Wolff’s Leondakis Applies Kimpton, Equinox Lessons to Senior Living

Niki Leondakis is looking for ways to leverage her extensive experience in hospitality to fuel the growth in Wolff’s Revel brand, and improve the overall resident experience.

A former president and chief operating officer of boutique hotel pioneer Kimpton Hotels, she is also a former CEO of Equinox Fitness Clubs and CEO of Two Roads Hospitality, a hotel company founded by Hyatt Hotels scion John Pritzker. She joined real estate development company Wolff last January to lead the new “resident experience company” managing its Revel independent living communities.

Leondakis is looking for ways to bring current hospitality trends to Revel’s existing portfolio of four communities, with another 16 under development. But there is one trait that senior living consistently has that hospitality lacks, she said May 8 during Senior Housing News’ BUILD event in Chicago: a sense of purpose among workers.

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“That is a little bit different from hospitality, where there are a lot of people with passion but some sort of land in it,” she said. “That was a pretty exciting discovery and something that we could work with.”

Her one-on-one conversation on the BUILD stage centered on brand awareness, adding a wellness component to Revel, and how her own frustrating experiences navigating senior living are influencing strategic decisions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve had some recent personal experiences in navigating senior living. How did that experience influence your decision to join Wolff, and what were the things you came out wanting to change?

[My mother] had early onset Alzheimer’s, and we realized she could not live alone and needed a progressive type of care.

She was living in south Florida and I volunteered to go down for a week and visit facilities to see what was out there. I had 14 different appointments in the community she lived in and the surrounding communities. I went down there thinking I was going to have this difficult time choosing a community but it was not a difficult decision.

Truth be told, I went to 13 of those places — half of them that I visited I walked out and didn’t keep the appointment. I couldn’t imagine my mom staying in a place like that. The other half, I kept the appointment but I was so disconcerted by just feeling sold, not feeling like I was being listened to or my mother’s needs were being heard. When I looked more closely at the operation … I was so discouraged by what I saw.

Between the physical plants I saw and the level of personal care I didn’t see, I was pretty discouraged.

So it’s clear you think there are some missing pieces in senior living?

It certainly propelled me to think there is a better way. Coming from a hospitality background, my view is that the real estate is the backbone that fuels the business. It reminds me of a time in hospitality when all the big hotel brands wanted to move into boutique and lifestyle hotels. They all decided to design and operate differently.

It makes me feel like there is an opportunity to look at these communities and house seniors differently, with the wave of boomers about to hit us. Thinking more about that lifestyle-driven hospitality approach is something I think we can benefit from in the industry.

Is there anything else from your hospitality background that could translate to senior living?

When the big hotel brands moved into the boutique space, they hired cutting edge interior designers to replicate design that was a little more cutting edge and interesting than the design that was made to not offend anybody and represent [brand] consistency.

That’s something that can be worked with: the interior and resident design, the concept of restaurant and dining programming. From more of a consumer standpoint, thinking about those as a representation of the consumers’ sense of self and who they see themselves as, or who they would like to see themselves as, and approaching it more through the consumer experience standpoint. I think there’s an opportunity to push the envelope a little further.

Senior living resident experience, senior living executives James Kruml, @Robotoaster
Senior Housing News Editor Tim Mullaney and Wolff Resident Experience Company President Niki Leondakis

When you think of restaurants at hotels 20 years ago, you didn’t say I want to go down to the fill-in-the-blank big chain hotel and have a meal. You went to the neighborhood restaurant, the smaller place or the cool place or the fun place, but that was a restaurant, not a hotel dining room. Those hotel dining rooms were created from the standpoint of “we want every traveler to enjoy this.” So, we’re going to have spaghetti and meatballs, we’re going to have a club sandwich, we’re going to have eggrolls. It was all over the place. It was trying to be all things to all people, and in order to not offend, stood for very little.

It’s about having the courage to say, “This is who we are. This is who we’re going to serve.” There’s not an operating model or design theme or design identity or an experience — a lifestyle programming experience — that can be all things to all people.

One of the ways to differentiate is to create more pointed identities in our communities.

You used dining options as an example of that “all things to all people approach,” and I know you ran restaurants as well as hotels at Kimpton. Can you elaborate on how you envision dining at Revel?

I’m new to the industry. I’m still learning, we’re still formulating strategy, so I don’t have some all-knowing or all-winning solution here. But bringing what I learned in hospitality, it comes back to what I just said, putting a stake in the ground in who you are and what you want that experience to feel like.

It’s a tricky solution because threading the needle between seniors for whom food itself is a really important part of their experience, it’s so important, and they have very specific wants and needs, and fulfilling those is critical. At the same time, their families are coming to visit, sometimes they’re helping choose the place, and they’re in that building day-in and day-out … how do you keep it exciting? How do you keep — no matter how it’s decorated or what the ambience is or what the service style is — how do you make it not feel like a dining hall that’s dressed up like a restaurant? How do you make it fell like it’s not cafeteria-like, with softer finishes?

