Robert Kramer, the founder of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), has launched a new consulting firm called Nexus Insights.
Despite being an optimist, Kramer fears that if the senior living industry on a large scale fails to overcome the fear of communal housing caused by Covid-19, an entire generation of older adults could seek to avoid senior living communities, he told Senior Housing News. This would be devastating to the many providers that have pegged their fortunes on a huge wave of demand from the large baby boomer demographic.
But aging services providers also have an unprecedented opportunity to redefine their value proposition in light of the pandemic and innovate their operational and business models for future success, Kramer told SHN.
Nexus Insights is his effort to help senior living providers, as well as a wide range of businesses and organizations in other sectors, seize these opportunities and deliver innovative solutions.
Kramer stepped down as CEO of NIC in 2017, but has remained with the organization in the role of founder and strategic advisor. In early 2020, he cut back on the hours he was putting into work with NIC, to have greater freedom to pursue other endeavors.
So, as he saw Covid-19 unfolding, he was already well positioned to start Nexus. However, Kramer’s venture is another example of how the pandemic has changed people’s plans in unexpected and even unimaginable ways. Starting an independent consulting firm was not on Kramer’s agenda as recently as early March, when the NIC spring conference took place in San Diego. But in recent weeks, the business rapidly came together.
“I talked about this with [NIC CEO] Brian [Jurutka] and the board at NIC, and we agreed that I wanted to have a separate platform to speak and write, and that was broader in focus and also enabled me to truly be the agent provocateur that I think I can be, as well as connect people and coalesce around inspiring the next generation of aging services,” Kramer told SHN.
In addition to “agent provocateur,” Kramer has been working as an “ice breaker” to connect senior living with other other health care sectors, as well as a variety of industries such as hospitality, technology and education. As the name implies, Nexus will be a more formal means for him to keep forging these connections to the mutual benefit of disparate businesses.
“The goal of Nexus is to really help leaders not only in aging services and more narrowly senior living but also in other sectors, to really help them in the midst of this crisis see what this is going to mean for a post-Covid future for aging adults and aging services,” Kramer told SHN.
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Universities provide one example of a sector that is being affected by Covid-19, which could align more with aging services moving forward.
Kramer foresees that Covid-19 will change the landscape of higher education. Colleges and universities have canceled in-person classes due to the pandemic, and Kramer anticipates that even once the coronavirus is on the wane, some students may not return to full-time, on-campus learning. And enrollment may decline further due to the large number of people who have taken serious financial hits due to Covid-19.
Small, private universities in particular could be stung by these trends, and could find a solution by reaching out more to aging baby boomers who are interested in continuing education, Kramer said.
He speaks from personal experience on this topic. When his daughters were in college at Princeton and Stanford, Kramer and his wife took courses — conducted mostly online — at those respective universities. At the time, such courses were mostly done with fundraising in mind on the part of the university, he said. But, Kramer saw the appeal of such classes to older adults and their potential to drive more substantial revenue.
At age 70, Kramer now brings the first-hand perspective of an older adult to his work, and he has enlisted several younger but well-established advisors to align with Nexus.
“I’m looking for people who are going to be that next generation of leaders,” he said.
Most advisors would provide services under their own respective firms or organizations, as Kramer would be happy to keep Nexus to himself and his assistant.
Innovation is imperative
Coming out of the last major economic crisis about a decade ago, acuity creep became a major issue for senior living communities, and the result has been a redefinition of the industry’s major value proposition. Simply put, senior living became too focused on selling care, in Kramer’s view.
“You’re selling an aspirational lifestyle, you’re selling human connection and engagement and a re-firing of purpose and meaning,” he said. “We’ve moved away from that. That was the original premise of seniors housing.”
Coming out of Covid-19, Kramer believes that the industry has a golden opportunity to redefine itself again by innovating new products that break free of current independent living, assisted living and memory care molds, and that return to the sectors’ original value prop and better appeal to the boomers.
The stakes are high, he believes. Covid-19 has fostered enormous fear among consumers about the risks of infection in communal living settings. Yet, the pandemic has also given unprecedented numbers of people a taste of what isolation and loneliness are like, and a keen desire to create and maintain community.
By adopting designs and operational approaches to mitigate infection risks while fulfilling deep-seated desires for social connection and purpose-filled lives, senior living providers should be able to overcome consumer fear and have a winning proposition, Kramer said.
Some recent trends in operations and design, such as the rise of pocket neighborhoods, now seem even more compelling. Other common approaches now appear to make less sense.
“I’ve heard some providers in the past say, oh, yes, our rooms are tiny, because we really don’t want our residents spending time in their rooms,” Kramer said. “We want them out in our public, our community spaces, our congregate spaces. Well, I think you’re going to have to revisit some of that thinking.”
Not all companies will be able to make the leaps of imagination necessary to succeed in the future, Kramer warns.
“I’m incredibly bullish about the opportunities in front of aging services and in front of senior living specifically, but I am bearish on the [ability] of some firms to adapt and to rethink their business model and reimagine both the value proposition and therefore their product,” he said.
Kramer is sympathetic to how difficult it is for senior living and other aging services companies to think about the future when their day-to-day operations are under unprecedented stress and their financial position is suddenly precarious.
But, he thinks that navigating the current crisis may not mean much for those businesses that are unprepared for what comes next. Through Nexus, he aims to help in this difficult situation, and he is drawing inspiration from words recently penned by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“That quote from Kissinger is, ‘The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future,’” Kramer said.