of Motel Enterprises. Shropshire now provides consulting and advisory services to the Holiday Inn and Benson's Inc.'s other three hotels - Holiday Inn Express and Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Athens and SpringHill Suites in Oconee County.

The Athens Holiday Inn has undertaken some type of expansion just about every decade since the beginning and is regularly changing out the decorative look of the hotel, Shropshire said.

Shropshire, who in the late 1960s was personnel manager at Benson's Inc., was brought in to manage the Holiday Inn when Benson's Inc. took over the franchise in 1970.

"Normally, we've been doing some type of major expansion about every 10 years," Shropshire said. "In my time there has been some kind of renovation or redecoration almost the whole time."

A hotel typically changes its decor package, carpets and room amenities every five to eight years to keep up with new trends and replace worn out material, he said.

After the first addition of 33 rooms to the courtyard in 1963, the Athens Holiday Inn's expansion included several major additions.

"As soon as (Benson's) began to take over (in 1970) we began making plans to expand, and we acquired the old YMCA lot and built an additional 100 rooms and conference center with a pool on that site and opened it in 1973," Shropshire said.

Some of the other major growth projects and changes included:

► In 1984, the hotel opened its executive tower (closest to South Lumpkin Street) with 48 upscale rooms and suites.

► In 1994, the hotel opened its north tower along West Broad Street, adding 70 upscale, oversized rooms aimed at the business market. The project also included expanding meeting rooms to total of 15,000 square feet of meeting space. They also enclosed the swimming pool and added the spa

► This year, a major remodeling project renovated rooms, the hotel's exterior and the restaurant and bar.

The Athens Holiday Inn started as a typical family-type motel catering to a mid-scale market for weekend visitors, as well as youth and collegiate sports teams, Shropshire said.

As times and trends changed, the hotel attempted to keep up with the changing market and guest needs, he said.

"Each addition and expansion was to fill a market niche," he said. "When we built the first tower in 1973, the trend had begun where people wanted to be inside near a bar and restaurant and have interior corridors."

The executive tower addition in 1984 offered rooms that were 30 percent larger than the typical Holiday Inn room and filled the need for guests who wanted rooms a notch or two above the Holiday Inn, Shropshire said. The rooms had an upscale feel and included wet bars, telephones in the bathrooms and other amenities.

Ten years later, the north tower provided upscale king bedrooms for the commercial traveler.

After growing to 318 rooms, the hotel reduced that to 307, combining some into larger suites or converting others to a concierge type service room.

Earlier this year, the hotel closed most of the courtyard rooms, taking the room count to 222.

End of an era

The original courtyard motel still stands, but only a dozen of the original rooms still are being used,

In renewing the franchise agreement with IHG last year, IHG told its franchisees that they would not renew a franchise for Holiday Inns that had exterior corridor rooms like the Athens Holiday Inn's courtyard, said Mike Waldrip, vice president of operations for Motel Enterprises.

Although Motel Enterprises had the option of operating the hotel independently, they chose to stay with IHG and decided to close the courtyard.

It was a tough call for the hotel company, because they had so many guests who had been using the courtyard for decades, Waldrip said.

To show the hotel's appreciation for their guests' support, the Holiday Inn's management team held a special dinner for the longtime guests the Friday night before the UGA-Kentucky football game, UGA's final home game last year.

Hotel staffers removed the room numbers from the courtyard doors, and put them on plaques that were presented to the guests at the banquet.

Woodruff, a 1948 UGA business graduate, said he was saddened when he was told the courtyard was closing and that he and his wife wouldn't be able to stay in their familiar room 137 anymore, but he appreciated the gesture by the Holiday Inn owners.

"They wrote us a letter, and I think it was real nice for them to give us our room number," he said. "We put it in the den with other memorabilia."

Moving into one of the Holiday Inn towers means Woodruff will see fewer of his friends, and he will miss the tailgating all the courtyard guests did in the parking area surrounded by their rooms, he said.

That sentiment was shared by many of the guests who were accustomed to the camaraderie of the courtyard group during home games, Woodruff said.

"The night of the banquet they were sharing funny stories and I'm sure covered up a lot of sadness and tears," Woodruff said.

Savannah resident Walter Corish, who earned his master's degree in business from UGA in 1967, began his own courtyard tradition for home games shortly after he graduated. While he was in college, his parents would stay at the Holiday Inn.

"There were five or six or seven different couples my parents' age who all had rooms on that lower side from Savannah and Valdosta," Corish said. "The courtyard had a unique flavor to it. You could walk out on the balcony and see and hear the excitement. I'm going to miss it a lot."

Corish said many of his friends who used to tailgate around the courtyard, now are partying outside the executive tower in that parking lot.

For now, the courtyard is vacant except for the dozen rooms that overlook the indoor pool. IHG allowed the Athens Holiday Inn to continue using those, Waldrip said. They are reserved for guests who bring their pets or who enjoy smoking, he said.

Eventually, the courtyard likely will be torn down, but that is years in the future, Waldrip said.

"We have plans that in five, six or seven years down the road, when the demand is right again, to build another tower," he said.

Pulling it together

The most recent renovation project, that started late last year and invested between $2.5 million and $3 million in an upgrade, was designed to tie the different hotel sections together, Shropshire said.

"What we were trying to do was bring a commonality to the three different buildings built at three different times with three different looks," Shropshire said. "We wanted to tie them together with a common look with a parapet around the tops that matched."

The work included a complete redesign of the former Gingko Room bar and restaurant, converting it to the RedfearnGrille. The hotel also underwent renovations that included all the central tower bathrooms, vanities and tubs.

The core business

Throughout all the changes in the market and with the hotel itself over the past five decades, the core mission of the Athens Holiday Inn has remained the same, Shropshire said.

"The hotel business always has been about hospitality - taking care of customers and anticipating their needs and providing that in a caring manner," he said. "The day-by-day challenge is looking at what the trends are and meeting those changing demands."


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