The typical ratepayer thinks of ‘council’ as the people who fix roads and footpaths, award (delay!) building consents, operate libraries, deal with animal and noise control, maintain parks and sportsgrounds, get rid of stormwater and wastewater.
But our councils are also marketing machines, spending millions to promote events and attractions, lure tourists and businesses to the Bay, and of course sell themselves and their pet projects to the public.
We have five such marketing machines in Hawke’s Bay with, not surprisingly, a fair degree of overlap and duplication. BayBuzz decided to dig into two of them – the Hastings and Napier City Councils – that we expect would devote the most resources to selling their wares.
However, getting a full and accurate picture of the marketing spend of just these two councils proved to be a challenge. Amalgamation anyone?!
What do councils market?
We began, using the Official Information Act (OIA), by asking the Hastings and Napier councils for a “listing of all promotional activities – designed to promote the Hastings (or Napier) brand, specific Hastings (or Napier) attractions and events; or to attract visitors, immigrants, businesses, or investment to Hastings (or Napier) – financed in whole or in part by HDC (or NCC)”.
We asked for the amounts expended on these activities. We narrowed the request to the latest full fiscal year, ending 30 June 2012.
We made our OIA request back on 5 October 2012. In theory – I stress, in theory – councils have 20 working days to reply to OIA requests.
From that day forward, this investigation became a tale of two cities.
The information from the Hastings Council has been fulsome, and paints a fairly complete picture of the scope and cost of that council’s marketing programme.
The Napier City Council has elected to stonewall the request.
We’ll take each in turn.
Hastings Council Marketing
By BayBuzz reckoning, HDC spent about $3.6 million on ‘marketing’ in FY2012. Where did it go?
The Hastings Council hosts a discrete Marketing, Communications and Events Department, with an annual budget (FY12) of $1,028,469, which includes $355,231 for personnel. These folks do anything from placing adverts regarding upcoming council meetings or the need to conserve water to planning public consultation around council initiatives.
Also in that amount is promotional support totalling $265,763 for specific events.
The Council’s view would be that such events are ratepayer supported because they build community spirit and/or attract visitors (i.e., revenue) to the district.
Event promotion is a sensitive subject around Hawke’s Bay. After all, Hawke’s Bay Tourism is ratepayer supported to the tune of $850,000 per year to attract visitors, and key to their strategy is ensuring signature events with major drawing power from outside the region.
An ‘event strategy’ – intended to upgrade the Bay’s events offering and encourage more visitors outside our peak summer season – was already on the ‘to do’ list when Hawke’s Bay Tourism was founded in July 2010. When the strategy finally emerged in mid-2012, none of the councils wished to fund a staff position to implement it. Mayors Yule and Arnott proposed a ‘bed tax’ to support such activities, an idea that has gone nowhere (and is opposed by HB Tourism).
Kevin Murphy, commercial manager at Sport Hawke’s Bay, has been a strong proponent of developing, implementing and funding a regional events strategy.
See his assessment on the next page.
Beyond events, the Hastings Council supports key facilities that aim to attract and satisfy happy, or at least entertained, visitors and residents.
Splash Planet received a FY12 subsidy of $1.1 million. The Hawke’s Bay Opera House received $690,000. And the Hastings I-Site cost $344,000.
Promoting the business of Council
Apart from the fun stuff, HDC must market its own day-to-day business – official meetings, road closures, important announcements – to Hastings residents.
Much of this communication occurs through newspaper and radio advertising – about $178,000 and $104,000 respectively – and websites.
Website development accounted for approximately $77,000 in direct expense in FY12. Additionally, maintaining the content on core sites (HDC itself and MyChoice) requires partial attention from four staff. And meantime, still other costs are associated with operating and maintaining websites for facilities like the I-Site, library, Splash Planet, and the Hastings City Art Gallery.
Finally, the Council spent $38,345 on printing and distributing the HDC’s monthly publication, My Hastings. Editorial resourcing for that publication is absorbed in various staff roles.
Attracting business and investment
HDC devotes some staff time and apparently minimal cash to promoting inward business development.
As its chief expense, Council supports Business Hawke’s Bay to the tune of $40,000 per year. HDC has also contributed to projects to promote the Whakatu and Irongate Industrial Parks ($10,000), Icehouse (a business grower, $5,000), an E-Commerce initiative ($2,000), a video and brochures for the Chinese market on business opportunities and general information about Hawke’s Bay ($2,500).
