HB Exclusive: Harris Rosen on Pence Roundtable, Recovery

ORLANDO, FL—Vice President Pence met on Wednesday with hoteliers and other tourism executives at a roundtable at the Rosen Shingle Creek here to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their businesses, as well as recovery efforts.

Hosted by Harris Rosen, president/COO, Rosen Hotels & Resorts, the vice president, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, moderated a panel that included Roger Dow, president/CEO, U.S. Travel Association (USTA); Danny Gaekwad, chairman, OSEM Hospitality Management, who also represented AAHOA; as well as theme park, restaurant and transportation executives.

Following opening statements from both DeSantis and Pence, where the VP applauded the executives for putting the health and safety of their employees and consumers first, the floor was opened for the executives to provide their takes on the effects of the pandemic.

Rosen, who was sitting at the head of the table alongside Pence and DeSantis, was the first to speak from the hotel contingent. He provided his solution to how to get businesses up and running.

“I don’t think the answer is very complicated. We want everybody back to work as quickly as possible. How do we do that? We make an announcement that our goal is to get everyone back to work quickly,” he said. “Two provisions: 1) When you open your restaurant, your attraction, your hotel, screen every customer, client and guest that comes into your facility; 2) Every single day, screen every one of your employees to make sure they’re healthy. Is it that simple? Yeah. You have a clean environment, and the folks that are coming into your facility have been screened.”

He later added, “It seems overly simplistic, doesn’t it? If we don’t get people back to work quickly, it’s all over. Orlando is suffering, Orlando is struggling, the hospitality industry is in deep depression. I hope that restrictions will be, for all intents and purposes, eliminated, and the owners of the establishment are able to do what they believe is appropriate. If they are sloppy and people enter the establishment and are concerned, they will not patronize that facility. Isn’t that what free enterprise is all about?”

Gaekwad, whose company operates hotels in Ocala, FL, provided an example of one of his properties, a Holiday Inn, to show the VP and governor how devastating the pandemic has been to his business.

“My occupancy in 2019 in April was 75%—and this is in the middle of nowhere. This year, my occupancy in April is 12%,” he said. “I am so grateful that [the government]gave us PPP (Payroll Protection Program) money, but I have no mathematical knowledge of how to use it because there is no guest in my room. How do I get my employees to serve them? My employees are ready, but who would they serve? That is our biggest dilemma.”

He added, “In April 2019, I did $340,000 in revenue. In April 2020, I did $38,000. My monthly installment with the bank is $107,000. How do I cope? I don’t know. I’ll use whatever resources and I’ll do it.”

Dow pointed out that the travel industry is set to lose $520 billion, 45% of revenue, this year, and said, “If we could shrink the recovery from two years down to a year, it will mean to the U.S. economy $2 billion to $3 billion and two million jobs.”

He then proposed what is needed for the industry to begin the recovery process. “We absolutely need limited, short-term protection from COVID-19 liability,” he said. “These people cannot get back to work unless they are certain they cannot be sued, and we have to expand PPP. It was good, but it left out the convention bureaus.”

Rosen Remarks on Roundtable, Recovery
Hotel Business caught up with Rosen to further discuss his views on where his business, and the industry as a whole, is and where it must go in order to return to the levels of pre-pandemic success, or get close to it.

Of the response of the country to the pandemic, he said, “I’m not sure that we’ve handled it in the best possible way, and now, clearly, it seems to me what we need to do is try to get back to normal. We do that by encouraging every size business to open and get the economy open again.”

The executive, who started out in the hotel industry by purchasing a motel for $20,000—his entire life savings to that point—noted that he has been able to pay the employees that he has had to furlough.

“I have seven of my eight hotels closed. I’m paying a very significant part of associates, most of their salaries, and I’m spending $6 million every month to keep seven hotel closed and one open,” he said. “There’s just so long I could do that. But I’m going to keep on doing that until I have no money in the bank.”

He reiterated what he said during the roundtable about what needs to be done in order for businesses to get up and running, and for consumers to return.

“I hope we come to our senses and say that there is a way to be safe and to open. It’s not terribly complicated. Screen your employees and screen everyone entering your business,” he said. “I don’t care what the business is, you screen them when they come in. And then you let the businesses determine what restrictions they want. If they want masks on all associates, God bless them. If they want masks on all of their customers, God bless them. If they want a 6-ft. distance, God bless them. Whatever it is they believe is appropriate for that particular business, let them do it. The government shouldn’t be involved. They could give us some guidelines, but not requirements.”

He added, “You can walk into supermarkets right now, and you don’t have to do anything. They might have their own restrictions. Why can’t hotels do the same thing? Why can’t restaurants do the same thing? Why are they treated differently than we are?”

Much of Rosen Hotels & Resorts business comes from conventions. The Rosen Centre is attached to the Orange County Convention Center, and all of the company’s hotels house conference attendees. The CEO voiced his displeasure on the restrictions that have been placed on the building.

“We have the second largest convention center in the U.S. Do you know how many people we are allowed to have there in a gathering [right now]? Ten. It can accommodate 200,000 people,” he said. “What is that? But can you let everyone in? No, you screen everybody before they get in. You screen all of your employees on a regular basis, and you have some semblance of security.”

His hotels, like many others all over the world, have upgraded their cleaning and sanitation policies and, he noted, “That’s what we are going to continue doing forever. Everyone can do it and everyone should do it. There are all kinds of new technologies for cleaning and we are adhering to all of them to make sure that when a guest leaves the room, it is absolutely spotless and sanitized for the next guest arriving. For all of our rooms, ballrooms and restaurants, we are making sure that they are absolutely clean and sanitized as they can possibly be.”

For now, Rosen is waiting for restrictions to be lifted so his hotels can open and things can slowly get back to normal. When asked how long that would take, Rosen said, “If the screening plan is implemented in the next 30 days, within four to six months, we will be about 60-70% back to where we were [before the pandemic]. If we don’t, my great fear is that we will never, ever get back to where we were.”