Harris Rosen, founder of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, an Orlando-based collection of eight resort properties, remembers he began in the industry as a bit of failure. He was fired from two of his biggest hotel positions before deciding to buy a financially strapped hotel with partners.
The iconic hotelier’s trajectory ultimately turned around, thanks to the help of a group of East Coast motorcoach operators who became his early clients. Nearly 50 years later, his hotels are hosting UMA Motorcoach EXPO on April 21-24, and Rosen was invited to share his inspiring story as an EXPO speaker.
As he tells it, the timing of his first hotel purchase couldn’t have been worse. Rosen, then 34, feared he had made the biggest mistake of his life. He hadn’t realized that he would have to use his $20,000 in savings for the down payment.
In addition to emptying his bank account, the country was in the middle of an oil crisis that brought road travel nearly to a halt and was contributing to a major U.S. economic downturn at the time. Gas prices were soaring, and people were waiting in long lines at gas stations after Arab oil producers cut off exports to the United States to protest American military support for Israel.
Rosen: ‘I’ve got to get some business’
“I had no idea what I had just done,” said Rosen. “I calmed down after a while and said, ‘I’ve got to get some business.’ I knew that typical guest business wasn’t viable. People couldn’t travel.”
Hotel occupancy levels in Orlando in 1974 were in the teens, Rosen remembers. He needed to get his hotel’s levels up to at least 45% if the business was going to survive. The answer, he realized, was to tap into the leisure traveler market.
“So, my idea was to seek out the motorcoach market. Gas stations were giving buses priority because they were great clients of theirs when things were good, and they wanted them to remember them when things became good again,” Rosen said. “So they had gas for them. That meant buses were still viable. How do I get to know these bus companies?”
Rosen hitchhikes to NYC
He needed to get to New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts to meet with the owners of major charter motorcoach companies. Without any money, he decided to hitchhike. With a backpack and a sign that read “New York City,” he found rides.
There, he planned to meet with two of the city’s biggest operators, Casser Tours and Liberty Travel. Next, he planned to head to New Jersey to meet with Domenico Bus Tours and then to Massachusetts for Paragon Tours.
His plan was to meet with the motorcoach operators and make them this offer: They could write whatever room rates they wanted on cards, and he would honor the deal for two years. They agreed, on the condition that they would follow up to make sure the hotel met their standards.
After each meeting, the operators showed incredible hospitality. When they learned he didn’t have an appointment with the next operator on his list, they called that operator to let them know Rosen was on his way and provided him with a bus ride. In some cases, they even gave him a place to spend the night and shower. They also found a couple heading to Florida to give him a ride back. (He showed his gratitude to the couple with an invitation to stay at his hotel every year.)
Two-thirds the average price
At a rate of between $7.25 and $7.75, they were saving about two-thirds of the average hotel price in Orlando.
“They set the rate, so that made them feel even more comfortable,” Rosen said. When he returned to the hotel, Rosen sent letters confirming the price. The tour operators came and visited, telling him they loved his little hotel.
Although the rates were low, occupancy soon reached 70%. He kept costs down by living at the hotel as he worked essentially around the clock as the general manager, doing everything from landscaping to carving the meat at the buffet table. His work ethic kept costs low as he grew the business.
As the hotel became successful, a bank approached about partnering on another struggling hotel property in Orlando, which opened the pathway to his current success.
Rosen’s impressive resume
Rosen’s resume leading up to buying the hotel looks impressive. He managed a hotel in Acapulco and was part of Disney’s hotel division team that opened the Disney World resorts. But at the time, the jobs felt like failures because he was fired from both positions.
In Mexico, he was pink-slipped when the government insisted that Mexican nationals own hotels, which resulted in new majority ownership that replaced him with a Mexican citizen. He was fired from Walt Disney because it was determined he didn’t have executive potential.
The son of Russian and Hungarian Jewish immigrants, he grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side. His parents emphasized the importance of education in expanding his opportunities. He credits that advice with leading him to Cornell University Hotel School. After graduation, he went into the U.S. Army, serving as a second and then a first lieutenant. After his military service, he put his degree to work.
A family atmosphere
Rosen’s company is recognized for its innovative approach to creating a family atmosphere for its associates.
The company built a medical facility exclusively for employees and their dependents. The Rosen Medical Center provides a variety of free services, including a fitness center with health and wellness classes and a full-time staff dietitian. Most office visits are on the clock and free, as are most of the pharmaceuticals that are dispensed on-site.
He also pays for employees and their children to take classes at any public Florida college or university once certain employment terms are met. Rosen has paid for hundreds of college educations because he understands the power of education to change lives.
“I’ve been so fortunate in my life and have had so many wonderful people who have helped me along the way. I’m so appreciative that I have the opportunity to give back,” said Rosen. “It’s the right thing to do.”