By: MARY DEATRICK
When Harris Rosen purchased his first hotel in 1974 — the 256-room Quality Inn International that is now the Rosen Inn International at 7600 International Drive — he immediately put his head in his hands and lamented, “What have I done?” He had spent his entire savings at the time, $20,000, for a down payment and assumed a $2.5 million note, and his journey on International Drive was just beginning. And with the U.S. enduring an oil embargo, he seriously began questioning his investment.
“I did believe the International Drive area would grow and become an attractive destination for families,” said Rosen, who had been at the forefront of Orlando’s birth as an international tourism destination while overseeing the development and 1971 opening of the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort and Polynesian Village Hotel. “It was just that my timing couldn’t have been worse.”
Undaunted, Rosen hit the road. He hitchhiked his way Northeast, meeting with tour bus companies and piecing together whatever deals he could. “They wrote a rate down on one of my new business cards, sometimes as low as $7 a night, and I signed it,” he said. Alas, the oil embargo was lifted. Upon securing agreements with several companies, many of whom still do business with Rosen today, he hitchhiked home, courtesy of a couple whom he hosted at his hotel for the following 18 years until they passed away. The buses began to roll in and have not stopped.
Fast-forward 44 years and it’s clear his instincts about the area were prophetic. His company, Rosen Hotels & Resorts, has grown from those original 256 guestrooms to 6,994 and is intimately committed to International Drive’s burgeoning growth, with seven of the company’s nine hotels located on or just off the famous strip. His hotels represent a broad spectrum of offerings to suit every budget and desired experience — as does I-Drive.
“It really is a very attractive area not only for convention delegates, but for leisure travelers as well. The family market and convention market work so beautifully together,” Rosen said. “Families generally travel when convention activity is less vibrant. The I-Drive area is able to capitalize upon this synergy and does very well with both market segments. Whether visiting for leisure or business travel, there is an abundance of new dining venues and fun attractions. This is what makes International Drive such a wonderful place to stay.”
Dan Giordano, one of Rosen’s longest-serving general managers, has seen the area grow firsthand since his coming on board with Rosen in 1995. He served as general manager of the Rosen Centre from 2000-2006 and since then as general manager of the AAA Four Diamond Rosen Shingle Creek, which opened on Universal Boulevard in 2006.
“The most impactful, meaningful change I’ve experienced over the last decade in the International Drive District has been the very deliberate growth of a broad spectrum of tourism and convention offerings,” Giordano said. “We have new hotels, dynamic restaurants, Orange County Convention Center enhancements, exciting attractions and an emphasis on a high-level provision of service from all of the stakeholders. The community leadership has done a formidable job tending to the diverse visitor base and continues to work creatively in an effort to maintain a competitive edge over other like destinations.”
Bob Coletti, general manager of the Rosen operation’s Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista, was assistant general manager of Rosen Plaza from 2013 to 2016. “Visitors love the area because of its convenience,” he said. “You can choose a hotel and walk right across the street to the attraction you’re in town to visit. It’s all virtually within walking distance and accessible to the International Drive trolley system.”
Rosen has been “blessed beyond his wildest dreams,” he said, and so has I-Drive. For the past 25 years, Rosen has committed funds to the nearby community of Tangelo Park, providing hope to the underserved neighborhood in the form of a free preschool education for all of the 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds in the neighborhood. He also offers full college scholarships — including tuition, books, and room and board — for the neighborhood’s high school graduates to attend college.
Recently, the YMCA renamed its I-Drive facility the YMCA Rosen Aquatic Center as a tribute for the time-honored multi-million-dollar investments Rosen has personally made in the facility. His efforts have been vital not only for the locals who enjoy using the Y, but also for the economic impact from numerous international swim meets.
Nearby on Universal Boulevard, at the foot of Rosen Shingle Creek, sits one of the top two hospitality schools in the nation, the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Rosen provided $18 million to build the college, which opened in 2004, and has plans in the next three years to add 40,000 square feet of classrooms and parking. The college has been lauded by the local hospitality industry as providing a substantial funnel of highly trained, much-sought-after talent, a distinct benefit for a thriving world-class tourist destination.
To honor his contributions, the International Drive Area Chamber of Commerce created the Harris Rosen Philanthropic Award last year to encourage others to do good works in the community.
“Harris Rosen was instrumental in establishing I-Drive, contributing his time and talents to help it evolve into a highly competitive destination,” said Maria Triscari, the chamber’s president and CEO for 30 years. “We could recognize him for so many of his contributions, but chose philanthropy because we know this is closest to his heart.”
Most recently, Rosen’s keen eye for I-Drive prompted the October 2017 purchase of his eighth and ninth hotels: the 134-room Midpointe Hotel, formerly a Red Roof Inn, and the 222-room Clarion Inn & Suites. Both are located off International Drive on land contiguous to the 1,334- room Rosen Centre. According to Rosen, this location would allow some flexibility should it make business sense to expand Rosen Centre.
“With the phenomenal success of the International Drive area, the timing was right,” he said. “The location next to Rosen Centre makes it quite convenient for our longtime trained hotel associates to expand their operations and assist in managing the properties.
“If the convention center expands, there would be an obvious need for more guestrooms contiguous to the Orange County Convention Center,” Rosen said. “It’s highly plausible that we may increase inventory to Rosen Centre and Rosen Plaza, both connected to the convention center. So in the next four or five years, it’s possible our company will grow to more than 7,000 guestrooms, and several years after that, close to 8,000 guestrooms.”
Of course, 44 years later, Rosen is grateful he staked his claim on International Drive. “People who come to Orlando and decide to stay on I-Drive, it’s because there are so many things to do,” he said. “It’s family-friendly entertainment. It’s almost the opposite of what Vegas is all about, and people appreciate that in this world.”
Heart of the District
In 2014, Leslie Menichini, vice president of sales and marketing for Rosen Hotels & Resorts, spearheaded the creation of and marketing effort for the Heart of the District. Comprised of Rosen Plaza, Rosen Centre, Hyatt Orlando, Hilton Orlando, Rosen Shingle Creek and the Orange County Convention Center, the Heart of the District was born out of the passion and desire of these entities to strengthen the OCCC and surrounding I-Drive business community. “Our goal is to support new and existing multi-hotel and citywide business, investing resources to garner exponential bookings that result in a multimillion-dollar economic impact to the area,” Menichini said. “Our collaborative efforts benefit not only area hotels, but all of the restaurants, attractions, retail stores and more along International Drive. We can accomplish so much more by joining forces.”