When Chris Guay founded Vitality Living, he was frustrated at the industry’s slowness to innovate, and he intended to push the envelope.
Four years later, he and Vitality have been through twists and turns, including joining with new partners. But Guay believes the Brentwood, Tennessee-based company is in a strong position today, with a portfolio of 17 communities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
And, despite the challenges of Covid-19, Vitality is still innovating.
One example of innovation is how the company harnessed digital communication in the pandemic. Another is the company’s first active adult project, which recently opened in Madison, Georgia.
Guay is personally invested in the project, with partners who have experience in student housing. Their influence is felt in how some of the patio homes are designed, facilitating social interaction and lower price points.
Guay is also bullish on small markets such as Madison, and although concerns and uncertainties hang over 2021, he believes that innovation has become more prevalent in senior living.
“That gives me a ton of hope, and it gives me a ton of excitement about where this industry is going over the next 10 years,” he said on a recent episode of the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform, sponsored by Investors Bank. “I think we’ll see some significant change.”
Describe how digital communication was a big part of your Covid-19 response?
Pre-Covid, the medium still existed, right? Facebook, Instagram, all the social media and the digital side was there. But I think what Covid did was exacerbated and exposed the need to use those platforms differently and accelerate or look at things from a different perspective.
So, we were trying to figure out — like everybody was — how do you give families a look into the community? How can we help people from outside see that we’re safe, that things are still happening, the life is still happening inside our buildings? So we jumped onto the Facebook piece and other live video feeds to first give our families peace of mind.
The response was just unbelievable. We started getting so many views that we decided, as a company, let’s set some expectations. No longer is it optional; this is stuff we’re going to mandate across the portfolio. So we had our executive directors and our leadership teams doing a daily update.
That’s a lot of work, right? They had to carve out half an hour or so of their day. But we did it at 10 in the morning, every day. And we asked them to bring on different leaders and involve residents.
For some, it came very naturally, where they got it and had really energizing and connecting videos. Others, they had to kind of work on it a little bit to get there. But all the communities and the teams did a great job.
It also allowed for direct interaction, where families could post a chat question or say hi to somebody. So we just found that to be a great medium … and I think post-Covid, we will continue to use that medium.
It will change the way we communicate, probably for as long as we’re in the business.
Have you scaled back on doing the daily Facebook Live sessions?
It got to the point where as anxiety around the virus, the pandemic eased a little bit, it started to become more repetitive. We realize, okay, sometimes it’s about the quality of the information.
So, we have backed down to where our communities are doing two or three a week, give or take. Sometimes, they’re doing it more frequently, if something occurs that we want to get out there.
We’re using it a ton when it comes to communicating with prospects.
The other big change is, we always did video conferencing before, but it was hard to get people to use their cameras. Now, it’s the norm. So I think as we get through this, we’ll never go back to where we were prior to the pandemic. We’ll continue to use Zoom and Teams and use Facebook Live to do updates on things that are hopefully more positive than pandemic-related.
And I think really creating that video connection, that digital connection with prospects, families, anybody who is part of our business, is really going to be part of our day-to-day.
Are there other areas where you think the pandemic has changed Vitality in lasting ways?
I think it’s constantly evolving. It depends on what day you talk to me, right? Things are changing. I think communication is one — we talked about that already.
I’ve been cautious … we tried to be very mindful and cautious and not just grabbing solutions, but trying to really figure out the ones that will make an impact.
I do think some of those [lasting changes] are in the way we clean our buildings. There’s a lot of technology out there, whether it’s through air purification, using ultraviolet light, electrostatic spray cleaners, which a) improves your ability to clean surfaces more routinely and faster and b) gives you a better —- for lack of a better term — virus kill rate for certain things.
That has long-standing benefits, not just against Covid, but other airborne pathogens that we face with our resident populations.
And then I think that design-wise, physical set-up, there will be some changes. I hope, we all hope, that we get through this pandemic and never have to experience something like this again. But, I think it would be wrong not to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
So, I think you’ll see changes in the way communal dining is set. Changes in the way entrances or screening happen. I can see us keeping some of the screening pieces in place, expectations in place for visitors and even employees during peak flu season. We know the flu can be devastating to our resident population, the norovirus can be devastating. So, I think you’ll see precautions we put in place — maybe not to the extent they were at the pandemic peak — but precautions that we put in, screening and managing our own internal population.
Where is Vitality at in terms of being able to rebuild occupancy and operate on a more normalized basis?
I think you could interview 10 operators and get probably a different answer from all of them.
We’ve been very lucky and very blessed in a number of regions. Most of our properties in the Southeast were more rural or in areas that didn’t get the initial phase. So, we went a longer time before our first cases started hitting our buildings. That was part luck, I think, and in part because our teams are working really hard and doing everything we can to keep the virus out of our buildings.
But, that gave us time. It gave us the opportunity to probably be more proactive than reactive, compared to some of my peers that were in the West Coast and Northeast. They didn’t have time, right? They just had the virus in their buildings before they even knew it. It was on their doorstep.
So having that time to learn and watch helped us be a little more prepared. That put is in a position where we never got to the point where we had to stop moving people in. We were very aggressive on sourcing PPE, so we had strong PPE stocks in place. We were very aggressive in testing. We were able to identify a great testing partner — Integrity Labs in Knoxville, Tennessee — that we have been able to stay with during this whole pandemic.
We’ve had a few buildings here and there that had some tough months where they had maybe a tough run with the virus and lost some census, but we’ve been able to maintain, and in the last few months, we’re starting to see signs that traffic is picking up and getting back to normal.
