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Longtime Chicago restaurateur Marion W. Isbell (1905–1988) founded the chain in 1953 along with a group of investors including Michael Robinson of McAllen, Texas (who later went on to start Rodeway Inns in the early 1960s) and Del Webb of Phoenix (who owned the New York Yankees and went on to establish his own lodging chain, Hiway House, in 1956). Other original investors of Ramada Inns included Bill Helsing, Isbell's brother-in-law; Max Sherman of Chicago, a produce operator dubbed "The Tomato King"; Chicago attorneys Ezra Ressman and Mort Levin; and Frank Lichtenstein and Robert Rosow of San Antonio, Texas.
The following paragraph is an attempt at telling the Ramada Inn story correctly because the above paragraph and following paragraphs are at least partially inaccurate and incomplete.
Early in 1952 Marion W. Isbell received a phone call from his brother-in-law, Bill Helsing. Bill informed him of a hotel deal in Flagstaff, AZ that he was going to invest in and wanted to know if Marion would be interested in joining him. Mike Robinson, as above, was the promotor of the deal, but did not like to operate restaurants. This first investment resulted in a rapid return of capital. Additional hotel were built under the "Flamingo" logo. A few years later the idea of franchising came up and a new name had to be coined because the Flamingo name was in wide spread use. Ingrid Isbell came up with name HiWay House. Most of the Flamingo motor hotels were then converted to HiWay Houses. A disagreement developed with Del Webb corporation who was building most of the new properties. Webb was given the HiWay House name in the breakup agreement along with eight of the jointly owned properties. A new name was needed. Mike Robinson admired an oil mens club in Houston that was named Ramada. At this point the remaining Flamingo & HiWay house hotels were renamed Ramada Inn. The next paragraph also has some substantial errors. The part about this summer trip and its comparison to Kemmons Wilson's trip is inaccurate. Marion isbell was a very savvy financial investor. He invested in hotels because the rate of return was much better than he could get by operating restaurants in Chicago. He bought out Mike Robinson and Bill Helsing before taking the company public in 1963. By this time he owned approximately 50% of Ramada Inns, Inc. By January 1969 Marion Isbell was ready to retire and on February 1, 1969 he turned over the CEO position to a long term investor, Ezra Ressman. Up to this date Ezra had been an attorney practicing in Chicago, Il. The Isbell family was planning to exit from the business at this time. However, three weeks into his tenure as CEO, Ezra Ressman died. This event caused Marion Isbell to step back in as CEO and Chairman. Marion Isbell, Jr. was promoted to Executive Vice President and given control over all operations. In 1973 the company's development division which was compose of real estate, finance, architectural, restaurant design, construction and plumbing businesses. There were about 75 hotels being build at this time making it the 38th largest development company in the USA. In 1960 American Express had a hotel computerized reservation business called Spacebank. It competed with Holiday Inn's Holidex. A year into their contract with Ramada they informed them that they needed to triple the per reservation rate, .25 to .75 cents. This threat cause Ramada to start its own reservation business, Micor. Micor's reservation system went live as the American Express contract expired. With a mini computer in each hotel it occurred to Marion Isbell that perhaps more value could be derived from this new technology. Within two years Micor had developed the first hotel computer automation systems that are now common worldwide. They were too expensive for a Ramada Inn at this time but were sold to many of the top luxury hotel chains. By 1980 there were 699 hotels containing about 100,000 rooms. Research said that Ramada Inn was now the preferred brand of the traveling public. Ramada had started the Renaissance brand by 1978 by converting a Ramada Inn in downtown Geneva, Switzerland to a Ramada Renaissance. Ramada's entry into the gaming business was its undoing.
Ramada opened its first hotel – a 60-room facility – on U.S. Route 66 at Flagstaff, Arizona in 1954 and set up its headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, where the chain built the Sahara Hotel on North 1st Street downtown in 1956 (which later became the Ramada Inn Downtown) and a 300-room Ramada Inn in the 3800 block of East Van Buren in 1958 that would become the chain's flagship property and headquarters. Mr. Isbell, like his contemporary, Kemmons Wilson, the founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain, devised the idea of building and operating a chain of roadside motor hotels while he was on a cross-country trip with his wife, Ingrid, and their three children. On that trip, Isbell noted the substandard quality of roadside motor courts along US highways at the time. He saw the possibility in the developing market for a chain of roadside motor hotels conveniently located along major highways which would provide lodgings with hotel-like quality at near-motel rates plus amenities such as TV, air conditioning, swimming pools, and on-premises restaurants.
The Ramada name derives from the Spanish term rama (meaning "branch"). Temporary open air structures called "ramadas", made of brush or branches (similar to an arbor) were popular in Arizona during harvest time. Company websites commonly refer to the structure as a "shady resting place".
Through its early years until the early 1970s, a typical Ramada Inn was built of colonial Williamsburg-style architecture to set it apart from the standardized architectural designs used by competitors such as Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson's. These are properties that have distinctive triple pillars and a white overhang in the front of the hotel, in addition to all-brick architecture. Most of these are now rebranded under various other names, but a few original Ramada Inns of that colonial design continue as franchises of the chain today.
