Outspoken Orlando hotel icon Harris Rosen believes constant guest and staff screening is critical to getting the meetings industry out of its deep depression.

Hear what the firebrand independent hotelier told Vice President Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a coronavirus hospitality industry roundtable at his Rosen Shingle Creek property.

In this Meetings Today Podcast, Tyler Davidson engaged Rosen on the deep funk coronavirus has put the meetings industry in, the state of tourism in Orlando and his Rosen Plan for getting back to business pronto. Listen below.

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[Start transcript]

Tyler Davidson: Hello, and welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast.

We're joined today by Harris Rosen, president and chief operating officer of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which is really just a huge influence in Orlando—either the first or second largest meetings destination in the U.S. depending on when you check the statistics.

So thanks for joining us today. Harris.

Harris Rosen: Oh, you're welcome Tyler.

Tyler: And I saw a great clip of Vice President Pence and Governor DeSantis participating at a roundtable on COVID-19 at one of your properties, the Rosen Shingle Creek, and you were, of course, the host and also a participant.

Tell everyone what you learned there and how it went and what your impressions were.

[Related: Hotelier Harris Rosen Shares His Success]

Harris: Well, I really must confess that I didn't have an idea of what would transpire.

I was told that my role as host was to introduce the vice president of the United States and the governor of Florida. And so I was prepared to do that.

I noticed that there were people—some of whom I knew around the speakers’ table—and I assumed that they were invited by the governor and/or the vice president to represent the hospitality industry.

And I was sitting at the head table right next to the vice president and the governor.

And so the governor and the vice president were introduced by me, and then they began by slowly moving around the table.

And various components of the tourist industry were represented, and everyone spoke.

They were quiet. They were dignified. They were respectful.

And suddenly the vice president turned to me, pointed a finger in my direction.

I don't hear very well, and so I must confess that I didn't hear what he said, but he pointed to me and then kind of relaxed and I said, ‘Oh (to myself), I guess he just introduced me and is anticipating that I will make some comments.’

Yeah...I had no teleprompter, no notes, but I had a lot on my mind.

And I began by saying that I think that the hospitality industry in Central Florida, which is the dominant economic component, is struggling very, very, very badly.

And if indeed we don't correct that situation as quickly as we can, we may never fully recover.

Tyler: And I think you described it as being in a deep depression, even? those are very strong words.


Photo Harris Rosen (far right) engages with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (far left) and Vice President Mike Pence during a coronavirus roundtable at Rose Shingle Creek; Credit: Office of Governor DeSantis

Harris: I did. I did indeed do that. And then I indicated that when I served with Uncle Sam, I learned a lot, but one of the things that I learned which I have never forgotten is the word “K.I.S.S.”—keep it simple, stupid.

And I said things have gotten far too complicated. We have to keep it simple.

And I have a simple solution. And I think everybody was listening intently. I said, ‘Two things are so incredibly important: One, that we provide an opportunity for every business.

I don't care if they're a tiny little business that has two or three employees or a giant business that has thousands and thousands of associates.

We have to provide everyone an equal opportunity to open as quickly as possible.

No more delays. No more of these silly restrictions. We must open.

How do we do it? K.I.S.S.

One, we do have restrictions, and the only difference in the Rosen Plan and what we're doing now is that the owner of the establishment will create the restrictions; they will know best what is the appropriate restriction for their particular company.

And number two, besides restrictions, we should protect the customer, the guest, the client, and we should protect the individuals who are working in that particular establishment.

How do we do that? Because we don't have a test that we can do in a matter of minutes, we have to screen.

Now, I understand that screening is imperfect, and that if someone is asymptomatic, they might have a normal temperature, but they may be carrying the virus.

I understand that, but screening is better than no screening.

And so the Rosen Plan is screen every person entering the establishment. Screen on a daily basis everyone working in establishment, and at least we have some semblance of security that that particular facility is now safe.

[Related: Rosen Relief​]

Tyler: Are you instituting that in your hotels now? Or what sort of protocols and precautions are you taking?

Harris: And that is a very fair question. Sadly, of the eight properties I own and operate, only one is open. And that's been a situation for a couple of months now and it is terrible. It is awful.

And so to answer your question, yes, at Rosen Center, we are screening everyone who enters the building. And number two, on a daily basis, we are screening all of our associates.

And so our guests are safe and secure, knowing that our associates are all screened, and our associates feel comfortable that the guests when they enter the establishment are screened also.