Finally, a delegation to Hong Kong and China to develop trade opportunities cost $12,113.
As noted at the top, all of these marketing expenses add up to approximately $3.6 million for the Hastings Council. How does that compare to the Napier City Council? If only we knew!
Napier City Council Marketing
The BayBuzz Official Information Act request to the Napier City Council produced one meager reply, and then a series of evasions (more on that in a moment).
On its face, it is clear that NCC spends money on exactly the same kinds of promotional functions, facilities and activities as Hastings.
It supports major facilities like the HB Museum & Art Gallery, Aquarium, I-Site, Marineland, Par 2 MiniGolf, Kennedy Park, and War Memorial Conference Centre … to say nothing of $1 million on Art Deco buses.
It supports Art Deco itself, brochures for cruise passengers and sponsors other activities and promotions like “Ride of Your Life”, “Win a Weekend”, “Escape to Napier” and Sister Cities.
It communicates to its constituency through the web, its newsletter Proudly Napier, and the glossy Napier Life Magazine.
And it pays staff who plan and participate in various economic development activities aimed at increasing visitors and trade.
Yet it struggles to find financial documentation for all of this.
BayBuzz’s initial OIA request to Napier City Council – the same request that yielded all the information reported above from HDC – was forwarded to chief executive Neil Taylor. It seems only he can deal with such sensitive matters. That produced the following list of expenses:
That’s $254,100, with the caveats mentioned.
Mr Taylor indicated that he was unclear about what was a “promotional activity” and wrote: “I should note that the Council has a policy of charging for information requests but to short cut the process I am making the following information available to you in accordance with the first hour of staff time being provided at no cost … It would be possible for me to break these costs down and to scan the general ledger for other costs that may come within the wider definition of the term promotional activity but that will incur significant staff time and therefore costs to you.”
Since then, a bureaucratic dance has ensued, endorsed by Mayor Arnott and continuing to this writing, which we call “The Neil Taylor Shuffle”, documented on pages 30-31. No additional expense information has been provided.
Effectively, Mr Taylor is saying:
“Screw BayBuzz … go complain to the Ombudsman … see you in a year.”
True NCC marketing expenses
Meantime, when it suits Mr Taylor, information flows. At a meeting last November of NCC’s Tourism & Economic Development Committee, both David George, spokesman for the Napier Tourism Association, and Neville Smith, one of Napier’s and Art Deco’s leading champions, were sharply critical of Napier’s marketing efforts.
Clearly stung by the criticism, these figures were released to the Napier Mail and reported on 19 December:
- Napier ratepayers paid $340,000 to the Regional Council for ‘regional tourism’ and $191,000 for HBRC’s economic development programme. [Not clear what this is. HBRC might be surprised!]
- On top of that, said the Mail, $8.4 million was spent on “City Business Promotion”, although with charges back to the sector, only $2.2 million was paid by Napier ratepayers.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
As noted above, Napier City Council effectively mirrors the Hastings Council in the types of marketing expenditures it makes – websites, advertising, communications to residents, subsidies to various facilities and attractions. And by all appearances, Napier spends even more on tourism promotion – $1 million on faulty buses alone.
It’s not unreasonable to posit that, if Hastings is spending at the $3 million plus level on marketing, then Napier is spending at least as much.
If you then add in $1-2 million in marketing expenses for the Regional Council, you finally begin to get a true picture of the ridiculous state of affairs.
Are ratepayers getting maximum value for dollar? No way. Is there redundancy and duplication? You bet. Are there conflicting strategies and programmes? Absolutely.
The original BayBuzz OIA request also asked for “Any reports evaluating the results of such activities and expenditures.” HDC couldn’t think of any; NCC, as you’ve read, can’t even come up with the expense figures.
At its year-end meeting in 2012, NCC’s Tourism & Economic Development Committee reviewed an update on its 2009-2019 “Tourism Activity Strategic Plan”. It was pointed out – in the 15 minute or so discussion – that the key performance indicators (visitor goals, etc) were totally unrealistic.
The staff response: better to be aspirational! So much for evaluation. And we still can’t implement a regional events strategy.