The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Center for Customized Research and Services normally works with businesses and organizations to learn more about their customers, from assessing their satisfaction to getting feedback on a new product idea. In April, the center drew statewide attention through its
UW-Oshkosh COVID-19 Economic Impact Survey that looked at how businesses were affected by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic slowdown.
Jeffrey Sachse, interim director of UW-Oshkosh’s CCRS, developed the survey and shares the insights he’s gained from the results and provides a deeper look at how businesses have been affected long term by COVID-19.
How did the idea of the COVID-19 business survey develop?
Jeffrey Sachse: The survey came out intuitively. Carrie Rule (CCRS outreach manager) and I were having a conversation on the Wednesday before everything was shut down. We saw some of the stronger restrictions going into place in Madison and Milwaukee. My wife is a science teacher and had started hearing about a possible school closure. It was something we wanted to keep an eye on. Once Safer at Home went into place, we decided to survey the pool of companies we regularly work with and see how the shutdown was affecting them. We wanted to capture that point of time since it was all unprecedented. We started this whole thing off with the intention that it would be temporary.
I was surprised by those first results — businesses were totally unprepared for what was going on. They couldn’t find the information they needed, and there was concern about liquidity and how long everything would be closed.
Since the beginning, the survey has had 14 questions that have pretty much stayed the same so we can compare the data. We’ve had some slight language changes, such as in July we changed the wording from “financial losses” to “financial changes,” so if a business is seeing something positive, they can relate that.
That initial survey went to organizations in Winnebago and Fond du Lac counties that you worked with. How did the COVID-19 survey go statewide?
Barb LaMue of New North, Inc. and Mary Kohrell, the current president of NEWREP and community economic development director of Calumet County, and I had a discussion about how we could increase business involvement in the survey across the New North. Barb mentioned it to her other regional economic development colleagues and soon I was working with Paul Jadin of MadREP in the Madison area, too. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. later came in as a partner and the survey went statewide. This all happened fairly quickly in a couple of weeks. The WEDC saw the survey as a source for the information the legislature was asking them about the economic impact of COVID-19. The WEDC, in fact, used the survey information in their report to the legislature at the end of June that looked at the complex ongoing economic impact of the coronavirus and identified priorities for the state’s recovery efforts.
Anytime a crisis hits, leadership does what it can to mitigate the problems. With the survey, we were able to focus on the 30,000-foot level of the state’s business community. We view the survey as doing two things — providing us with data to measure how businesses are doing as well as gathering information on businesses’ specific needs and getting that to those who can help.
We initially started out with the idea of the survey lasting only four months, but things are coming back more slowly as the number of (coronavirus) cases continue to increase. We could be doing this for the next year.
Has the survey changed over time or are you regularly asking the same questions?
There are some numbers we ask for every month that help provide us with a way to track some basic data, such as how capital is flowing, to provide us with a snapshot in time. We have a solid response base of 500 companies that respond every time, plus there are others that participate for a month or two, take a month off and come back again or those that just participate once, so it’s a good mix. In July, we decided that in addition to asking some of those “snapshot in time” questions, we would add in a question about business and personal travel since that information was helpful to the hospitality industry. When the July numbers came back showing most companies have cut all business travel for the rest of the year and are looking at doing the same entering into 2021, that provides hotel operators with good information as they consider how much of their hotels to reopen. Why open two-thirds of my hotel if we can’t fill it? They may decide to stay as is.
What surprised you the most with the survey?
In April and May when we were under Safer at Home, I knew the economic hit would be severe but thought it would be short term. Businesses went from 60 to zero and then had to go from zero to 60. The latter is more challenging. Businesses may know how to slow or stop operations, but starting them up again is a lot harder. There’s a lot of guesswork that’s happening now.