There are few business leaders whose story has been repeated throughout Central Florida as often as Harris Rosen’s, and rightfully so. Like a classic movie, his entrepreneurial saga needs be retold again and again, especially as Orlando sets new records for visitors year after year.
Orlando’s tourism and hospitality industry is supported by a cast of thousands, yet few are as iconic in their contribution and influence as Rosen. Owner of the Rosen Shingle Creek, the Rosen Centre Hotel, the Rosen Plaza and a host of other properties,his business acumen is perhaps only overshadowed by his philanthropy, which ranges from UCF’s Rosen College ofHospitality Management to his involvement in Tangelo Park,a poor neighborhood not far from the I-Drive tourist corridor,and numerous efforts overseas. In Tangelo Park, he helps underwrite the preschool, provides scholarships for graduating high school seniors and has made significant improvements to the YMCA.
Perhaps, however, his greatest legacy is the impact he has on his own employees. Though Orlando is rightly promoting the need to diversify beyond the hospitality industry, how many high tech companies offer to pay for their employees’ children to go to college after working for the company for just three years? It is a privilege employees themselves can enjoy after being with Rosen Hotels & Resorts for five years. While businesses scrambled to navigate the Affordable Care Act, Rosen long ago became an industry leader in self-funding his healthcare system, which includes their own stateof- the- art clinic, diagnostic center and fitness facility.
Though his properties could be considered majestic, Rosen’s executive suite is not a corner office on the 20th floor of one of his landmark hotels. Actually, it is just a short walk up to the second story of the original motel on I-Drive where his entrepreneurial journey began. There, in the same simple motel room where he lived for years while turning the first property he bought into the first of many, he manages what most would consider an empire.
Rosen set his sights on being a hotelier as a young boy, growing up in what is known as “The Bowery” on New York’s Lower East Side. Imagine accompanying your father to his job at the Waldorf Astoria and being introduced to the likes of Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson or being in an elevator and noticing a dignified man with one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen, and asking your father to make an introduction and it turns out to be Joseph Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe! It was an experience that convinced Rosen that hospitality was where he wanted to spend his life.
However, his position was abruptly terminated by Disney, after he had moved with the company from California to Orlando and successfully launched several of their most popular hotels, which forcefully shifted Rosen from being an employee to an owner. He reflected thoughtfully, “I know what it feels like to be fired, how that affects your confidence and self-image.” It forged a connection to his employees that he’s never forgotten.
The Best of Times, In the Worst of Times
It was the middle of the oil embargo in the 70s, and area hotels were at 30 percent occupancy when Rosen decided to go looking for a distressed property he could purchase. The motel owner he approached saw him as a godsend and with his impressive academic and experiential resume, so did the bank, which allowed him to assume the property with a down payment of his complete net worth of $20,000.
He was overwhelmed, serving as desk clerk, maintenance man, maid, groundskeeper and any other duty that arose, as having other employees wasn’t in the budget. But Rosen did have a plan. Knowing bus tours from the northeast were still coming to Orlando, he targeted that niche and hitchhiked to New York to present his offer.
Rosen allowed bus tour owners to name their price, which he would honor for a year (less than $10 per night). Impressed by his pluck, his new customers allowed him to catch rides on their buses to other clients he wanted to pitch. Then he rode back to Orlando with a family who was coming south for a vacation. He gave them accommodations at his inn and they returned each year for over a decade. His turnaround success attracted other banks holding faltering properties and the rest is history.
If one wrote a fictional story following his life, publishers would likely discount it as too incredible to print. But remarkably, it is true.
Nineteenth century American poet, philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase “Do not go where the path may lead…go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” It’s an appropriate way to describe great leaders in our tourism community who modestly stand behind much of their success. Since they often avoid the spotlight, I’m taking the opportunity in this month’s issue to give thanks to them.
Harris Rosen, profiled on these pages and longterm supporter of Visit Orlando, is one such leader. And there have been…and are…many more. We see it every day. And our competitors envy what exists in Orlando. Our local tourism leaders, such as Harris, create vibrant cultures and are excellent communicators. They inspire tens of thousands of our hospitality workers with exemplary vision and audacious goals. These are men and women with integrity and strong values. And they are largely responsible for the enormous growth and success of our tourism industry, particularly through challenging times like the recent Great Recession.
To become truly great — a great organization, a great team and even a great destination — it takes truly great leaders. Orlando would not be the most visited destination in the nation without the positive contributions of our local tourism leaders.
Happy Thanksgiving to all,
– George Aguel, president & CEO of Visit Orlando