With AEW events booked, Now Arena needs workers in Hoffman Estates
The shutdown that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic brought a number of unprecedented challenges to Hoffman Estates' newly rebranded Now Arena, and the long-awaited prospect of a busy fourth quarter of the year is bringing even more.
Top of the list: a scarcity of part-time labor that General Manager Ben Gibbs says has never been a factor on his radar before.
It's added a cloud to the silver linings that have been coming steadily from show promoters over the past several weeks.
Gibbs finds it ironic that while Labor Day is when normal business is expected to return to the arena, finding labor is his biggest problem.
He's unusually thankful that he has two months left to find a solution before three televised All Elite Wrestling events bring capacity crowds and the biggest single week of ticket sales the arena has yet seen.
Despite the tight labor market, Gibbs believes it's simply a challenge to be met rather than something that could reverse the good fortune of the bookings currently underway. He's confident ways will be found to make working at the arena appealing.
A change in the pay rate and other incentives seem likely for the ushers, ticket takers, box office staff and equipment crews he's seeking to attract. The arena also uses Andy Frain Services during events.
"We're prepared that this is the new normal and we just have to be more effective in our recruitment," Gibbs said.
Event staff have traditionally come from unemployed or underemployed workers who've also had restaurant, factory or similar jobs. But now all those industries are being affected by a labor shortage with an uncertain duration, Gibbs said.
The Hideaway Brew Garden and Bar, which the arena operates just across the road, has been a way to keep some food service staff employed in the absence of indoor events.
Both facilities are owned by the village of Hoffman Estates, and Mayor Bill McLeod said the outdoor beer garden is only one example of how quickly Now Arena management responded to the pandemic by bringing drive-in events and other safe activity to the grounds over the past 16 months.
"They were actually pretty nimble," McLeod said.
Gibbs is an employee of Philadelphia-based Spectra, a company whose portfolio includes about 750 venue management clients across the United States and beyond.
He said his access to such a broad range of experience assisted throughout the pandemic.
While Spectra's use of best practices and technology helped in creating and maintaining new hygiene protocols, the differing regulations throughout the country made a single companywide approach to COVID-19 elusive.
In contrast to Illinois, some less populous states were relatively untouched by COVID-19 restrictions and their event venues opened much more quickly.
While the initial reopening experiences of those facilities were of little immediate value to Gibbs, the trial-and-error of their adaptation to new realities are helping him now. He's grateful in retrospect to have not been among the company's guinea pigs on reopening protocols and practices.
"We didn't waste a lot of time or spend money we shouldn't," Gibbs said.
In fact, the biggest changes the Hoffman Estates arena has made since the March 2020 shutdown had nothing to do with the pandemic.
Ten months ago, Bloomingdale-based Now Health Group Inc. officially succeeded Sears as the naming-rights partner of the 11,000-seat arena after signing a 15-year, $11.25 million deal with the village. This resulted in extensive rebranding both inside and outside the building.