Tyler: And I think you mentioned, I believe in an op-ed piece you penned with Anthony Sabatini, a representative in the Florida House of Representatives, that there exists new walkthrough scanners that can help detect COVID-19 by checking temperature, respiration rate and the blood oxygen level of people.

Is that something you think is on the horizon and something that people are going to see more often in facilities?

Harris: You know what I'm hoping and praying? Is that a test will be created that will be able to determine if someone has the virus or doesn't, and that the test will be able to be completed in a few minutes.

When that happens, then we're home free. Then instead of screening we can test and we will know definitively if that guest or employee has the virus.

And that's what my hope and my prayer is; that soon we will have such a test.

In the meantime, the most sophisticated screening there is doesn't solve 100% of the problems. But we live with that.

You know, what I said was that when you step into your car to drive to work, you don't know for sure if you're going to get to work without somebody smashing into you.

When you step on a plane, you don't know for sure if that plane is going to arrive safely.

When you're at the beach and you go in for a swim, you don't know if a riptide is going to catch you or if a shark is going to get you.

There are no uncertainties in every aspect of life. And so one should anticipate, and one should be flexible in this regard, also, that the screening is not perfect.

And we acknowledge that. One day, hopefully, there will be a test that we could administer quickly, and one that is very reliable.

Tyler: And I think, you know, one thing I think people need to think about more is that a big part of this equation is the travelers and attendees themselves, and in their mind, you know, convincing themselves that it's safe to travel, to come to a hotel or to a convention.

And I'm just wondering what your opinions are on that? I mean, that you can have as many tests or machines or protocols and procedures in any hotel or facility, but if the demand’s not there and people are scared to travel, they're just not going to go, right?

Harris: Sadly, what you just said is so correct, and that was my great concern when I said I'm not sure if Central Florida will ever be the great tourist mecca it once was. That's a possibility.

With the public sector screaming at the top of its lungs for months, ‘Stay home, stay home, stay home, stay home, stay home!

And wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask! Social distancing, social distancing!’

It has an impact, and will, at some point in time, that impact become less strident than it is now?

I don't know. Only time will tell, but I think the damage has been done. The question is, is the damage permanent, or is it just temporary? That's a question that has to be answered.

Tyler: Yeah. And I think, myself personally—I love to travel, I'm itching to go travel again. So maybe, you know, one bright side is that I think there's a lot of other people that feel the same way.

And if we do open back up, and it's a safe environment, and there's not any unfortunate sort of second wave that happens, maybe it won't be as bad as we all fear it could be.

[Related: Rosen Shingle Creek Chef Relishes Independence and Reveals Post-COVID-19 Thoughts]

Harris: So Tyler, my answer to that is to clone you several hundred million times.

Tyler: They tried it and it didn't work. They just ended up with all my faults, anyway...

Harris: As long as you love to travel, I'm happy with you.

Tyler: And then, before we end today's program, you mentioned Central Florida is so reliant on tourism.

You know, I noticed today I think it was, or maybe it was yesterday, Disney is announcing plans to reopen.

Tell me what is it like, taking off your hotelier, your Rosen Hotels & Resorts hat, but just as a participant and a businessperson in the Orlando tourism industry, what is it like there?

What are you hearing? And what can people expect in the near future?

Harris: Well, until we had the roundtable and until I shared my perspective with those in attendance, I do believe that depression was something that was embedded in the heart and soul of almost everyone who works in the hospitality/tourism industry.

I was hearing from friends of mine who were indicating to me that if things didn't turn around quickly, they would close their business.

Not only a few—a fair number of individuals who said we just can't continue as it is.

And so, I think, thank God, the vice president came with the governor. Thank God, I was asked to say a few words.

Thank God, I'm not timid or afraid to speak my mind in a cordial and respectful way. And I think since then, things have changed dramatically.

Dozens and dozens and dozens of small, medium and large companies have opened. There are some restrictions, but the restrictions are much less cumbersome than they were even several weeks ago.

And I think there's an attitude now amongst those in the industry that if we work hard, if individuals begin to feel comfortable traveling again, that we won't get back to where we were quickly, if ever, but at least we will be able to pay our debts, pay whatever expenses we have, take care of our associates, and work doing what we love doing more than anything in the world.

I don't know what the future holds. I am not overly optimistic, but I do believe at least we're taking baby steps.

