Orlando Business Journal - Exclusive: Hotelier Harris Rosen Shares Covid-19 Struggles, Biz Advice and Path To Reopening

Harris Rosen's voice is strained and tired. The noise of his fist banging on his desk echos in his office, followed moments later by a soft sigh as he thinks about the pain and confusion happening across the region that's been devastated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The 80-year-old founder, president and COO of Orlando-based Rosen Hotels & Resorts is a pillar of the Central Florida community and a barometer for many on how to grow business and give back to the community.

But even Rosen admits he has never seen anything like the coronavirus that shut down most commerce globally — and the devastation it has wreaked on the nation's most-visited destination in just two months.

"I never anticipated that we would be confronted with a situation like this," he told Orlando Business Journal. "All of our properties are closed except the Rosen Centre. Unless we do something drastic, I don't think tourism in Central Florida will come back the way it was."

The fact that just one Rosen property is operational is a clear sign of how serious the virus has been for Central Florida business. Rosen Hotels & Resorts often is one of the few hotel chains that remains open during natural disasters. The company is famous for its low-rates and helping residents shelter when hurricanes approach, even when other properties close.

But not this time.

"You can judge by our properties being closed just how incredibly severe this is — it's catastrophic," he said. "It’s been a horrible strain on me — emotionally and physically. I try very hard to keep myself fit. I'm eating properly and I still do my swim, but I haven’t had a good night's sleep for two months."

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Keep it simple, stupid

Rosen has many phrases he lives by to run his successful 45-year-old hotel empire. He implores his staff to "always do the right thing." And four letters he learned when in the military still ring in his ears: K.I.S.S. or "Keep it simple, stupid" — a reminder that the right path forward often is the obvious one.

He's proven it in the past when he would allow groups to name their own price when staying at his hotels or booking a venue. He trusts his clients will offer a reasonable rate, as the relationships built at that moment are better for the longterm than getting a steal now.

This is no different: Trust in business to make the right choices for longterm relationships.
"The short answer is we have to open up. We have to get back to business and start doing what we are here for — to provide services and products so other Orlandoans, Floridians and people all over the world can come back. We can't do that with extraordinary restrictions."

He said businesses need to be allowed to tackle the virus in their own way, while meeting some simple criteria:

  • Companies should screen all employees' temperature daily.
  • All customers' temperature should be screened when they enter a facility.
  • Enforce screenings with severe penalties for rule breakers. For example, have law enforcement and secret shopper entities visit stores, hotels and spas. If those individuals are not screened, then have a report and notice given to businesses that threatens temporary closures.

It's not perfect, Rosen admits, but he said it's better than letting businesses open up with capacity limits while not doing customer health screenings.

As a result, his company is looking into specially designed temperature sensors that resemble walk-through metal detectors and are used to see if anyone has a fever — a common sign of the coronavirus. The technology would allow the company to screen up to 70 people per minute and could be used for both employees and guests.

His company also tapped into the experts of its RosenCare health care team to determine sanitation efforts that include installing protective barriers to separate front desk staff and guests, rearranging furniture to encourage social distancing and using disinfectants and cleaning processes in both guest rooms and common areas to maintain sanitation.

That could be a great start for businesses to build an infrastructure of cleanliness and get customers feeling safe again, Rosen said. "We need [public officials] to stop telling people to stay home. I've tried to combine our desires as an industry with the need to be cautious. I understand that may be conflicting, but the plan is to let everybody — big, medium and small companies — to open as quickly as possible."

Words of advice

Meanwhile, Rosen said the coronavirus has carried its own lessons and advice for the hotel magnate — or at least it reinforced ones he built his company on.

Here are three pieces of advice he shared:

  • For businesses: "The lesson is being a company that has no debt. I know it's not popular to not want to borrow money. If you are capable of not [borrowing], my suggestion is don't," he said. He said being free of debt obligations has allowed him to maximize his reserves to help his employees.
  • For business owners: Employers should be in constant contact with their employees now more than ever, he said. While businesses may not be able to pay workers, it's important to keep associates in the loop at all times and reassure them that the company still values them and is working on solutions. "You need to do that and be empathetic of what they are going through. If you want to be respected by your associates and want them to love you and work hard for you, then you have to demonstrate now that you care for them," he said.
  • For the business community: "The public sector doesn't always have the right answers. Many in the public sector have never been in the private sector," he said. "If you have some thoughts, share your thoughts. Don't be hesitant about doing that. We all are looking for that magic bullet."