As President and COO of Rosen Hotels and Resorts in Orlando, Fla., for more than 40 years, Harris Rosen has done much more than simply run seven independent hotels with about 6,500 rooms. He has worked tirelessly to extend opportunities for personal growth not only to his associates but also to surrounding communities. “My experience growing up in the Lower East Side and the challenge my parents had sending me to Cornell gives me a vastly different perspective than the majority of people who have achieved success,” says Rosen. “I also give the military a lot of credit for taking a tough young kid and teaching him how to encourage others to do the right thing.”
Your company’s seven properties are all located in the Orlando area. Why not branch out into other areas of the country? I like to be able to pop into my hotels on a daily basis, and I couldn’t do that if they were spread out geographically. Every week I visit each of our hotels, unannounced, at least once or twice. Already this morning, I’ve been to three hotels. Now I don’t necessarily think our general managers enjoy me popping in. I kinda see the blood drain when I walk in because they know I inspect properties carefully and I expect them to be perfect. I blame part of it on my military experience. And I’m proud of our seven hotels. We manage each one, and none of them carry any debt. So that gives us a nice advantage in the marketplace.
We’ve had opportunities outside of Orlando, but that just wasn’t something I was comfortable with. This area really has demonstrated a tremendous strength over the past 40 years, becoming a significant leisure market with Disney World, Universal Resorts, and a multitude of other amenities and attractions. It’s also become a fantastic group market, with the second largest convention center in the United States.
In 2004 you helped found the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. How did you come to partner with the UCF? Thirteen years ago, I’d been working with the existing hospitality college, donating some scholarships, and met Dr. Abraham Pizam, the dean. We went out for lunch, and he shared with me that the program was not getting the priority that it deserved. At the time, the college had less than 100 students. Abe was talking about perhaps resigning, and I— presumptuously—told him to stay. I said, “Stay, and I’ll build you a college!” Several years after that meeting, I purchased about 250 acres of land and we had about 25 acres out on the periphery that we weren’t going to use. I mentioned to some of my team members the pledge I made to Abe, and they suggested that I donate the land. I said OK and also made a commitment to provide some funding. The state agree to match my funding, a few others contributed small amounts to help, and so we built the college. We went from a little over 100 students to an enrollment of about 3,500 in a relatively short period of time.
What inspired you to apply this passion for education to your employee benefits? I remember the challenge my parents had sending me to college at Cornell. At the time, a year’s tuition only cost $1,500, which my folks paid. However, all other expenses were mine, and I had to work to cover those expenses. I have always had an understanding of the challenges young people are confronted with when seeking an education. So, if you work for me for three years, we pay tuition for your children to go to college. If you work for me for five years, we pay tuition for you to go to college. It’s a nice benefit, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do.
What affect does this approach have on your hotel operations? Our turnover has to be the lowest in the industry. Our turnover is in the single digits, and hospitality turnover in general is over 50 percent. We have an incredibly loyal group of associates, they know that we really care a great deal for them, and happy associates provide wonderful service. I think it’s as simple as that.
Why have you dedicated so much time and energy to underserved Orlando communities? Our industry relies on people from neighborhoods like Orlando’s Tangelo Park area, so we want to build communities like this up. And I believe that one of the big reasons Rosen Hotels and Resorts has a very low turnover rate is because our associates appreciate and are invested in what we do for our surrounding communities. In Tangelo Park we’ve sent more than 300 children to college from a neighborhood that was only sending about 50 percent through high school.
We also recently adopted the Parramore neighborhood in Orlando, which is six times the size of Tangelo, and we’re going to do the same thing, which is provide free preschool education and free vocational community or four-year college to all the neighborhood kids who are accepted to college. And our hope is that other wealthy organizations or corporations will adopt communities and will create a Tangelo Park program in those communities. It’s unlikely that what’s happening in Baltimore, what’s happening in Ferguson, what happened in Staten Island, will happen when you infuse hope into a neighborhood, and that’s what we’ve done in Tangelo and what we hope to do in Parramore. It’s really very simple. No government involvement whatsoever, just the private sector demonstrating that it is willing and able to roll up its sleeves and do some good stuff in the communities where its businesses are located.