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Sharing the Dream

Harris Rosen

Harris Rosen, a savvy and dedicated hospitality industry entrepreneur, turned a US$20,000 cash investment—and years of hard work and strategic decisions—into the largest independent hotel chain in Florida, as well as one of the largest meeting hotel operations. He remembers the exact spot where he was 25 years ago when he decided it was time to show his gratitude for his blessing by diving headlong into philanthropy focused on education for children in low-income neighborhoods.

“I was sitting in this same chair in this same office where I am now,” says Rosen, who has run his operation since 1974 from a modest, converted motel room in a then-failing Quality Inn on Orlando’s International Drive that he acquired that same year. (Rosen still likes to point out the hole in the ceiling of his office—it was for the ventilation pipe for his kitchen stove. For years after he bought the 256-room hotel, the modest room on the second floor was not only his office, but his home as well.)

Rosen, a Cornell University Hospitality School of Hotel Administration graduate and former Army officer, was dismissed from Walt Disney World in the early 1970s because “they told me I was not a person who would likely be a success in management at Disney.” He decided to use the $20,000 he had in savings to acquire a company of his own and pin his route to success on his own effort and vision.

When he started his quest to acquire a hotel, the timing could not have seemed worse. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 was driving gasoline prices through the roof, and family vacation travelers could not afford to drive to Orlando.

“This hotel was hemorrhaging money, as was just about every other hotel in town. After I signed the deal for this hotel, I actually went into my office, closed the door and cried a little, because I thought I had done the dumbest thing I had ever done in my life,” says Rosen, who grew up in a modest home in the Lower East Side of New York City. (The total cost of the hotel was going to be about $2.5 million—to be paid from hotel profits.)

But immediately upon acquiring the small hotel at the intersection of International Drive and Sand Lake Road in Orlando (just a few hundred feet from Interstate 4), Rosen started making strategic moves and streamlining the operation. Measures included Rosen himself filling the rolls of staff members he had to lay off, ranging from manager to desk clerk to gardener. And he embarked on another Herculean effort—literally hitchhiking to New York City and New Jersey to sell room nights in bulk to tour bus operators. The average room night price was $7.50 to $8, and he pledged to guarantee that rate for two years.

Soon tour buses were filling the parking lot of his small hotel, which has since almost tripled in size to 728 rooms with a new name—the Rosen Inn International. So the road to his company’s financial salvation was in part set into place by his own willingness to sweat and struggle in order to succeed.

But there was also an element of his early success that truly met the definition of what Rosen considers a blessing. The same year Rosen bought his first hotel, 1974, the oil embargo was lifted, prices at the gas pump dropped and tourists began flowing back to Orlando, where the Rosen Inn International began to show strong profits.

Now Rosen Hotels and Resorts has seven properties with a collective 6,700 guest rooms, including three meeting properties, the largest of which is the 1,501-room Rosen Shingle Resort. (Rosen’s success story has been chronicled in national publications such as The New York Times and USA Today.)

Rosen’s vision would pay dividends with other strategic moves over the years. He has big convention hotels connected on each side of the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). He was able to acquire the land because other hotel investors doubted the potential of the OCCC, which has grown to more than 2 million square feet.

“I tried to get the big boys interested, but they said Orlando would never go anywhere as a convention city,” he says. (Orlando is now rated the No. 1 convention city in the U.S. in terms of numbers and sizes of conventions.)

Strategic investments in meetings hotels would serve Rosen well as the years unfolded.

In 1993, Rosen had something of an epiphany that would set him on his mission of philanthropy.

“I was sitting there in my office and we were talking about opening our fifth hotel and I found myself saying, ‘Harris, you have been blessed beyond your wildest dreams. You have been enabled to live the American dream.’ So I felt I needed to do something to help others who were less fortunate to live the American dream as well.”

So in 1993, Rosen started an education initiative in Tangelo Park, Fla., a small, predominately black suburb of Orlando in which college graduation was a rarity and only about 45 percent of kids graduated from high school. His program provides quality, free preschool education for children ages two to four. The same year the program started, he also began giving full college and vocational scholarships—including tuition, room and board and books—for all high school graduates in the Tangelo Park school district who get accepted by a Florida public college, community college or technical school. So far, about 300 students have earned degrees and attend the annual reunion of the programs as proud lawyers, doctors, nurses and other professionals. Over the years Rosen has invested about $12 million in the project, and the high school graduation rate and college attendance rates have skyrocketed in Tangelo Park, while crime rates have plummeted.

In 2017, Rosen added another, larger minority neighborhood in inner city Orlando, called the Parramore Community, with a program that can serve even more preschool children. The Orlando school system has provided a brand new building that can accommodate nearly 300 preschoolers—and Rosen has provided the furniture, tech equipment, salaries for the teaching staff and a health clinic, along with scholarships for high school graduates in the Parramore school district. The full scholarships have the same criteria as the scholarships in Tangelo Park.

This hotelier/philanthropist would like to see more people who have the financial means to replicate his school projects step forward, and the Parramore project was in part motivated by a feeling on his part that the more he does with the original Tangelo Park model, the more likely it is that other philanthropists might follow his example.

Rosen also provided 10 acres of land and $18 million to create the Rosen School of Hospitality Management in Orlando, which is rated second only to his alma mater, Cornell, among worldwide hospitality schools.

And his generous ways have reached out to Haiti, where he has built a new school and rebuilt more than 100 houses after Hurricane Matthew hit the island nation in 2016.

And there is every reason to believe Rosen, a 78-year-old who swims a mile-and-a-half each day, will continue his mission of sharing well into the future. And because Rosen owns parcels of land in the International Drive area—the corridor of conventions in Orlando—most industry observers expect more hotels in Rosen’s future as well.

About the Author

Roland Stiteler
Rowland Stiteler

Rowland Stiteler, a veteran meeting industry journalist, is a writer and editor for The Meeting Professional.