But has it brought enough hospitality workers?
Not yet, said Shelly Green, the president and chief executive of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It has been a goal of (the DCVB) for a little over a year now to address the number of hospitality organizations that are having difficulty finding and keeping people to work in our hotels, restaurants, retail stores and visitor attractions,” Green said.
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“Durham has had a lot of growth over the past five years in the numbers of hotels and restaurants, and it can be difficult sometimes to find people to take the jobs.”
So, the DCVB has organized a hospitality job fair at the Durham Convention Center on Wednesday (Feb. 28). More than 30 employers will be trying to fill 350 jobs.
Durham’s economy has benefited greatly from visitors, who spent $928 million in the Bull City in 2016, a 5.5 percent increase from the year before, according to the DCVB.
That spending supported nearly 13,000 visitor-related jobs in 2016, according to the DCVB. Many of those have been downtown, which has seen a 281 percent increase in hotel rooms since 2008, going from 189 hotel rooms to 721.
But all of that growth has put a strain on available workers with hospitality experience in the area.
Building a workforce
The Durham Convention Center has multiple positions to fill, general manager Rebecca Bolton said.
“Sometimes we will get a bunch of people to apply, but they will have no experience in hospitality,” she said. “Even though it is not a very technical field it takes experience to know the important things – like how to properly address someone or how to serve a table properly.”
Bolton said the convention center has to compete with cities across the country to land events, which is why she values experience so much.
“We don’t have a huge hospitality community here traditionally,” Bolton said. “So that makes it tough to get experience.”
To help build that hospitality community, Durham Technical Community College created a new hospitality management program last fall. Students have to get 320 hours of hands-on experience to complete the two-year program.
“We heard there was need in the community from ... the hotel and convention bureaus in Durham and Orange counties, and we saw a shortage of jobs in those areas,” said Charlene C. West, dean of career and technical programs at Durham Tech.
“There has been an increase in the number of hotels in the area, and with that always comes more employment needs,” West said. “Having students that are trained to be that low-level management or supervisor helps with the (local) industry. They need to know what they are supervising – at all levels.”
Durham Tech is one of the main sponsors of Wednesday’s job fair, along with N.C. Central University, which also has a hospitality management program.
West said that it’s critical to have good local people in these jobs because they shape the experience for visitors.
“Those front-end people become the face of a hotel from the time you check in,” she said. “That person is going to be your impression of a hotel.”
But the program is still in its infancy, with only around 10 people enrolledfor its first semester, and it will take time for the program to contribute to the labor pool.
Bolton said thejob fair will be a great opportunity to search for experienced candidates.
If we can find them “we would hire multiple people,” she said.
Not having enough qualified hospitality workers has hurt Durham in some satisfaction surveys the DCVB conducts.
“If a hotel or restaurant is understaffed or fully staffed with people that are not necessarily the best fit for a customer-service job, the reaction from visitors here for the weekend or vacation isn't always so positive,” Green said. “People can tell you don't like your job or enjoy what you are doing.”
Green said DCVB closely monitors visitor satisfaction through various methods to compare itself with other cities and track performance.
“We have seen satisfaction levels in some national surveys – where we get a glimpse of Durham from a very small population – be less positive than we like,” she said. “We are looking for people to think (Durham) is the best place they have ever been rather than just saying, ‘Eh, it’s average.’”