Amid Fierce Competition, Senior Living Communities Must Wow Prospects Quickly

With shiny new supply flooding various markets around the country, senior living communities must make a good first impression on prospective residents, or they will quickly lose customers to the competition. In this environment, providers are wise to invest in stellar model units and to focus on reception and common areas that prospects first encounter.

“If a property doesn’t show well, it gets removed pretty quickly [from prospects’ lists], is something we hear a lot,” Seniorly CEO Arthur Bretschneider told Senior Housing News. “It’s a marketplace now where consumers have a lot of choice.”

San Francisco-based Seniorly is an online platform that pairs people looking for senior living with local placement agents. The company has raised almost $4 million since its founding in 2015 and works with more than 250 agents, some of whom have independent businesses and others who are part of placement agent franchise systems.

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It’s a no-brainer that a property has to look appealing, and it’s not necessarily costly or complicated to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, some locations still fall short, according to industry professionals who spoke with SHN. They offered some practical tips for how communities can up their game to be more successful in this ultra-competitive market.

A better model

A model unit is not the first thing that a prospect will see when visiting a community, but it is a particularly important facet of the tour experience.

“It really, really does matter,” said Janine Witte, vice president of sales with Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corp., one of the largest providers in the nation. “It’s not a silver bullet to win over a resident, but it’s one of the most critical layers to whether they can see themselves living in a community.”

Seniorly’s partner agents repeatedly emphasize this, Bretschneider said.

“I think the thing that I hear the most about, and is top of mind for operators, is model rooms,” he said. “Making sure you have a tight tour experience that does include that model room, so people can see themselves in that or their parents in that.”

Too often, communities are not maximizing the impact of their model units, according to Sarah Ordover, who owns an Assisted Living Locators franchise in the Los Angeles area. She estimates that she has accompanied clients on between 200 and 300 tours of various senior housing and care communities.

“People don’t spend enough time on that,” she told SHN, speaking of models.

About 90% of communities that he sees do a good job with model units, but lapses do occur, said Mark Wolff, who owns a Senior Care Authority franchise in northern California.

Both Wolff and Ordover are sometimes taken into unfurnished apartments, for instance, which makes it difficult for their clients to connect with the space, they said.

“When we walk into an empty room, I can tell right away that we’re taking a couple steps backward and asking the client to do a lot of work mentally to picture their loved one living there,” Wolff said.

Simply furnishing a unit is not enough — communities that work with professional firms are investing a lot more into these spaces. For instance, interior design firm Thoma-Holec Design creates a fictitious person when putting together a model unit.

“We determine the gender, give them a name, and select their work history, culture, travel history, education degree, family, hobbies, et cetera,” Luann Thoma-Holec, the firm’s principal and founder, told SHN. “We then choose accessories that would be appropriate for that person. We include actual photos in the frames, monogrammed towels, eyeglasses, hobbies, appropriately themed books … it makes the space feel like someone is actually living in the space.”

The design aesthetic of the model does not necessarily have to match the overall community, and creating a different look can highlight how a resident can personalize the space, she added.

The placement and size of models must also be carefully considered.

A successfully staged unit will often be leased quickly, because that space is so appealing to prospects, Thoma-Holec noted. Placing the model in a less desirable location, such as overlooking air conditioning units, can lessen the likelihood of this, saving the community the burden of repeatedly having to re-create models.

Even large units are much smaller than single-family homes, and potential residents often have misgivings about how their possessions will fit as they downsize, Thoma-Holec said. So, it’s also shrewd to avoid overly large furniture, as well as colors and patterns that make the space look smaller.

Here are some other tips she shared:

— Have the glazing on the windows completely exposed and extend the fabric to the outside of the window and frame, this makes the window seem larger and exposes the exterior amenities.  

— Make certain that there is plenty of light in the space; add table lamps and accents at plants and behind dressers, to ensure that the space is well lit. Lighting under nightstands and beds can increase the light levels in the space and also indicate how to add safety features for the resident.

— Never use area rugs, as this will indicate to the family/resident that it is okay to have rugs in their apartment after they move in, which is of course a huge fall risk and liability for the community.

— Bedding should be tailored to enlarge the floor space. Large dust ruffles can decrease the floor space by a foot.

As for how much to spend on a model unit, it’s difficult to name a dollar figure, given variations from one project to the next. However, skimping is not wise, Thoma-Holec emphasized.

“Model merchandising will sell your apartment and community faster, and is not an area to take shortcuts,” she said. “We always recommend investing in beautifully designed, high-quality models to make the best impression possible.”

Enhancing the experience

Of course, a model unit is not the very first impression that a prospect has of a senior living property. Communities must do their best to maintain curb appeal and should carefully consider their reception areas and common spaces in the front of the buildings.

“I see a lot of older communities being acquired by national chains,” Wolff said. “They’re going through significant facelifts, significant remodels.”

Still, older buildings can maintain their competitiveness, he believes. He counsels clients not to judge communities by their exterior appearance; once inside, new carpeting, paint, renovated dining spaces and other upgrades make a big difference.

“And one of the benefits of older buildings is, a lot of them are one-story,” he added. “They’re on larger parcels of land, and that’s attractive to some folks who like to walk and like grass and open spaces.”

But even for a large national chain like Senior Lifestyle, “capex doesn’t grow on trees,” Witte noted. Just like its smaller competitors, Senior Lifestyle communities must implement low-cost, high-impact changes to upgrade the look and feel of some buildings.

Witte starts with de-cluttering spaces and considers how furniture can be better arranged.

“If I see seating that runs all the way along the wall, we talk about, how can we make more cozy spaces that mimic a living room, and put some depth into the space,” she said. “Communities can choose a small area to focus on … what comes to my mind is in a common area, a window with a bump-out could create a reading nook, just grab a table, chairs, a light.”

The goal, she said, is to create a space that is not just functional but elicits a positive emotional reaction in a prospect.

Beyond making sure a space appears to be up to date and welcoming, maintaining it to ensure a positive experience is critical. For instance, be sure to keep parking lots shoveled and de-iced, and make sure signage is clear for visitors, Witte said.

And communities need to have standards but also prioritize appropriately. The “dos and don’ts” must be enforced if a community needs shaping up, but the most important consideration is the overall atmosphere.

“I think we all have the laundry list of rules about thumbtacks, tape, designated parking spaces — if they didn’t matter we wouldn’t have created that,” Witte said. “But I will forgive delivery boxes behind the desk if [the community] conveys warmth.”

All photos courtesy Thoma-Holec Design and Mark Boisclair Photography

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