Nebraska’s leisure & hospitality industry hits record job stride after pandemic plunge

By: - June 12, 2023 5:45 am

Steelhouse live entertainment venue, which is Omaha Performing Arts’ third major facility in the downtown of Nebraska’s biggest city, opened this year, bringing jobs and business to the area. (Courtesy of Tom Kessler)

OMAHA — Concert-goers lined up from places ranging from Texas, Minnesota and even the United Kingdom when the Steelhouse opened recently as Omaha Performing Arts’ third major venue.

Hotels and diners in the area welcomed the $100 million-plus music hall to the downtown neighborhood via social media that also let visitors know their businesses were just a skip away.

Crowd at the grand opening performance earlier this year at Omaha Steelhouse. (Courtesy of Debra Kaplan)

It’s the kind of bustle that calls for job reinforcements and support staff. And according to new employment data and industry experts, it’s a momentum growing in leisure, recreation and arts circles elsewhere in Nebraska, too.

“We have seen the industry come roaring back since COVID,” said Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts, also known as O-pa. “We’ve rehired the positions we had to lay off and we’ve added.”

Indeed, the latest from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that employment in Nebraska’s leisure and hospitality industry not only surpassed the pre-pandemic high earlier this year, but around March it exceeded 97,000 for the first time. 

‘Good mark’

The seasonally adjusted job count in leisure and hospitality —  a “supersector” that includes arts, entertainment, recreation, lodging and food services — dipped a bit later but has been trending around the all-time high for the last few months.

To be sure, many say that competition for workers overall remains fierce, and if not addressed, could hamper further economic growth.

Still, those familiar with leisure and hospitality view the milestone in that industry as particularly notable given the disproportionate blow the pandemic dealt to the businesses that depend upon social and public interaction.

“This is the sector that took the biggest dive nationwide, so it’s a good mark for Nebraska,” said Michael Lucci, senior policy adviser of the Platte Institute of Nebraska.

Trend line shows job climb in Nebraska’s leisure and hospitality supersector, following plummet when COVID struck in early 2020. (Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Labor)

In the few months after the virus struck in early 2020, the state’s leisure and hospitality industry saw a drastic drop of about 40,000 positions. 

Lucci said Nebraska has performed 13th best nationally in terms of job growth in the leisure  and hospitality market since the pandemic-induced plunge. 

He said 31 states have yet to get back to the employment levels they saw in those areas before March 2020.

More broadly — and considering employment in all economic sectors including leisure — Nebraska regained its pre-pandemic footing last fall.

Today, 1.04 million Nebraskans are employed.

‘Going to require a lot more…”

Bryan Slone of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that while such recovery is good news, he notes that Nebraska still has between 50,000 and 80,000 open jobs.

Federal data shows two available Nebraska jobs for every unemployed person looking. With the  state’s unemployment rate consistently among the lowest, Slone said it’s been tough to gain traction.

Various factors play into the worker shortage that’s also impacting states nationwide, say Slone and others. Many older workers didn’t return to the labor force after the pandemic struck.

Fewer working age Nebraskans are in the pipeline compared to decades past. And immigration has not been as robust.

Said Slone: “It’s going to require a lot more people to live and work in Nebraska.”

Even within the leisure and hospitality industry, not every sector is feeling the same bounce.

Zoe Olson, executive director at the Nebraska Hospitality Association, says restaurants and hotels, for example, continue to struggle to get workers back.

Hiring sign
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Industry leaders, she said, don’t expect a return to the old days and are adjusting to a “new normal” — that includes trimming hours of operation and automating more services.

Robotic busboys have entered the local scene, she said, and customers more often place orders via electronic devices than a live waiter.

With customer experience still being the driver of hospitality-focused businesses, Olson said, merchants are leaning on creativity. She cited an app that tracks when a car pulls up for a pickup order, enabling the restaurant staff to pack the freshest meal possible.

“We just don’t have the bodies,” Olson said. “We are looking at how to do things differently, and technology will play a big part.”

Takes away ‘everyday stresses’

Meanwhile, arts and recreation subsectors may have rebounded faster relative to many states because Nebraska was not as restrictive during the pandemic, Lucci said.

Squires said public events and leisure activities satisfy pent-up demand.

“Entertainment and the arts bring people together,” she said. “They want shared experiences.… It takes them away from everyday stresses.”

Mike Markey, CEO of Nebraska Arts Council, said he sees arts programming bouncing back among nonprofits, but increasingly with a boost from public grants.

Historically, Markey said, the council receives no more than 30 grant requests in a spring cycle, and this season got 42.

Shows at the West Nebraska Arts Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, are attracting more people. (Courtesy of WNAC)

Stephanie Coley, program manager at the West Nebraska Arts Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, said attendance at arts programs, camps and exhibits have “blossomed” at the center and doubled in some cases.

The challenge in her relatively small operation, she said, is that the few full-time staff workers and a growing volunteer team can’t keep up with demand.

“We’ve been getting people who have lived here 40 years and hadn’t been in before,” Coley said. “Morale is back. It’s exciting.”

Double shifts, more with less

Nebraska’s tourism director, John Ricks, says demand for recreation and other state attractions is rising. Tourism spending in the state grew, he said, from nearly $3.6 billion in 2021 to $4.4 billion in 2022.

Nebraska hosted about 500,000 more overnight guests in 2022 than the year before.

And, said Ricks, Memorial Day weekend, an indicator of how parks and recreational attractions will perform during the year, was “really strong.” 

The amount of travel-generated jobs still lags from earlier highs, though, Ricks said, primarily because of competition for labor.

He said many young workers are taking on double shifts, and businesses are doing more with less. For example, Ricks said, many hotels don’t automatically clean and service rooms daily.

Concert-goers gather inside Omaha Steelhouse concert venue. (Courtesy of Tom Kessler)

O-pa — boosted by big entertainment venues such as the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theater — expects to increase its annual economic impact from $48 million to $61 million now that its Steelhouse entertainment hall has opened.

Squires said the Steelhouse added five full-time positions and 92 part-time jobs to the overall payroll.

With other attractions including newly transformed downtown Omaha parks and the Kiewit Luminarium science museum along the banks of the Missouri River, Squires said she’s eager for further growth in the leisure and hospitality market.

Slone, the chamber leader, said he sees potential, as well, but notes the need to find better ways to recruit labor and nurture talent. 

“The trendline is getting better,” Slone said. “We still have a pretty significant workforce need.”


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.