There’s an opportunity to create more personality, identity and just more exciting dining experiences, all of it. If you look at what’s fun about a restaurant experience, it’s personality, the chef and bartenders and the decor, coming together with the identity of that restaurant, the theme of that restaurant, what the restaurant is trying to achieve and make great food.

At the end of the day, it’s about having a singularity of vision that conveys to the resident how that experience is going to feel, and everything pointing to that and less generic.

Some hotel are now using restaurant groups to manage their restaurants, do you think something similar could be done in senior living?

I think it’s possible.

The hotel industry has gone through such a learning curve with restaurants. Bill Kimpton was pioneer in bringing in big-name chefs and creating chef-driven restaurants that were operated independent from the hotel, for all the reasons I mentioned — to not have a hotel general manager create the vanilla restaurant experience to serve every type of guest.

That model got replicated again and again and again, but a lot of hoteliers and hotel owners, developers, operators learned the hard way that they have been building the restauranteur or chef’s brand on their back. Meaning, they provide TIs [tenant improvements] or very favorable rent terms, or maybe it’s a JV, maybe it’s simply a management contract and it’s a percentage of revenue, but oftentimes those partnerships lead to no bottom-line incentive, no accountability for the business management side. And if there’s a lot of PR and a lot of people dining in the restaurant and it’s buzzy and exciting and then you wonder why it closed a year later, it’s the structure of those deals.

So, I think it’s possible, but I think in senior living, hopefully because there was such a learning curve in hospitality for a couple decades, that would be shortened and they would learn from that, and not structure these deals that are so favorable to the chef and the restauranteur that the bottom line suffers. So, there’s an opportunity but it’s got to be done thoughtfully and in the interest of all parties.

Kimpton and Equinox had a wellness component built in. How are you thinking about translating that to senior living?

My experience with Equinox was really helpful because do see a lot of parallels between our residents. We’re exclusively focused on independent living, so that’s a little bit different than some other [providers]. But it’s similar to a membership model, like the fitness club membership model. There can be a monthly fee they pay with their rent that’s all-inclusive, but they can choose to leave at any time. Similarly, with Equinox, there’s a contract, but at the end of that contract, you can leave and disengage. So it’s kind of like a subscription.

If you think about it from a consumer standpoint, they can opt out anytime, how do you keep them engaged? And there’s the prospect. How do you segment them out to bring them in? And once you’ve got them in, those drivers might be very different, and working with segmenting those residents and personalizing that experience and delivering something that’s specific to their needs.

We’ve done quite a bit of consumer research to date and I’ve participated in it, sitting with prospects who opted not to lease with us, people who did lease with us, and really trying to understand the mindset and what the drivers are for people to want to buy or not to buy, or the drivers of people who chose to buy, why they love it or not. I don’t think people can always articulate what those drivers are, so you really have to be sophisticated — and it was similar at Equinox — in order to keep them engaged, in order to keep their commitment.

There’s the sales process, but then once you’ve got them, it’s understanding their goals. What motivates them? How do you get them engaged and keep them engaged? Because if you don’t, the predictive analytics will tell you, you’re going to lose them as soon as their subscription runs out. With the resident, we can engage them by asking them the right questions to dig out different information.

And we can use technology in a more progressive way, to understand who’s coming to us and who’s living with us. They can’t always articulate what they want and what they care about, but if you can track their patterns of behavior and use that to personalize and customize the experience, I think that’s a tremendous opportunity.

Helping residents achieve their goals is one part of the equation, but helping them figure our their goals is another big piece?

What makes me happy may not be what makes you happy.

At Equinox, it might be a young woman who comes in and says, I’m getting married in six months and I want to look fabulous in my wedding dress. It could be someone more mature saying, I want to feel strong, to lift my groceries out of my car without straining myself. It could be someone else saying, I’m entering a bodybuilding competition. People have different motivations, and really understanding those motivations … What I’ve found with consumer research is prospects and residents had difficulty articulating what their drivers were. What made them happy? And happy is a huge part of wellness.

Our salespeople, we call them salespeople, but they’re really more like life coaches, right? They’re figuring out what these people want and need.

How do you define Woolf’s ambition in senior living?

Two words define it: Consumer driven. We’re taking a completely consumer-driven approach.

It’s not often done in the real estate investment business. In hotels, for years I was on the real estate side and straddled both [real estate and operations] because in various companies I led, we did our own real estate investment or our parent company was in the real estate investment side and then we had the operating side. Oftentimes in hospitality, developers say, I’m going to build it here because this was an opportunistic acquisition of a building or of land or an old hotel, and then I want to make it X. I want to make it the Ace Hotel. I heard that 1,000 times in my hospitality career.

We’re taking at Woolf a consumer-driven approach to this. The research was the start of what are we going to do with Revel going forward.

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