A New Wave of Hospitality Innovations Hits Senior Living

Wine cellars, pizza ovens and other high-end amenities typically seen in the hospitality sector have been making a splash in senior living in recent years, but these may be just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come.

Former hospitality leaders are making a noteable mark on the industry, and they are showing that there are many more opportunities for senior housing to take cues from the hospitality sector in operations, development and design.

Fresh views on staff engagement

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For Adam Kaplan, senior vice president of business and organizational development at Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corporation, senior housing and hospitality go hand-in-hand.

Kaplan has a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Cornell University, and has had multiple internships in hotels and restaurants including luxury hotel chain Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You.

But prior to pursuing a hospitality education, Kaplan was immersed in the senior housing space. His father, Bill Kaplan, founded Senior Lifestyle Corp. in 1985.

“I learned early on that to be successful in this business you need to marry a business acumen, a passion for customer service and strong core values, such as caring and compassion,” he says. “I developed a philosophy that exceptional customer service is what truly distinguishes an operation. As it relates to the senior living industry, I believe that organizations have an obligation to consistently deliver quality care. Yet, I believe that quality care should be a basic standard not a differentiator.”

Ultimately, it’s the caliber of the service experience that sets providers apart and drives high yet sustainable levels of resident and family satisfaction.

“As a result, I challenge my team to think about how our decisions impact the level of engagement of our staff and the quality of the service experience of our residents and their families,” he says.

Aside from obvious regulatory differences between the two industries, the hospitality industry has done a significantly better job attracting and developing talent, which continues to be a challenge for the senior housing space, he says.

“The core hospitality food groups such as hotels and restaurants understand the importance of attracting new talent into the space and continually invest in their development through structured training programs,” he says. “Unlike senior living, hotels have done a considerably better job of proactively conducting research on the target customer in an effort to develop and implement valuable enhancements in customer service and hotel design that differentiate the product from the competition.”

In addition, hotels invest “significantly more” resources into building brand equity by developing and driving compliance with brand standards, he notes, adding that senior housing companies that invest time and resources in recruiting and retaining quality staff will “separate themselves from the pack.”

But the challenges those with a hospitality background see in the senior housing space are also opportunities.

“When I started my career in senior living post-graduation, I was surprised with the fact that the senior living industry was still relatively in its infancy compared with the more mature sectors of hospitality,” Kaplan says. “On the bright side, the industry will rapidly evolve as there is a changing of the guards as the founding fathers execute on their succession plans. While these pioneers truly led the way for the industry, it is the next generation that is going to spearhead a new wave of innovation in the space. That is very exciting for anyone that wants to be integral in the evolution of a growing industry.”

New models of development

BrightStar Senior Living, whose founder is a former hotel owner, is planning a five-year, 100-property pipeline of assisted living communities to be built and operated through a franchising format.

“It’s very common in the hotel industry to have someone be the developer, who owns the land and the building, and lease it on a long-term lease to the operating franchisee,” BrightStar’s founder and CEO, Shelly Sun, previously told SHN. “That could be a model that might be applicable in our senior housing community concept.”

Balance beauty with purpose

And while the feel of a community is created by those entrusted to care for residents and greet prospective community members, it’s all in the details, says Jeanna Korbas, vice president of design at Milwaukee-based Direct Supply Aptura, a senior living development services firm.

Korbas hails from the hospitality world, most recently serving as director of interior design and development at Hyatt Classic Residence (now known as Vi), a high-end senior housing developer, owner and manager—which was then owned by privately held by luxury hotel owner Global Hyatt.

“In hospitality we utilize color to create mood, to set the stage and even in some cases direct the flow of traffic to certain areas of the property,” Korbas says. “It’s no different in senior living. If a community has a high acuity, color can be used to create a calming environment that promotes healing. If a community is therapy and activity centric, brighter colors can be used to create energy in certain spaces.”

But, when in an older age setting, it’s also important to understand how the aging eye perceives color, notes Korbas.

“In many environments created specifically for seniors, colors are also used as a method of helping residents find their way,” she says. “Although we are employing many of the same uses for color as the hospitality field, it is important to understand how the aging eye perceives color and how our needs for contrast may change as we age.”

While senior housing may represent to many an industry straddled with traditional, less experimental views, Korbas has been surprised to see the opposite.

“Senior living providers today are challenged with many concerns, managing the needs and desires of an emerging demographic and balancing those with an ever changing health care system and an increasingly competitive marketplace,” she said. “Trends that come to us from the hospitality industry require a change in the industry looks at their buildings operationally, which can have a tremendous impact on staffing levels, how food is prepared and moved throughout the building, how therapy is delivered and how activities are run—all of which have a direct impact on bottom line revenues. I was surprised by the openness of senior living operators and developers to try new things.”

Creating spaces that give the end user a unique experience and the efficient use of square footage to create those spaces are two key lessons taken from the hospitality sector Korbas says she applies daily in senior housing.

“As designers who specialize in senior living we can learn a lot from this approach,” she says. “The art in designing for senior living is to create a better lifestyle for our seniors than they would have staying in their homes. This is accomplished by the experiences they are able to have through the different venues available to them on site.”

The challenge is, she says, is that square footage is at a premium in many senior housing buildings.

“Being creative about how we flex those spaces from day to night to change the experience of that resident is key,” she says.

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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