Move-in numbers are approaching “normality” as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches into the fall — and to maintain this trend, senior living providers must stay focused on building and maintaining consumer confidence.
That’s according to Larry Kutscher, CEO of A Place for Mom, the largest online referral platform for the industry.
The company’s latest survey of senior living communities on the APFM platform revealed that 97% are now accepting new residents, Kutscher recently told Senior Housing News. At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in the Northeast in the spring, 59% of communities in the APFM network in that region were closed to new admissions. As of mid-August, only about 5% of Northeastern communities were closed to new residents.
Meanwhile, even as the pandemic has surged in other parts of the country, providers appear to have gotten a handle on how to conduct move-ins while maintaining safety. In Florida, for example, 9% of communities were closed for new move-in as of mid-August. That was an increase from only 5% of communities closed about two months ago, but goes to show that even as Covid-19 cases accelerated in the Sunshine State, senior living communities did not shut down en masse to new residents.
“I look at August, and we’re approaching normality,” Kutscher said, regarding move-ins. “We think that in the fourth quarter, move-in numbers could likely be back to where they were — we’re seeing it already in August and July, that we’re close to that. I think that’s a general trend.”
It’s a perspective borne out by recent comments from other senior living leaders. Discovery Senior Living CEO Richard Hutchinson, for example, believes that move-in velocity for the company’s independent living portfolio could return to pre-pandemic levels in September and beyond. Bonita Springs, Florida-based Discovery operates more than 60 communities nationwide, with 32 having IL as a major component.
As they re-open to new admissions, senior living communities are also beginning to normalize their operations, with substantial precautions in place. Within the APFM network, 50% of the largest communities were offering physical tours, 54% were allowing visitors in some fashion, and 62% were offering meals in dining rooms as of mid-August. For smaller communities, those numbers were even higher in some cases, with 77% offering dining room meals.
While these numbers reflect positive momentum for operators, A Place for Mom “hears constantly” from consumers about two reasons they are hesitant to make a move to senior living, Kutscher said. One reason is not knowing whether they will be able to see their loved ones in light of visitor restrictions, and another source of hesitation is over the length of an initial quarantine period for new residents.
Providers are moving to address these concerns, Kutscher notes. For example, more widespread and rapid Covid-19 testing has enabled some providers to shorten the length of an initial isolation period for new residents. And, providers have gotten creative to facilitate visitation in outdoor spaces and other venues.
“While we’re doing those behaviors, it has to be very structured and predictable, so that consumers have confidence,” Kutscher emphasized.
Even as a semblance of normality is returning to senior living, the pandemic has led to lasting changes. For example, Kutscher believes that virtual tours will continue to be an important tool in the sales and marketing process. With that in mind, APFM created a virtual tour app and has been receiving positive feedback on it.
“If you had told me in January that we would have almost every one of our communities excited about using virtual tours, I would not have believed it, but that’s what’s happened,” he said.
Although in-person tours are making a comeback, senior living providers and consumers alike now see how virtual tours can be used effectively to give a flavor of a community and help people whittle down their choices.
“I think the adoption is going to continue to grow,” Kutscher said of the virtual tour app.
Kutscher was named CEO of A Place for Mom in late April 2019; needless to say, he did not expect to be leading through a global pandemic one year later. Still, the company has continued to make progress on some of the goals that he laid out, including segmenting its customer base to provide more tailored service. Kutscher also believes that APFM has made progress in repairing and forging stronger relationships with senior living providers, which at times in the past have sharply criticized A Place for Mom.
“I have a gut feel that our relationships are better and stronger, and that we’ve been able to help communities through the Covid time, and that we’re adding value to them and giving insight and truly partnering with them in a way we haven’t in the past,” Kutscher said. “That’s my belief. I know we have a lot to continue to prove.”
Next steps for APFM include rolling out a new website with fresh content, and continuing to make investments in the consumer and family experiences.
“This has been a challenging year in general,” Kutscher said. “The thing that I feel really good about is that we’ve had to cut costs and change some of our plans, but we’ve kept our focus on that transformation, and we’ve continued to invest in and build up our new technology platforms.”