The world couldn’t function without the lodging industry. Wayside inns for the traveler have been with us for centuries. The American West was built on stagecoach stops and hotels near the train depot. Today, most Americans have experienced hotels and motels, whether a Ritz-Carlton or Motel 6.
In addition to their critical role in commerce and leisure, hotels in the last century have become showcases for architecture and design. From lobbies to ballrooms, hoteliers created some of the most beautiful interior public spaces found anywhere. In 1967, architect John Portman’s 22-story atrium in the Atlanta Hyatt changed how we experience tall building interiors.
Today, especially if you include resorts and casino hotels, the global lodging industry is enormous and continues to grow, building more and more inns. The Hilton company’s various brands today operate about one million rooms worldwide, but more impressive is that they have 400,000 more rooms under development, ”in the pipeline.” Marriott is even larger, the biggest lodging company in the world.
Unlike some industries, the industry is highly competitive. Major international firms from Europe and Asia compete with the American giants. Even the biggest companies only garner about 10% of the national market. Like the restaurant business, the lodging industry is largely franchised, even big city Hiltons and Marriotts. Franchising allows local owners and smaller businesspeople to share in the benefits of a global brand, advertising, automated reservations systems, and frequent stayer programs.
Perhaps what stands out most about the industry is that it is a great place to work. Every year, Fortune magazine does an analysis of the best places to work in America. High-paying investment banks, consulting firms, and software and other tech companies often dominate the lists.
Yet Marriott, with almost 100,000 employees. is only one of four companies that has been on Fortune’s list for all 25 years that it has been published. In the 2022 list, Hilton is ranked the second-best place to work in America, after high tech Cisco. Hyatt and the smaller Kimpton chains also make the list. It’s rare for the biggest firms in an industry to all make the list.
I’ve travelled perhaps two million miles on airlines and been to 49 states and 45 countries over the last 50 years. In my experience, lodging overall is one of the best-run, most consistent industries that serve us.
For all these reasons, we at the American Business History Center love studying this industry, with its global importance, great architecture, and outstanding long-term prospects.
Like retailing, restaurants, and other customer service industries, the lodging landscape is always changing. In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel chains saw the onslaught of “Motor Hotels,” led by Holiday Inns. More recently, boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, and AirBnB and VRBO came along.
In this article, we look at the evolution of the largest hotels, the ones which have housed millions of guests over their long lives.
Between the Civil War and World War I, America industrialized and urbanized. For example, Chicago grew from 100,000 residents in 1860 to 2.7 million in 1920. Downtowns became dense, congested centers of stores, offices, government and civic buildings, and streetcar lines. Large hotels and department stores were built in cities across the nation.
Then came the roaring twenties, when capital for new projects flowed easily. New skyscrapers such as the Empire State and Chrysler buildings soared upward. Many huge new hotels were built in city centers. Some, like New York’s famous Waldorf-Astoria, did not open until the early 1930s.
Four years before the Waldorf opened in 1931, the biggest hotel in the world had opened in Chicago. It was built by Chicago’s Stevens family (the owner’s son was Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens).
Purchased after World War II by hotel empire-builder Conrad Hilton, the magnitude of the Stevens was amazing. The hotel had a hospital with an operating room, dry cleaning facilities that could handle five hundred suits a day, banquet facilities that could serve eight thousand at one sitting, use of a thousand pounds of butter and a thousand dozen eggs per average day, production of seven hundred gallons of coffee a day, and a mechanical dishwashing system that could clean 193,000 pieces of china and silver an hour.
These were not the only giant hotels of their era. Every city had big hotels to match business and tourist demand, as shown in this 1932 list of the 30 biggest individual U.S. hotels by room count which we compiled from our business reference library.
These and other hotels with over 500 rooms were each unique in their own way. The first point in Conrad Hilton’s list of operating rules was, “Each hotel has its own personality.” Thanks to the historical respect of their present owners, many of these hotels remain stunning sights. Over $300 million has been invested in modernizing the Stevens in recent decades.
In America’s post-war boom, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a dramatic rise in roadside inns. Yet new city center hotels continued to be built where justified by demand. Hilton constructed another giant hotel in New York in time for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
By 1969, the list of largest hotel companies mixed both older hotel leaders Hilton and Sheraton with the rising motel companies. Sheraton moved more quickly than Hilton into franchising such motor hotels. Restaurant companies Howard Johnson’s and Marriott entered the industry. Hyatt was another newcomer.
In 1971, the list of the largest individual hotels was still dominated by downtown hotels, though a few resort locations (Hawaii, Miami) also show up in the 30 biggest list. Las Vegas also appears, with two entrants including Kirk Kerkorian’s International Hotel and Casino, the world’s largest casino hotel at the time. Fifty years later, the International seems small compared to today’s behemoth casinos.
Over the next twenty-eight years, the Las Vegas boom overtook the old urban hotels, as shown in this list from 1999. Disney’s vast complex near Orlando also included some enormous inns. Only four of the 30 biggest hotels were in the older cities: two Hiltons, a Marriott, and a Hyatt, all built since 1960. (The former #1 Hilton Chicago dropped off our top 30 list when the 3,000 smaller rooms were combined to make fewer but larger rooms.)
By 2021, the massive size of the newest casinos and resorts left no room in our list for the older city center hotels. (Though they still have great value – the Waldorf-Astoria building sold for over a billion dollars! The hotel continues to be operated by Hilton.)
While we can anticipate that resorts and casino hotels will grow larger and larger, those old urban gems are still with us, amazing works of art open to the public and awaiting your visit.
For further information on the hotel industry, see our biography of Conrad Hilton, our article on the story of Best Western, a short piece on the New Yorker, and more hotel company data here. The series of books by hotel historian Stanley Turkel is excellent; many of his articles can be found online. For information on unique and historic hotels, check out the websites of Historic Hotels, Leading Hotels, Preferred Hotels, and Small Luxury Hotels.
American Business History Center