In the midst of industry headwinds, The LaSalle Group is focused on business basics in 2019 — but the Dallas-based company has some new initiatives underway as well. Notably, it is rolling out a new brand called “The Whitley” and is forging ahead with technology initiatives to streamline sales and marketing.
LaSalle is an integrated senior living design, development and management company that is best known as a pioneer in standalone memory care. It operates about 40 communities, almost all of which are standalone memory care properties under the Autumn Leaves brand.
For the first time, the company will add a community to its portfolio that offers both assisted living and memory care. It will be called The Whitley of Wheeling, and will consist of 64 assisted living apartments and 30 memory care apartments. It is located in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling and is scheduled to open in late April or early May.
The plan is to extend the Whitley brand to other combined assisted living/memory care buildings in the future, CEO Mitchell Warren told Senior Housing News. The brand is named after his daughter.
The Autumn Leaves moniker will not be absent from the Whitley building, however — the memory care residence is branded as “by Autumn Leaves.” Autumn Leaves has become synonymous with top-flight memory care services, Warren said, and maintaining that reputation is paramount as LaSalle both adds the new brand and weathers current operational and financial challenges.
“Let’s keep our resources on providing great care, which we know is what we do and we know is what people ultimately are looking for, and if we do that, our name continues to be strong,” he said.
A building within a building
In recent years, there has been a shift in consumer demand toward buildings with a dual focus in assisted living and memory care, and that drove the creation of The Whitley, Warren told SHN.
“We weren’t necessarily seeking to do a dual focus, but the industry was going in that direction and we didn’t want to ignore that,” he said. “We want to … have that option in our stable for situations where it makes sense.”
The Wheeling location made sense for several reasons. That market has demand for both assisted living and memory care, and the infill site was appealing. The project involved preparation time and effort, including re-planing the land and about a year in the entitlement process, and this likely kept competitors away, Warren said.
LaSalle’s investor partner on this project was also keen to create a blended assisted living/memory care building, Warren noted. The same investor group could work with LaSalle on future Whitely developments, although there are no guarantees of this or limitations on who LaSalle can partner with on Whitley projects.
The Wheeling building is three stories, with memory care on the ground level and assisted living on the upper floors. The memory care residence has its own entrance and features an expansive courtyard — a staple of Autumn Leaves memory care buildings.
A shared kitchen will serve both memory care and assisted living, but other than that, each level of care will have its own amenities. The memory care residence is essentially an Autumn Leaves-style community embedded within the Whitley — “a building within a building,” Warren said.
Both memory care and assisted living will include restaurant-style meals and a full-service salon. Assisted living will also feature a bar and cafe, and fitness/wellness centers.
“It was a really good process for us to undergo the whole design, programming, thinking around a new product, a new brand, and again good for us as a company to have diversification, to keep our employees engaged,” Warren said.
He is pleased with the pace of deposits, with the building expected to be 25% to 35% pre-leased prior to opening.
LaSalle does not currently have any other Whitley buildings in development but is in the preliminary stage of evaluating other locations, and plans to expand this part of the portfolio opportunistically.
Investing in video
The LaSalle Group is also focused on strengthening its digital presence this year.
A new website should be launched by mid-year, and the company increased its budgets for efforts around social media, search engine optimization, digital ads and similar consumer outreach channels and strategies.
Digital is cost-effective compared to other forms of marketing, LaSalle’s Director of Marketing and Communication Laurie Hesser told SHN.
In conjunction with focusing more on its own digital capabilities, LaSalle is trying to lessen its usage of third-party referrals.*
Also on the digital technology front, LaSalle is focused on expanding its usage of OneDay, a video storytelling application. The app makes it easy to capture video content; it provides prompts to get people talking about certain topics while being filmed, and then packages the video with a company’s branding.
This is the type of technology that LaSalle is interested in investing in because it checks numerous boxes, Warren and Hesser said.
They said it’s inexpensive to implement and paid for on a subscription basis. And it can be used for a variety of purposes — it helps with consumer satisfaction by engaging residents and reassuring family members; it’s an easy tool for caregivers to learn and use, and increases staff engagement as a result; videos can be used for workforce training; and videos can also be used for marketing purposes.
LaSalle has been able to work with OneDay to create certain prompts and features to maximize the benefits for memory care, Hesser noted. OneDay confirmed that Autumn Leaves has been instrumental in shaping the app for memory care.
“As an early adopter of OneDay, Autumn Leaves has driven how videos can be used in memory care to reassure, comfort, and even delight residents and family members. We’re honored to be entrusted to capture their stories,” OneDay co-founder and President Clint Lee told SHN.
Weathering the storm
On a nationwide basis, senior living occupancy has eroded to historical lows due to a variety of factors, including an influx of new supply. Memory care in particular has been hard hit, and Autumn Leaves communities have been among those facing difficulties.
LaSalle manages five Autumn Leaves properties that are owned by Murfreesboro, Tennessee-based real estate investment trust National Health Investors (NYSE: NHI). As disclosed during the REIT’s most recent quarterly earnings call, these communities are currently unable to meet their rent obligations.
NHI and LaSalle are still working toward a resolution.
“We don’t know the outcome yet,” Warren said. “… We’re in continuous conversations about what exactly we’re going to do. The properties can’t meet the rent, so how are we going to partner together, what’s the best solution, and it could go a variety of directions.”
The issues at the NHI communities do not extend across the entire Autumn Leaves portfolio. Circumstances vary considerably from market to market and even within submarkets, Warren emphasized.
This extends to labor availability and expenses. These pressures are related to new supply creating competition for workers, as well as overall low unemployment rates and rising wages.
“I was in two communities today in Dallas-Fort Worth,” Warren said. “They’re totally different stories and they’re only 25 minutes apart.”
One community is paying relatively low wages compared to other Autumn Leaves locations and has no problems finding applicants. The other community is paying $2 an hour more and is struggling to hire.
Supply pressures have been exacerbated by developers, investors and others who see the aging population as a massive opportunity, but their timing was off, Warren noted. The oldest baby boomers today are 72, while the average age of Autumn Leaves residents is 82.
“The markets where everyone went in thinking this is going to be great today, they’re probably still two or three years away from saturating, filling those buildings,” Warren said.
In the meantime, gaining occupancy in these markets for new players and incumbents is a challenge, but it does clarify the short-term mission for LaSalle.
“The focus, is stabilize what’s not, and keep the good ones as good as possible,” Warren said.
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that LaSalle has paused its relationship with third-party referral platform A Place for Mom. This information was removed in light of subsequent information shared with Senior Housing News by A Place for Mom and LaSalle Group.