‘Let’s Throw Out the Rulebook’: Avamere Shapes Ovation Brand for Resident of Tomorrow

If Nicolette Merino is right, tomorrow’s older adults won’t actually want to move into senior living communities — or at least, not as they exist today.

That may seem like a surprising notion coming from the president of Avamere’s Ovation senior housing brand. But it actually illustrates one of the brand’s core strategies: to attract tomorrow’s older adults, senior living providers will need to offer them something different.

“They don’t really want to be in independent living, assisted living or memory care,” Merino told Senior Housing News.

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This idea — that the recipe for senior living success is changing, and that what worked in the past won’t work in the future — is held by other industry leaders as well, including Five Star Senior Living CEO Katie Potter and Brandywine Living CEO Brenda Bacon.

However, opinions differ as to how senior living needs to adapt, and companies are taking different paths forward. For Avamere, listening to consumers has been a guiding principle, and has led to the creation of Ovation. The concept gained significant attention when Avamere first unveiled it; at the time, the term “micro-CCRC” was applied to Ovation, but now the model has been refined.

Today, Avamere bills Ovation as an “active lifestyle village” that aims to re-imagine the traditional offerings of the senior housing industry. The 300-unit model emphasizes lower-acuity settings, with 150 units dedicated to independent living and active adult, 90 for assisted living and 60 for memory care.

While Ovation represents only a small portion of Avamere’s 61-community senior housing portfolio, that could change over time. Currently, the company has two Ovation projects in the works — one slated to open this fall in St. George, Utah; and another set to open next spring in Omaha, Nebraska — with plans for more in the future.

“We wanted to take a step back and say … let’s figure out how to build our next dream,” Merino said. “Our focus is on finding new locations that can contribute to the active adult concept that we’re trying to build.”

The company in December also hired its first two general managers, who both come from the hospitality industry. Tim Norman, who worked at the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa in Arizona, is the general manager of Ovation Sienna Hills in St. George; and Stephanie Grade, who previously served on the board of directors for the Omaha Restaurant Association and Metropolitan Hospitality Association, is the general manager of Ovation Heartwood Preserve in Omaha.

“We want to grow this brand,” Merino said. “We think that this is absolutely what the consumer of the future is going to want.”

‘Let’s throw out the rulebook’

Rooted in Avamere’s decision to launch Ovation in 2018 was a belief that senior housing providers must be willing to try new things today to be competitive tomorrow.

With Ovation, Avamere is willing to experiment in order to find a mix of units, amenities and services that appeal to the most older adults. It’s also willing to play around with pricing by offering various entry points with unbundled services.

At Heartwood Preserve, the forthcoming community in Omaha, monthly independent living rates start at $3,495, while assisted living rates start at $4,195. And at Sienna Hills, the community opening in St. George, independent living rates start at $3,695 and assisted living rates start at $3,745.

Sienna Hills will also have 25 freestanding villas for residents who only want to pay rent and utilities. But those residents can also buy additional a la carte services to supplement their experience.

“We wanted to make sure that we have studio apartments, one-bedroom apartments, two-bedroom apartments, and even penthouse suite apartments,” Merino said. “We’re trying to cater to a large population while being sensitive to individual price points.”

Already, the company plans to implement smart home technology that will allow Ovation residents to control their thermostat, lights and electronics with the help of Amazon Alexa. On the memory care side Avamere will implement circadian lighting — a more expensive yet effective way at improving those residents’ lives, Merino said.

While some of that technology is still a novelty today, Merino foresees a day when residents come to expect it. And senior living providers must evolve to keep up with those expectations now before it becomes too cost-prohibitive to add in later, she added.

Notably, the Ovation model creates a continuum of care but does not include a skilled nursing component. The plan is to provide easy access to a range of on-site care services, made possible through community partnerships as well as by leveraging Avamere’s own home health, rehab and home care arms.

As Merino looks across the senior housing industry today, she sees a lot of companies who say they’re doing things differently, but not a lot of proof that they are. In particular, she has noticed many senior living providers bill their communities as “active,” but don’t encourage that in their residents.

“We hear that all the time in buzzwords,” Merino said. “But a lot of properties don’t provide it.”

To help foster active living among Ovation’s residents, Avamere plans to include amenities like massage rooms, dedicated yoga studios, fitness centers and spas with professional-grade manicure and pedicure equipment.

On the programming and activities side, Ovation communities will have organized bike rides, yoga classes and swimming lessons, among other activities. Each community will also offer valet and concierge services.

And Avamere only plans to develop Ovation communities in master-planned neighborhoods with walkable retail, entertainment and dining venues nearby, as well as opportunities for health- and wellness-related activity. Both the Utah and Nebraska sites have access to bike and walking trails, and the Utah location is also near the base of a large hiking trail.

All of this is part of Avamere’s overall push for innovation, which is one of the core values of the company.

“With this Ovation brand, [Avamere] is saying, let’s throw out the rulebook,” Merino said. “Ultimately, we want to be able to design and build exactly what’s going to work.”

Resident feedback was key

In coming up with its Ovation brand, Avamere sought advice from an expert source: its potential future residents.

The company held focus groups with older adults during its planning process for Ovation, and time and time again, Avamere heard the same thing: prospective future residents want options custom-tailored to their specific preferences.

“They want a robust program that is centered around their likes and dislikes,” Merino said. “[They recognize] that their dislikes and likes might be very different from their next door neighbor.”

Avamere is also continuing to take feedback from residents even as its Ovation communities are under construction. The company has made changes to resident rooms and even common spaces based on feedback from people who have put down money to move in.

“We have residents who have deposited that are coming to us and saying, hey, how big is the pool? How deep are the steps? Can we change the steps?” Merino said.

Doing so is more expensive, but it comes with Avamere’s commitment to delivering a senior housing product that’s informed by the people who might one day live in it.

“Sometimes we get into our mindset of what we think the consumer wants,” Merino said. “And then we actually sit down with a consumer.”

One message that came through loud and clear: Residents do not want a watered-down, “senior living” version of amenities. For example, they want a full-service grab-and-go counter for food and certain consumer products, not “a little resident store that is open from 4:00 to 6:00 on Monday and Friday,” Merino said.

That principle extends to details like the equipment used in the community’s beauty shop or having spaces solely dedicated to certain activities.

“Our consumers said, no, I want to go and sit in an actual pedicure chair with a built-in tub and have that experience of being in a spa,” she said. “So, we have really taken this into consideration … not only from a physical plant perspective, but from a programming perspective, as well.”

And, Avamere plans to keep updating its approach even as residents move in, pushing the brand toward new evolutions.

“Their needs and their desires are going to change,” Merino said. “So, [we are] not getting locked into [the idea that] this is the set model that we must do.”

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