Ramada's logo, from its start in the 1950s until around 1976, featured a friendly bald innkeeper, dubbed "Uncle Ben". He sported an apron (later a suit and tie) and held a top hat in one hand and in the other hand, a red trumpeted banner that read "Ramada Inn Roadside Hotels". From 1976 to 1982, the chain's logo was a simple rounded rectangle that read "Ramada Inn" in the same gothic Western-style lettering of the original design. From 1982 to 2004, Ramada changed to a revised, rounded rectangular design with more "modern" lettering.
The chain at one point was owned by Ramada Inns, Inc., a holding company set up by Isbell to oversee Ramada's various divisions including hotel operations, franchising, real estate, and equipment purchasing. Under Isbell's leadership, Ramada grew into one of the nation's largest lodging chains during the 1960s and 1970s with 100 Ramada Inns in operation by 1964, which grew to 250 in 1970 and nearly 650 by 1976. By the late '70s, Ramada ranked as the second largest hotel chain in the U.S. behind industry leader Holiday Inn. Also during the 1970s, Ramada expanded into worldwide operation by opening new hotels in various European nations and on other continents.
Marion W. Isbell served as president and CEO of Ramada until 1970, when he resigned the presidency and turned it over to his son, William M. Isbell. The senior Isbell continued as the chain's CEO until his retirement in 1972 and then chairman of the board until 1979. William M. Isbell would serve as Ramada's president and CEO until 1981.
Ramada developed a chain of restaurants, which were located inside the hotels, similar to the Howard Johnson's restaurants. Ramada operated them under various names including Uncle Ben's Kitchen, Ramada Pancake Cottage, and Chez Bon, as well as other names used by individual franchises. The company-owned Ramada restaurants became defunct in 1990, though the franchised hotels still include on-premises restaurants.
Split of hotel and casino operations
In an attempt to revive the company's lagging business, Ramada Inns, Inc. in 1989 decided to split its hotel/restaurant businesses and its gaming businesses. The Ramada hotels and restaurants were sold for $540 million to New World Development Company and the gaming business which included the Tropicana Las Vegas, Tropicana Atlantic City, and Ramada Express in Laughlin, Nevada, were spun off to a new company called Aztar Corporation. In the original deal for the gaming business, Ramada shareholders were to get $7 in cash per share plus half a share of the new Aztar Corporation. However, this changed quickly to a new deal where shareholders would receive $1 per share plus one share of Aztar Corporation. In the late 1990s, Ramada was sold to Cendant Corporation of New York City.
The chain offers different hotel "tiers" based on price and services offered.
- Ramada Limited—budget-oriented properties, typically with no on-site restaurant, though a pool and deluxe continental breakfast are standard. Some Ramada Limiteds consist of rooms mixed with suites, or are entirely suites.
- Ramada Inn/Inn & Suites/Suites—full-service properties with swimming pools, exercise rooms, room service, and free breakfast items. If there is no restaurant on site, a convenience store is usually on the premises. Some hotels have mixed rooms and suites, and a few are entirely suites.
- Ramada Hotel/Hotel & Suites/Hotel & Resort -found only outside the US, these are full-service hotels with room service, a full-service restaurant, and fully developed fitness centers. Many of the international hotels also offer suites in addition to rooms, and a few have a resort and hotel together.
- Ramada Plaza—lower "upscale" properties offering business centers, full-restaurants, enhanced room service, and concierges at many locations.
- Ramada Resorts—found in locations outside the USA; located in tourist destinations and high-traffic locations.
One of the "tiers" is no longer part of Ramada:
- Ramada Renaissance—a division of upscale business and resort hotels begun in 1982. When Ramada was sold in 1989, the new owners divided the Renaissance Hotels brand into its own chain, and then sold it to Marriott in 1997.
Under Cendant/Wyndham ownership
Under Cendant's (and now Wyndham's) ownership, Ramada franchises Ramada Inn, Ramada Limited, Ramada Plaza, and Ramada Suites in the United States and Canada. Ramada itself no longer directly or indirectly owns or operates any of the Ramada hotels. Outside of the U.S. and Canada, Ramada hotels are owned and operated or franchised by Ramada International, which was owned by hotel operator Marriott International. However, in 2004, Ramada International was purchased by Cendant, giving Cendant the worldwide rights to the Ramada name. Ramada International remains separate from the Ramada operations in the United States and Canada. In 2006, Cendant spun off its hotel operations, including Ramada, to Wyndham Worldwide.
In Australia, Ramada Inn is a traditional motel in Parkville, Melbourne affiliated with the Australian "Golden Chain" group of hotels and motels. It underwent extensive renovation recently, but is known locally for its use of the humorous Uncle Ben vintage logo and idiosyncratic abbreviation of the word "kilometre" on its signage.
In the United Kingdom, Jarvis Hotels Ltd were the largest franchisee of the Ramada brand. They operated corporately as "Ramada Jarvis Hotels". Six of the properties were bannered as Country Collection hotels; they are properties that were historic buildings previously owned by local business magnates and in beautiful landscaped gardens. Ramada Jarvis went into liquidation in September 2011, ceasing trade on every hotel formerly franchised from Ramada. Ramada's United Kingdoms operations came to an end. Shortly after selected Days Hotels were rebranded as Ramada hotels bringing the brand back to the United Kingdom.
Ramada International currently manages three hotels on Sri Lanka's western coast, under the "Ramada" name, including one in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo. The Ramada Colombo was formerly the Holiday Inn Colombo but management recently changed.
It was announced to open new units in Brazil by 2016.