Harris Rosen, president and owner of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, has become something of a living legend in the Florida hotel community.
From his start buying a modest property on Orlando’s International Drive 45 years ago to building an empire comprised of eight hotels and 6,700 rooms in the destination, Rosen has a steely resolve that lets him compete against the big chains.
At the same time, he has also championed a revolutionary health program for his employees and generously gives back to the community in which he operates.
Meetings Today recently caught up with Rosen to ask him about his past, present and the future of his company and CSR endeavors.
What made you buy that first hotel?
My decision to begin my entrepreneurial journey and purchase my first hotel in 1974 was born out of my desire for freedom from the corporate bureaucracy that I experienced early on in my career.
I served in the U.S. Army and must confess that I thrive on regimentation and discipline. I understand and value the concept of chain of command and “following orders,” but realized that if I was going to achieve any real success in my career, I needed to be the ultimate decision maker.
Weren’t you nervous about the economy in the ’70s, including the gas crisis, after you bought your first hotel?
I was of course concerned with the oil embargo. However, in hindsight I consider the situation to be a blessing because it provided me with an opportunity to purchase my first small property.
I remember so clearly driving along International Drive and seeing a small Quality Inn with excellent access on International Drive and Sand Lake Road and a very prominent location right off I- 4. The location certainly intrigued me, so I decided to park at the property and take a look.
I loved what I saw and decided to inquire at the front desk to see if I could speak with the general manager or owner of the property. The owner greeted me, and when I indicated that I had an interest in acquiring the property, he immediately hugged me and said that God had sent me.
He readily handed me the keys to what would be my home for the next 17 years. I invested my life savings of $20,000 and soon thereafter broke down and cried, wondering if I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
Give Kids the World Charity Event
What gave you that faith?
Faith has always been a big part of my life. I truly believed that dedication, hard work, respect for others and a passion for success would one day translate into something special for my family and me.
As fate would have it, not long after the oil embargo was lifted and people began to travel once again. My early alliance and very close relationship with the motor coach industry provided us with ample visitors and paved the way for a bright future.
How did you know that your hotels would be successful on I-Drive, specifically Rosen Plaza and Rosen Centre, and why were you so compelled to purchase the land next to the convention center and build your first convention hotels when no big brand wanted to do it?
I had an innate sense that Orlando would one day become a major convention destination despite very little support from the hospitality industry. Gradual, deliberate expansion over time provided me with an opportunity to purchase land on both sides of the Orange County Convention Center West Concourse. I was able to develop two hotels—the 1,334-room Rosen Centre and 800-room Rosen Plaza—that serve as bookends and are connected via covered pedestrian skybridges to what is now the 4 million-square-foot OCCC West Building complex.
Rosen Centre also sits just across the street from the 3 million-plus-square-foot North-South Complex that will be undergoing yet another renovation in several years.
I distinctly recall the major players coming into town and scoffing at the notion that Orlando would one day become a driving force in the convention market. As fate would have it, I was able to get a leg up and position our company for many years of good fortune and success.
Eventually, as the convention center began to exhibit success, the major brands were able to make their way onto International Drive. However, we still maintain our very prominent presence in the convention center district to this day.
Why do you dedicate so much time and money to charity endeavors, such as helping the kids in Orlando’s inner-city areas of Tangelo Park and Parramore?
In the early 1990s, after we had achieved a modicum of success, I was determined that it was time for me to begin giving back and to share my personal rewards with others.
I wanted to help those in need, especially regarding educational opportunities, of which too many youngsters in our underserved communities are unable to take advantage. So I arranged a meeting with Bill Spoon, then principal of Dr. Phillips High School, and Sarah Sprinkle, a renowned early childhood education expert, and within a relatively short period of time we created what is now known as the Tangelo Park Program.
At that time, the Tangelo Park neighborhood was disadvantaged in many regards, particularly with high crime and low high school graduation rates. Our program inspired the community leaders and served to invigorate the families there.
We developed a framework whereby free preschools were established, and upon graduation from high school all students from the neighborhood would have an opportunity to attend Florida state universities, community colleges or vocational schools, free of charge, all provided by The Harris Rosen Foundation.
The newer Parramore Program is funded by the Rosen Parramore PS8 Foundation and patterned after the Tangelo Park Program. Launched in 2016, it provides similar benefits to the families of Orlando’s downtown Parramore neighborhood, which is five times the size of Tangelo Park.
Our goal remains to showcase these initiatives with the hope that others will follow suit, adopting underserved communities across America, changing our great nation one community at a time.
What is your greatest achievement?
Without a doubt, my greatest achievement to date has been and continues to be fatherhood. My children all mean the world to me and being a good dad is unequivocally my crowning achievement and lifelong goal.
All of my success in business pales in comparison to my sense of accomplishing my goal of being a loving father to my children. They are my world.
What’s next for you? Any slowing down for Harris Rosen?
I do not identify with the concept of “slowing down,” however, I am realistic as it pertains to my professional endeavors. Moving forward, I expect that my entrepreneurial gene will once again rear its little head and we will move forward with the development of new inventory, be it through the expansion of our existing properties or new buildings. I continue to dream big and hope that I can inspire the same in others.
Hotelier Harris Rosen Donates $12M to Fight
Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen donated $12 million to the University of Florida and UF Health to launch a brain tumor research initiative.
Given through The Harris Rosen Foundation, the gift is described as the cornerstone of a $100 million fundraising commitment to support the ReMission Alliance Against Brain Tumors. The UF Health-led initiative unites top neuro-oncology physicians and scientists in research and clinical trials. The UF Health team treated the brain tumor of Rosen’s son Adam, who lost his battle with cancer last November.
Rosen, founder and president of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, is celebrated as a generous contributor to charity efforts, including his landmark work improving the lives of residents in the underserved Orlando inner-city neighborhoods of Tangelo Park and Parramore.
He was also a trailblazer in offering his employees low-cost medical service and health care insurance, as well as a secondary education program for employees and their families.
Rosen has contributed to sustainable meetings and lodging initiatives, relief for Haiti and a wide variety of other charitable efforts.
He was one of four people honored by Coretta Scott King with an A.N.G.E.L. (Advancing Nonviolence through Generations of Exceptional Leadership) award in 2015.
Donation Could Help ‘Rewrite the Story of Brain Cancer’
Rosen’s most recent gift was announced at the inaugural ReMission Summit for Brain Tumors at Orlando’s Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel.
The event brought together more than 100 experts in a variety of medical research and scientific fields to focus on transforming the outcomes for patients with brain tumors.
“It was obvious how dedicated they are to improving the quality of life for their patients,” Rosen said. “The team at [UF Health] is already doing extraordinary work, and the [ReMission] Alliance will enhance their progress and improve outcomes for patients well beyond Florida.”
The donation by Rosen takes on a very personal meaning because his son Adam, who received care at UF Health, died last November after a prolonged fight with brain canter.
“A collaboration like this is difficult and lofty, but my family and I support this vision to rewrite the story of brain cancer,” he said.
Rosen built an Orlando hotel empire after purchasing his first property in 1974, a former Quality Inn Hotel. Rosen Hotels & Resorts currently operates eight properties in the Orlando area. The company has approximately 6,700 hotel rooms in its inventory.