As the Government crunches the numbers and comes up with an economic policy response to Covid-19, a dispute between two government agencies means New Zealand has been without a key accommodation statistic for the whole crisis
Our accommodation sector is struggling under the weight of Covid-19, or at least we think it is. Nobody really knows because a survey of hotel occupancy was cancelled last year in a cost-cutting move.
The country won’t see those numbers again until the second half of 2020 according to a press release from MBIE this week.
A tourism industry spokeswoman said the chickens were “coming home to roost” after the Government’s decision to ditch a crucial accommodation survey due to cost concerns. Industry and policymakers would now have to make decisions without that information at the start of a major economic slump.
The Commercial Accommodation Monitor (CAM) measured commercial accommodation activity at national, regional and lower levels every month. That included guest night numbers, capacity, number of establishments and occupancy rates.
All of it was information hotels reported monthly as part of Stat’s NZ’s accommodation survey, until the survey was axed.
Stats NZ canned the survey in September because of a dispute between itself and MBIE over the cost of running it.
The stoush was highlighted last year by Tourism Industry Aotearoa who said they were “shocked” the survey had been pulled.
“The sudden and unexpected removal of a key information source for the tourism industry is hugely disappointing, and the decision must be reversed,” a TIA press release said at the time.
“Stats NZ has used a new methodology for calculating what it costs to carry out this and other surveys, and wanted to charge MBIE more,” they said.
“MBIE was not prepared to pay. As a result of this dispute between the two government agencies, collection of the CAM data is to cease at the end of September.”
Minister of Statistics James Shaw wasn’t available for comment on Friday.
However, National’s spokesman for Statistics Dr Jian Yang believed the Government had ‘saved a penny to lose a pound’ when it axed the survey.
“The tourism industry is experiencing a sea change because of Covid-19 and businesses desperately need assistance from the Government now and possibly for months,” he said.
“It is now difficult for the Government to provide targeted support to particularly businesses and regions, due to the lack of the information which had been previously available for 27 years.”
During a Governance and Administration select committee meeting in June, Shaw said Stats NZ was in a “very cost-constrained environment”.
“The last time that survey was costed was 13 years ago. It was about a $2 million survey of which Stats NZ picked up the tab for about $1.5 million,” Shaw said during the meeting.
Shaw said the survey only picked up half of the industry because it didn’t include things like Airbnbs so wasn’t cost-effective for the expense.
Data from private firms indicated those CAM numbers might not look so good had they been collected in February.
“That was a vital source of information for the industry, particularly an industry that actually is surprisingly short of official data and research.”
Datamine’s Retailwatch survey showed card spending on travel and accommodation for the month was down 15 percent on the same time last year.
A spokesman for Stats NZ said they had no more comments to make on the issue of CAM other than those in the press release announcing their decision nine months ago.
TIA spokeswoman Ann-Marie Johnson said CAM data would be useful at the present time although she acknowledged there were issues with it, like the fact that it didn’t capture data on Airbnbs.
“That was a vital source of information for the industry, particularly an industry that actually is surprisingly short of official data and research,” Johnson said.
“And yeah, and it’s certainly coming home to roost.”
Infometrics economist Brad Olsen said there were good reasons for changing the CAM and moving to another survey but criticised the fact that there was no crossover period between the new survey and the old one.
“The CAM was last done in September, we’re now halfway through March 2020 so we’ve had six months worth of who knows what’s happened,” Olsen said.
“When we get the new numbers, we’re still gonna have a gap.”
Not just a gap, but less of an understanding of how the new way of collecting data might compare to the old, he said.
MBIE announced on Thursday that it had chosen a new provider for CAM, which would now be called the Accommodation Data Programme (ADP) and not run by Stats NZ. The first set of data in it was set to be released in the second half of 2020.
Eileen Basher, general manager evidence and insights at MBIE said the organisation had worked constructively with the tourism industry to find a short term solution to support it while a new product was being developed.
“As we have said publicly previously, a data gap is unfortunate,” Basher said in a statement.
“The evaluation panel members considered it more important that we find a long-term robust solution that works for the sector,” she said.
Johnson said there were few other regular pieces of public data available that measured the health of the tourism industry, although she noted TIA had its own data that was made available to members only.
‘It’s a bit of a black box’
Others in the industry have also criticised the lack of data available on the accommodation and hospitality sector during the Covid-19 crisis.
Adrian Turner, general manager for Quest Apartment Hotels NZ said it was “disappointing” the Government had pulled funding for the commercial accommodation monitor especially in light of Covid-19.
“[It] essentially means that we, along with other groups, have no data on how our sector is performing which further increases the uncertainty,” Turner said.
Sense Partners economist Shamubeel Eaqub said CAM data was not better than other private sources of spending data such as card data, that provided better immediate and detailed information.
However, he noted CAM was still important because it helped confirm the accuracy of other pieces of data.
Eaqub said CAM was a comprehensive census of the accommodation sector and was collated by a trusted public entity. All of that made it unique and important.
“They [Stats NZ] give us a consistent way of measuring, a comparable way of measuring, and an accessible way of getting to the data,” Eaqub said.
“With private data suppliers we don’t know, right? It’s a bit of a black box.”