Harris Rosen is celebrating his 40th anniversary of business in the Orlando hospitality market. Born in 1939 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Rosen is President and Chief Operating Officer of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, a portfolio of seven hotels and resorts, including the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort. Rosen’s Orlando properties
Dedicated to philanthropy, Rosen 21 years ago founded the multi-million dollar Tangelo Park Pilot Program that provides free pre-school for children; provides college scholarships for hundreds of young people; and in 2002 donated the land and funding to the University of Central Florida to develop the Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
A graduate of Cornell University, Rosen began his career at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City as a file clerk in what was then called Personnel and later became a convention salesman. He served various management positions for Hilton Hotels and was Director of Planning in California for the Disney Company.
Here’s a conversation with Harris Rosen.
Forty years ago you bought a Quality Inn on International Drive in Orlando, which was the beginning of Rosen Hotels & Resorts. What do you recall about that beginning?
I had just lost a job at Disney and decided that if I was going to be successful I really needed to do something myself. It was the third or fourth job I had been fired from – I just wasn’t comfortable in a corporate scenario. I didn’t pay any attention to organization charts and people didn’t like that. I was happy to open a hot dog stand in downtown Orlando and be my own boss.
You purchased that first property in June 1974. How big of a gamble was that for you?
I knew I was making a terrible mistake. The ($20,000) down payment was all the money I had in the world. When we closed on June 24, 1974, I walked into my office as owner of a hotel with 20 percent occupancy and just cried because I knew I had just done the dumbest thing in my life.
It didn’t turn out that way at all. But 1974 was a different world than today. Given that, could there be another Harris Rosen-type success story today in the hospitality industry?
Absolutely. This is America. It’s possible but it’s not easy. You have to have an idea. Bill Gates had an idea. Steve Jobs had an idea. It requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. I lived in the motel for 16 years. I didn’t get married and have kids until I was in my 50s.
What in your opinion has been the most significant change in the hospitality industry the past 40 years?
I really think it’s IT. Technology has changed operations dramatically. People can now make reservations without having to go through a central reservations office.
Now the opposite. What do you think has been a downside of the industry the past 40 years?
I think the industry is pretty much the same. It’s a service industry. The company with the best service ultimately will prevail. The same principles that have been with us for 100 years and I think always will be.
What is one of those overriding principles?
People, to be successful in whatever they want to do, is communicate with each other - converse, have meetings, pick people’s brains. That’s something I think that will continue to be important. I think young people are relying too much on technology to communicate. They’re losing the ability to converse with people.
Is communication a big part of what you teach at Rosen College of Hospitality Management?
It absolutely is a key component to what we’re teaching. We get the kids away from their cell phones, put them in a room with a conference table and give them a subject to discuss and hash out. No significant decision that I’m aware of has ever been made over a cell phone. You might engage someone like that, but you still have to get together person to person.
One the business side, what’s your greatest achievement of the past 40 years?
We’ve been blessed in everything we’ve done - beyond anything we can imagine. About 21 years ago we decided to say ‘thank you’ to God and help people who need. All the work we’ve in Haiti, in Tangelo Park, the university, the Jewish Community Center and the scholarships. So many different initiatives that have been a great joy.
And demonstrating to my peers that it’s fine to be successful but at some point in time you have to give back – use that success to help others. If we can pass along that message to the next generation we’ll all be better off than we are today.