Rosen’s Vision Predicted Growth of I-Drive Tourism
Orlando was recently recognized for annual visitor counts in excess of 75 million. The vibrant and burgeoning local economy is significantly tied to this phenomenon. Anyone interested in securing a portion of these valuable dollars should look no further than the International Drive resort area, where one player in particular stands tall in a crowded field. During the course of the past half-century, his crystal ball has proven invaluable.
Modern-day International Drive is a strip of land paved by resilient entrepreneurs. Spanning the last 40-plus years, these visionaries transformed what was once referred to as “Orlando’s Wild West” into what now represents one of the premier resort and convention destinations in the world.
Early on in the initial phases of what was calculated speculation on his behalf, Harris Rosen chose to forge what is now his 45-year-old company, Rosen Hotels & Resorts, squarely into the framework of the I-Drive equation. In 1974, he purchased his first property, the Rosen Inn International, formerly Quality Inn International, at 7600 International Drive.
“We were people who had faith,” Rosen says today. “We believed that with our incredible weather, proximity to Walt Disney World and myriad other hotels and attractions, we would develop this corridor into its own resort and convention destination. While many were in disagreement with us, we held firm in this belief. Our conviction remained that we could offer everyone from families to convention and trade show attendees a complete package in this one area.”
Maria Triscari, president/CEO of the International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce since its inception 31 years ago, says of Rosen: “He is an extraordinary businessman, with an innate skill for forecasting our area’s future. Without his vision, I-Drive would not be where it is today. There are currently 40 new projects totaling some $2 billion in planned economic development on the way, most notably the expansion of the Orange County Convention Center.”
The promise of a world-class, multi-faceted convention center has always remained of paramount importance to Rosen. In the early-to-mid-1970s, he and Jim Brown, president of Martin Marietta’s land sales group Orlando Central Property, worked arduously to pass a referendum to create a tourist development tax in Orange County. They, in unison with a select group, knew that this funding source was imperative to launch the area’s momentum.
“I made a lot of speeches,” Rosen said. “We passed the tax in 1978.”
To build the convention center, three sites were offered. The City of Orlando offered a site near Lake Eola, Major Realty offered the Court of Flags off Kirkman Road, and Martin Marietta offered the I-Drive site. Subsequent to a referendum, the public voted and selected the Martin Marietta site.
On February 27, 1983, much to the amazement of most of Orlando, the Orange County Convention Center opened its doors to an open house of 14,000 guests.
By this time, Rosen had three I-Drive hotels in the works, one with land purchased from Brown. Rosen approached him about another purchase, namely the land contiguous to the convention center. Unfortunately, Brown had to decline, explaining that for this, Martin preferred a well-known brand, like a Hilton, Hyatt or Marriott. Rosen was disappointed but understood this premise.
A year later, an unexpected phone call proved to be a game changer for Rosen.
“Jim called and said there hadn’t been any interest in the land contiguous to the convention center. He said if I could deliver a $7 million check to him by 5 p.m. that day, the parcel was mine.” Further cementing his presence on the growing strip, Rosen made that delivery, purchasing the land on September 1, 1988, for $9.6 million. Three years later, on September 13, 1991, the 800-guestroom Clarion Plaza — now the Rosen Plaza — opened its doors directly adjacent to the convention center.
After the Rosen Plaza land purchase, but before its opening, Brown invited Rosen to Martin Marietta headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Rosen brought along his real estate attorney, Kelly Smith.
“We went to Bethesda and had no idea what they were going to talk about,” Rosen said. “They asked me if I would be interested in selling all of their non-defense-related land along International Drive. I started saying no and Kelly kicked me under the table. He said we’d be interested based on the conditions. Brown said they would tell us what they wanted for the land and any money above and beyond that would be ours. If we didn’t sell all of the property, we would have to pay for the unsold parcels. We had one year to do this.”
With one month to go, Rosen sold the third-to-last parcel. “We kept back two parcels that we wanted and did not need to sell in full in order to pay the total we owed,” Rosen said. “These are where Rosen Centre and our helicopter site are today. I was able to purchase these two parcels at a great discount, $4.56 million for the 20-acre Rosen Centre and $369,200 for the three-acre helicopter site.”
The Omni Rosen, currently Rosen Centre, opened on October 31, 1995. Rosen then owned two hotels that straddled the convention center. Another small hotel company, the Peabody Hotel, was positioned across the street.
“At the company, we always refer to Harris’ uncanny vision,” said Frank Santos, who has held the post as CFO for Rosen Hotels & Resorts for 33 years. “It’s taken years for others to see the value in the land. Without those hotels to house convention attendees, the center would not have flourished. This is why his team never doubts his future plans.”
With an eye on the continued evolution of I-Drive, Rosen has no plans to let up.
At the 1,334-room Rosen Centre, which with sister property Rosen Plaza now provides a covered pedestrian skybridge to the convention center, enhancement plans are underway. Those include a new wing featuring an additional 400 guestrooms and 150,000 square feet of function space, which will double the hotel’s total meeting and event space.
A 50,000-square-foot grand ballroom above a new level of meeting rooms will connect with an air-conditioned walkway to the present second level of the property. A lap pool will complement the hotel’s current Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool, and a parking garage will be incorporated into the project. Expansion plans are in the works for the popular Harry’s Poolside Bar & Grill, and additional food and beverage outlets will enhance the current Rosen Centre offerings.
Nearby on Universal Boulevard, the AAA Four Diamond Rosen Shingle Creek will be adding a luxurious 14-story tower with 400 guestrooms offering premium one- and two-bedroom grand and executive suite upgrades and a signature presidential suite. In addition, 150,000 square feet of flexible meeting and event space will be added to the existing footprint of 524,000 square feet and will include an 85,000-square-foot column-free ballroom, 30 breakout rooms and two specialty multipurpose rooms.
A dynamic rooftop venue will be showcased atop the new tower, featuring panoramic views of the region. Refurbishments and enhancements will be made to Cat-Tails Poolside Bar & Grille and 18 Monroe Street that will serve to completely transform their current offerings.
And yet another new Rosen venture is on the horizon as if he’s peering back into a crystal ball.
“One day I envision us creating a huge convention property on International Drive which could include as much as 3,000 guestrooms and close to a million square feet of meeting space,” Rosen said. “We would transform 33 acres, from the helicopter site to the Rosen Inn Pointe Orlando, with this incredible hotel next to the Rosen Plaza, creating quite a presence.”
This article appears in the July 2019 issue of i4 BUSINESS.