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The best surprise is a roll-out surprise for go-ahead Holiday Inn

Holiday Inn has led a sheltered life but also a relatively short one - so much so that it seems like more than 50 years since Kemmons Wilson opened his first hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact it seemed to surprise many of the guests attending last year's muted celebrations that the reason for them was that Holiday Inn had clocked up its first half century. These days you could still believe that 'The World's Innkeeper' was somewhat older than that, and its motto, 'The best surprise is no surprise', translated from the Latin.

But if the old identity seems more than a little shop-worn, the plans that the Holiday Inn's holding company, Intercontinental Hotels Group, has drawn up for the venerable brand to meet the 21st century reveal a lot about the changes that have taken place in the design brief for many hotel and catering industry buildings in the future.Which is to say, that have already taken place in the US since 7/11 and are now waiting in the wings in Europe, too.

Characteristically, most of the press interest in the new Holiday Inn rebranding project so far has focused on the promised return of the original patented and trademarked highway sign, traditional green striped room towels, and the introduction of computerised versions of homespun 1952 menus in the hotel restaurants. But, more importantly, and certainly more indicative of an important trend, is the amount of IT infrastructure that will be built into a selected number of existing Holiday Inn buildings over the next three years. By the end of this year, the chain will have rolled out the first of these new-style Holiday Inn makeovers, all equipped with meeting rooms, hitech work stations in bedrooms made even more enticing by high-speed Internet access, video conferencing, online video games and ergonomically designed chairs. In addition to this new level of IT provision comes a much more disciplined approach to space planning, designed to increase the amount of revenue-producing space relative to total floor area. In the first of the new prototypes, a 143-room hotel in Georgia, space utilisation is so efficient that only 200m 2out of 7,400m 2is nonrevenue producing.

All sides of this new tendency can be seen either as aspects of a shrewd capitulation to the need for defence by the dark arts of retro, or as evidence of a more hard-headed strategy based on the results of data trawls on the relative profitability of business customers versus family outings. If profitability wins, then the idea of the mobile or travelling office can be seen to be taking on the shape of things to come. This interpretation fits the increasing trend for US companies to locate their employees and associates strategically, so as to combine home working, live and video conferencing and a regional presence, without the heavy overhead of keeping a permanent branch office.

In the case of the futuristic Holiday Inn development project, there is a third factor to take into account. Nearly all the 1,100-odd Holiday Inns in North, Central and South America are held on franchise, and InterContinental wants the 25 new centrally paid-for prototypes to convince franchisees to spend their own money upgrading their Inns according to the new standardised design principles.

If the big push for IT-equipped bedrooms and custom-furnished hi-tech meeting rooms fails to attract sufficient customers, the franchisees may be hard to bring on board. This, however, would be unlikely since, from its inception, Holiday Inn has been in the forefront of hotel technology, including being the first hotel chain to introduce phones in every room, air conditioning and Internet booking.

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