And with Universal [Orlando] opening on the fifth and Disney [World] opening—I think it's July 11—we're heading at least in the right direction.

But we still have four, five, six, seven months of difficulty ahead of us, and I don't see things turning around rapidly at all.

Tyler: And, how just with your own brand, I saw that you have some very extensive procedures and protocols that you're rolling out, and kind of ironically enough, you have a very firm background in healthcare.

I mean, you even launched your own health care program, Rosen Care, in 1991, and you even expanded that care program that Osceola County Schools recently.

So you're in a good position to really know what you're talking about here. From your hotels and resorts in the Orlando area, what are your plans to open them back up and roll them out in in phases, etc.

[Related: Hotelier Harris Rosen Donates $12M to Fight Brain Tumors​]

Harris: Well, Tyler, you certainly have done your homework. Yes, we decided to create our own Medical Center, which we've been doing now for 28 years. And it's been enormously successful.

It is scary. I mean, people thought I was crazy when I said that I was going to open my own little clinic, hire my own primary care doctor or nurse practitioner and some clericals, create my own pharmaceutical program, become self-insured.

People looked at me and said, ‘Rosen, you've really lost your mind.’

Not only did we not lose our mind, but over the 28 years, when we compare our costs per individual—they refer to it as it costs for covered life—with the national average, we've saved about $450 million.

If you extrapolate the Rosen Care approach and program—and what we do to encourage wellness and health—if the United States of America—with 250 million people all working—if they all had a Rosen Care program where they work, it is not inconceivable that the United States of America would save on healthcare close to a trillion dollars a year.

So my hope is that people will begin looking at what the Rosen Care program is all about—what we have accomplished. And once again, K.I.S.S.—keep it simple, stupid.

If indeed, you keep people healthy, it will reduce healthcare costs. That sounds incredibly dumb, but it's true. And so we work diligently to keep our people healthy.

We motivate them. We don't have any deductibles in our plan. If you have a pharmaceutical, a generic, and you go to Walmart, I will pay—you don't have to worry about it.

If you're in the hospital, your first admission is $750 total, the second is $750. $1,500 is all you will pay if you're hospitalized twice, and you work for Rosen.

And so with that kind of a plan, that incentive to stay healthy, and to be able to get all of the pharmaceuticals you need—to not be concerned about staying two or three or four days or a week or two.

Here's a perfect example, Tyler. Four years ago, I got word that a little baby was born to one of our associates and the baby weighed just a little over two pounds.

The baby was in the hospital with mom for about three weeks. Mom got the bill. The bill was $2,140,000.

What did mom pay? $750. And we gave her three years to pay that off—I paid the balance with my own insurance company.

So, look, we can get into a whole conversation about healthcare, and about the hospitals not being transparent with their pricing.

But, for the time being, what we're saying is, there is a solution to the healthcare dilemma, and that is to at least take a look at Rosen Care and see if you as a business owner would like to replicate it.

You have to have at least 1,000 covered lives. If you're a little business, join forces with some of your buddies in the area until you get close to 1,000 covered lives, and then open up your own little medical center. I would love to see that happen.

Tyler: Well, great, thanks. Yeah, I know you love to talk about that—it's really a fascinating story. And personally, thanks for taking care of your associates.

Oh, and are there plans for when your properties are going to reopen?

Harris: Oh, excuse me—by the way, that little girl is 4 years old and as healthy as can be, okay...

So, we are most likely going to open our second property at the end of June, a third property at the beginning of July, and that leaves us with five properties, and if things really start to improve dramatically, I think by the end of July we'll have six or seven of our hotels open.

And as we move into August, September and October, my hope is that we'll just continue to be able to generate a positive cash flow in all of our properties. That's my dream.

Tyler: Excellent. Well, I wish you all the best of luck in that. And thank you for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Harris: Thank you so much, Tyler. It was a joy speaking with you.

Tyler: Thank you. And that was Harris Rosen, the president and chief operating officer of Rosen Hotels & Resorts.

Thanks to Harris for joining us, and thanks to you for listening to this Meetings Today Podcast.

If you're interested in more Meetings Today Podcasts, just head on over to our website at MeetingsToday.com and check out our Podcast section, where we have lots of interesting podcasts with thought leaders in the meetings and tourism industry.

So thanks for joining us today and go out and make it a great rest of the day.

[End transcript]

Read next: Profile: Harris Rosen, President & CEO, Rosen Hotels & Resorts​