people working in restaurant

Hospitality Workforce Recruitment Campaign Serves Success
Restaurants and hotels are filling jobs with the help of $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds

Author: Jessie Holmes

Chefs, mixologists, and hotel managers are sharing their stories in an effort to rebuild the industry they love after COVID-19. From a restaurant hostess turned general manager in Wrightsville Beach, to a Marine veteran who found a new calling in hotel service, the message behind the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s (NCRLA) campaign “Serving Careers” has clearly resonated. Since its launch in October 2023, it’s directly led to 687,084 job applications at restaurants and hotels across the state.

“The campaign was so powerful because it was real,” says Steve Thanhauser, NCRLA board member and co-owner of the iconic Angus Barn in Raleigh. “They talked to real people in every facet of the industry about why it means so much to them, how it’s helped them accomplish their goals. And people never forget a great story.”

Thanhauser says the campaign has directly fed his restaurant over 700 job applicants, an especially stark turnaround when compared to the months and years following the pandemic. In North Carolina, hospitality experienced a nearly 50% reduction in its workforce between March and April of 2020. Even when customers began to feel safe enough to return, and restrictions eased, many restaurants and hotels still struggled to rehire enough staff.

“We were gutted. We couldn’t find help,” says Thanhauser. “We couldn’t figure out a way individually, on our own, how to get back to being fully staffed.”

The Vision Behind “Serving Careers”

Focus Group
Before launching its campaign, the NCRLA used a portion of its American Rescue Plan grant to conduct virtual and in-person town halls and focus groups to better understand the challenges facing the industry and how to target its messaging to potential new employees.

The NCRLA brought the concerns of Angus Barn and 20,000 other member businesses to the North Carolina General Assembly, which recognized the urgent need for a coordinated recruitment effort. When the state directly received $5.4 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds in 2021, lawmakers appropriated $5 million for the NCRLA to rebuild the industry’s workforce. The grant was administered by the North Carolina Department of Revenue, with oversight and administrative support from the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office.

First, the NCRLA held virtual and in-person town halls and focus groups to gather information from business owners and employees about why they enjoyed their jobs and the benefits of a hospitality career. They also spoke with former employees about why they had left and what it would take to lure them back. Finally, they heard from people who had never worked in the industry to uncover perceptions, negative and positive, about working in hospitality.

“We did our homework,” says NCRLA president Lynn Minges. “The second part was to develop messaging. What is going to resonate with these audiences we’re trying to reach?”

The NCRLA hired Greensboro-based Pace Communications to produce a multi-platform advertising campaign centered around real hospitality workers. The campaign included video interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and photos to capture authentic on-the-job experiences. Every type and size of hospitality business was included, from the smallest mom-and-pop diners to North Carolina-based breakfast chain Biscuitville. Several of Thanhauser’s employees also participated, including his daughter who serves as the Angus Barn Events Coordinator.

“What it kept coming to is that hospitality is a passion,” says Thanhauser. “It’s an honorable profession. It’s incredibly flexible. But we’re not just going to tell you that, we’re going to show you.”

Recruitment Campaign Benefits All 100 Counties

Serving Careers billboard
The Serving Careers workforce recruitment campaign included billboards across the state, in addition to advertisements through streaming video, TV, radio, and job fair appearances.

In October 2023, the “Serving Careers” campaign launched everywhere – social media, TV, radio, billboards, bus ads – ultimately driving more than 600,000 people to the website. Once there, they could explore the many stories the NCRLA had collected, and search and apply for current job openings through a custom Indeed portal that aggregated restaurant and hotel postings by location. Minges says their research had found the majority of NCRLA’s members already used Indeed to post jobs. A “Serving Careers” recruitment team also attended eight job fairs.

Their strategy worked, leading to job application starts in all 100 counties. Regionally, there have been:

  • 223,383 application starts in the Triangle
  • 218,258 application starts in the Charlotte metro area
  • 141,311 application starts in the Triad
  • 46,856 application starts in the Greenville-New Bern-Washington market
  • 27,170 application starts in the Asheville region
  • 13,161 application starts in the Wilmington market 

“We're really proud that this campaign has reached every single nook and cranny of our state,” says Minges.

While the paid promotion of “Serving Careers” ended in May 2024, the website and its jobs portal will remain active through May 2025. Even then, the state’s investment will pay off for years to come, helping buoy an industry vital to North Carolina’s economy.

The very qualities that made restaurants and hotels so vulnerable to the pandemic – gathering in person, sharing food and conversation in close quarters – is also its strength. Hospitality generates $34 billion in annual sales, which translates to more tax revenue for North Carolina communities. Thanhauser says they’re grateful for the support in welcoming people back.

“We make memories. But we can only do that if we have great staff,” says Thanhauser.

Visit the Serving Careers website

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