Tana Gall, president of Seattle-based retirement community management company Leisure Care, made the leap into the senior living industry almost 19 years ago after being lured away from a job in advertising and marketing.
Since then, she has used her extensive knowledge of her own company and the industry as a whole as she leads Leisure Care into the future of senior living, especially during a crucial time when providers and management companies are figuring out how to attract the aging baby boomers.
During her tenure at Leisure Care, Gall has gained familiarity with just about every position through holding multiple roles, she says, attributing her experience to Leisure Care owner and chairman Dan Madsen who had “an even bigger vision” for Gall than she had for herself.
“He knew if I could get into the details of what every position at our company did—from dishwasher to health and wellness aide to operations director—it’d give me an overall flavor of the business,” she says, adding that she learned a lot about “every single position in our company” before getting back onto a marketing path and rising through the ranks to vice president of marketing, to senior vice president of the company, to president in April 2010.
Read on for Gall’s thoughts on the senior living industry’s growth potential, strategies to attract younger residents, and how boomers will shape the market’s offerings.
Senior Housing News: Leisure Care’s “parent”/umbrella company, One Eighty, does a variety of hospitality-oriented divisions. What’s your perspective on the senior living market compared to others in terms of growth potential and stability under economic downturns?
Tana Gall: Leisure Care is the largest company under the One-Eighty umbrella, and it’s the original one. One Eighty was created because we saw the hospitality businesses we were providing were limited to those who lived with us. We didn’t want to limit our services—it made more sense to create a parent company where more people can participate in other programs such as PrimeFit, or Twist Travel, where seniors [beyond those in Leisure Care communities] can take advantage of excellent group travel.
What we’ve got going for us in senior housing is sheer demographics. A lot of people getting older every day, and will either need or choose our services.
SHN: How are you going to attract younger residents?
TG: [That] has become more important in the last few years. Leisure Care is primarily independent living, and during the recession that was tough. We’re asking people to make a choice to move in, not because they need to but because they want to. That’s hard—getting people in is the hardest thing.
In how we brand our company, we’re trying to break down stereotypes. I have a feeling a lot of people don’t consider ours or other products in our industry because they have a preconceived notion that’s not correct.
We built our branding around our actual product. We didn’t make brand and try to live up to it—we built our brand around what we already did.
My favorite thing to do in our communities is to sit in the bistro and watch new prospects walk through the door. Nine times out of ten it’s an aha moment—they don’t see what they expected to see. It’s not an old folks home. That’s a victory.
SHN: Is Leisure Care planning on including assisted living in more communities to facilitate residents’?
Within the service component, we’ve got assisted living in some of our communities, but we want to expand those communities. We have a guest services directory in each community, as we’re mostly independent living, and we continue to refine what those services might be, whether it’s getting your car detailed for you, to dog walking, to personal shopping—what are those next services that people want?
Long before the recession even [began], in most of our independent living communities we had great partnerships with local home health and PE or PT providers, because I think that’s a great service to offer. During economic downturn, in our independent living communities, we fared fine through the recession, probably because we did have some of those services to offer even though they weren’t [proprietary].
For us, the harder problem was prospects’ ability to sell their homes. About 80% of the people living with us had to sell their home before moving in. Many couldn’t, and it slowed us down.
We do continue look at partnering with excellent providers. We want to meet the needs of residents with everything they might need, whether it’s home health or access to medical needs—the dentist, doctor, whatever services they might need. In all of our independent living communities we have partnerships with home health providers.
SHN: Leisure Care prides itself on innovation and happy customers. How is that going to look going forward as you’re seeking to attract the baby boomers, who are very ‘me’-oriented?
TG: We ask ourselves this question every day. We just had a meeting with 12 general managers and sales advisors and talked about this: How do we decide what the next great thing is?
The trick to our business is getting the person who hasn’t even considered moving into a retirement community yet. Those are the people we’re going to need to appeal to. We look at what’s successful in our communities now, and how do we make those better.
When I started in the industry, maybe half the communities would have gyms in them, with some old equipment that may have been donated. Today, 15-20 years later, communities have gyms with actual programing and personal trainers. We’ve got some communities that hire up to 4-5 personal trainers who are busy every single day training residents. We work on programs within the health and wellness component, where we know that one of the fears people have as we get older is, ‘I don’t want to fall.’
We’ve worked on, with our best trainers in the communities, a program people can come to showing significant improvement in people’s gait and their strength. I can definitely see that we’re putting more time and effort into continuing that look at fitness, whether physical or brain fitness.
We have a personal concierge service at two of our communities that’s built into residents’ rent. The concept came from a focus group. Family members said, “When we go visit, we’d love to spend quality time doing fun things instead of [attending community] programing, watching TV, or helping set up Grandma’s coffee maker…”
The service is meant to let us take care of the planning so when you come, you get to spend quality time with your family or friends.
We’re also giving more options in dining. We try to offer at least two dining venues, but we’re also expanding menus to make sure people get the choices they want, whether it’s what’s in the food, or how much food.
Baby boomers are going to demand that, and [we need to figure out] how do we continue to make that better every day?
Final word: Our job is to have our residents prosper and do what they want to do, for everyone who walks in our doors. If they’re interested in physical fitness, great, we’ll get them into PrimeFit. For others, it could be volunteering. How do we as a company make that easy for you? You come in [to our community], say, ‘Here are the 10 things I still want to do.’ How do we make sure that still happens? I think the next thing in our industry is continuing to fine-tune some of those programs, and tying programs together.