Recalibrating Summertime Crowds

Episode 81 | October 13, 2020

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Transcript

Episode 81 | October 13, 2020

There were a lot of people in Tahoe this past summer. And there still are. In fact, many proclaim “shoulder seasons” in Tahoe have ceased to exist now that COVID-19 has pushed people to work remotely.

I’m Alex Hoeft, news reporter for Moonshine Ink with today’s Minutes based on my own reporting.  

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In the article I wrote previously about summer’s COVID-triggered crowds, titled Is Tahoe Actually More Crowded than Summers Past? available on moonshineink.com, data presented a mixed bag. The piece looked at short-term rental inhabitants, traffic counts, and wastewater flows, which showed visitation was seemingly down, but trash pickup and recreational shops — not to mention the anecdotal stories of streets and beaches busier than ever — touted a rise. 

But if the data didn’t whistle the same exact tune as what things seemed, where were the people? As it turns out, many took to the woods. The Tahoe National Forest saw record-breaking capacity, both in organized and dispersed spots. Extra people in homes surely played a role in the overall uptick, too, especially since Moonshine learned that the original sewer flow data provided by the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency had some calibration errors.

With that all in mind, however, one point remains clear: There is no current data system in place to account for everyone.

Some data lags — for example, collection of the Transient Occupancy Tax is always a few months behind and only covers those staying in short-term rentals. The Town of Truckee and Placer County collect TOT taxes on a quarterly basis, thus numbers for July 1 through September 30 won’t be available until the end of the year.

Numbers that are more current simply aren’t all-encompassing. 

“It’s complicated,” said Steven Poncelet, public information officer for the Truckee-Donner Public Utility District. I had reached out to the TDPUD to acquire energy and water data as a way to catch more visitorship info, but Poncelet pointed to the unreliability of those sets. Water use in the summer isn’t accurate due to irrigation, he said; and energy use is dominated by the weather and economy.

Not only is the delayed data of the TOT, sales tax, and other information not helpful to leadership during an emergency, it’s also frustrating to community members who are seeing and feeling the heat of such a visitor influx.

Hence, our ongoing dive into the data.

In mid-September, the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency provided influent flow data for summer months over the past five years, the numbers showing a mostly downward trend in the amount of water swirling down the drain from showers, sinks, and toilets.

But after receiving initial data from the TTSA, we learned that the agency recently underwent an influent water meter recalibration, meaning there’s an inconsistency between the 2020 and previous years’ readings.

Michael Peak, operations department manager with the TTSA, explained that when the influent water meter was first installed, it was done incorrectly and the readings showed what he thinks is an increase of 300,000 to 500,000 gallons per day. The recalibration, performed this past February, means the 2020 numbers originally given to the Ink are correct, but the previous years’ data wasn’t a fair comparison.

Effluent flow is the water leaving a treatment plan (once it’s been cleaned) via the Truckee River. This number, Peak said, would be more reliable than the recalibrated influent numbers. According to data provided by the TTSA, the summer months for 2020 started out the fourth-lowest in the last five years, and began to surpass other years by August. Come just last month, 2020 ended up as hosting the second-highest effluent flow count (just behind 2017).

While many enjoyed summertime weather on the beaches of local lakes, others headed to campgrounds, formal and informal, to participate in their physically distant activities, and a significant uptick was noted here. The Tahoe National Forest experienced skyrocketing visitation this past summer.

The TNF analyzed occupancy for four campgrounds, and compared them between 2019 and 2020, from Father’s Day weekend through July.

  • Granite Flat Campground saw a 207% increase in occupancy
  • Logger Campground saw a 152% increase
  • French Meadows Campground saw a 432% increase
  • Lewis Campground saw a 300% increase 

Joe Flannery, public affairs officer with the TNF, explained that not only were most campgrounds 100% reserved over the weekends, many were also reserved midweek during peak season (that is, June and July).

While the collection (and thus monitoring) of short-term rental occupancy only comes quarterly to the Town of Truckee and Placer County via TOT, many community members have been pointing to AirDNA as a more up-to-date source.

AirDNA is a company that uses vacation rental data and insights to help subscribers understand their markets for STRs, specifically Airbnb and VRBO/HomeAway. The algorithm used takes into account 16 different criteria by looking at the historical data set, explained Kristina Sprindyte of AirDNA in an email. The criteria includes such markers as the length of the booking, the booking lead time, and the historical performance of the property.

Sprindyte told Moonshine that the change in booking behavior when the pandemic began worldwide took the form of massive STR cancellations or countrywide blocks to comply with government regulations. The company is still seeing fragmented responses regarding booking behavior.

She continued, “We have subsequently augmented this information with data partnerships and channel managers who see several hundred thousand reservations. This is the machine-learning component of our algorithm that continues to make it more accurate, to adjust for changes in booking behavior over time, for example, and ensures that our algorithm continues to be the most accurate on the market.”

Regarding Truckee’s overall occupancy rate, AirDNA shows a 67% increase between November 2019 and August 2020. Tahoe City had a 70% increase; Incline Village, 69%; and Kings Beach, also 69% — all during the same date frame.

The company touts an overall 5% margin of error, but Sprindyte said this number for the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t be fair to surmise internally at this point. Rather, she said that should be performed by an external company.

Criticisms of AirDNA say the company’s reports inflate numbers. For example Cornell Hospitality Quarterly study released in October 2018 argued that AirDNA “overstates the performance of the short-term lodging sector.”

Poncelet with the public utility district told me, “All this data, none of it answers the question [of how many people are in town] directly. Some of it might capture the day visitor and others wouldn’t.”

But the TDPUD is working with other agencies to get a better answer for understanding how many people are in the area at any given time.

Poncelet explained the agencies involved seek to combine all their data, and then turn “to the engineers, statisticians, and analysts, asking, can we combine this data in a way this makes sense?”

The timeline for such a sought-after feat is months down the road. And whether it’s something the agencies could knock out quickly or not, Poncelet said he didn’t know.The full piece, A Recalibration of Visitor Numbers, is on our website at moonshineink.com. There you can find more data, graphs, and insight on 2020’s Tahoe Crowds.

 

 

 

 

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