I don’t know what this latest uptick in the virus will do. Hopefully, it’s mitigated by the vaccine as that starts to come out.
Now, some of our buildings are new builds, so they’re in fill up. They’re definitely not filling up as fast as we modeled them to, but they’re still getting positive traction, which is good.
You’re building in Tupelo, Mississippi and are bullish on small markets like that — why is that?
Even before Covid, we were all looking — I’m no different than my other operating peers in the space and development peers — we were all looking for those underserved markets, right? Where are those little honey holes of markets where maybe there’s not a lot of product there, great resident demographics, a potential draw for adult decision makers, or that have product that’s maybe a little bit older. That’s what we found in Tupelo.
We’ve got another project in Madison, Georgia, that just opened last week. It’s a patio home project. It’s about a half hour, 45 minutes southeast of Atlanta. It’s all one-story patio homes on 73 acres. So, it’s very open. You see the same benefits of living in a community setting from an amenity standpoint, but you get a lot of freedom and a lot of space. And I think that’s going to appeal to a lot more people than maybe it would have prior to Covid.
My first communication to my team about Covid-19 went out on February 28. So to think we’re getting closer to a year of dealing with this, there’s only so much people can handle. I worry about our teams. I worry about our people. I worry about the country and the world, if this goes on.
People’s psyches will still be damaged from this. So, we’re going to have to work really hard to get people back on track, get perceptions back to moving forward.
To follow up on where this conversation started, with Facebook Live, will digital marketing be a bigger piece of the puzzle going forward?
We were fortunate to have a really strong sales officer, to really push digital strategies prior [to Covid-19] because they’ve become so valuable. We knew our customer and more of the world was going digital … Covid made that 10 times more powerful.
So, we had already invested a lot and we’ve just doubled down where we’re really using the digital space to not only connect with people, but to educate people … and also try to validate. We’re qualifying our lead base with digital tools to maximize opportunities. So, we will continue to do that.
If you don’t have a strong digital media strategy plan, or you’re working to get one in place, you’re going to be really behind. Because I think that is how people are finding us. It was big before Covid, it’s going to be that much more important and vital after Covid.
When you started Vitality, you were frustrated at the slow pace of senior living innovation out in the market. Are you still frustrated?
I had some very strong beliefs and views. Using innovation and technology the right way has always been a core fundamental for me. That’s from years of trying or seeing platforms get rolled out and thinking they look really great on paper, and then they don’t really make the impact. So, that has remained a driving principle and driving force with my whole team as we’ve built Vitality.
We’ve been fortunate. I had to make partnership changes in the middle of growing this company, and really shifted the whole model. But ultimately, that ended up being a great shift, and I think prepared us for what we’ve gone through the last six months. Now, we’ve been blessed and fortunate to have some really great partners and some really strong growth.
As we’ve grown the company, there are times when we haven’t been able to move in the direction we wanted to, but we’ve maintained the belief that you’ve got to be thinking ahead, you always have to be thinking of tomorrow, you always have to be innovative, but then also making sure that innovation is executable and really does what it’s intended to do.
A real time example is initially, Covid-19 screening started, everybody wanted to do temperature screening. It was all this technology that flooded the market about getting temps screened, infrared this and that — we looked at a company that had an infrared camera to screen for temperature. And then three months later, you find out that you can have Covid-19 and be completely asymptomatic and temperature doesn’t matter. Do I think screening for temps is a bad thing? No, I think it’s a good thing. But it’s just an example of, we’ve got to be innovative, but we’ve got to make sure that innovation is stuff that really makes a difference.
We’re constantly trying to get feedback and determine what makes an impact and what’s going to make a difference in the lives of our families, the lives of our residents, the lives of our team members … what’s out there that we can do different, that’s going to be successful to the company but shape and really hopefully make an impact that a little bit unique?
The Madison project is a case in point for us. That’s a first for us. It is truly an active adult project. I don’t like putting labels on things, but it’s a patio home, pickleball courts, swimming pools, gyms — it’s a high-amenity product, but to me, that’s an innovative product because it’s a rural market, like we talked about. It’s going to try to reach an older adult earlier in their retirement cycle.
We were talking digital earlier. Twenty years ago, how would you find those folks? Now, in the digital world, I can be in Madison, Georgia and connect with someone in California digitally and start that relationship and experience.
… There’s a lot of companies thinking like we are, and I think that will help that frustration that I expressed. That was a time I was coming out and getting out there. And what I’ve probably changed the most in the last four years is yes, you’re right, there are some companies that are behind. But I’m starting to see a lot more companies that are ahead, I’m starting to see a lot more innovative companies and companies like Vitality that are starting to think differently.
That gives me a ton of hope, and it gives me a ton of excitement about where this industry is going over the next 10 years. I think we’ll see some significant change … I think you’ll see the way companies operate, the way companies interact, I think we’re going to see a lot of that change.
You see active adult as an area where you would grow in the future?
We would. I’m a partner in that project, actually, personally. So the partnership really wants to test this one, because it’s a rural market. It’s a different market, [than] where you usually see that kind of density. So, we want to get through and see how this project does. We’re all optimistic. It opened last week, so it’s a little early in the lifecycle. But if it performs as we expect it to, I can see us looking to really do that product in other markets like Madison across the country.
That is a rental, patio home model — no congregate living component to it?
Yeah. For Madison, we have a Phase Two that we could add a small AL and MC. Because I do think that continuum is still powerful, when people have the opportunity to have that continuum if they need it. But, it’ll be small and it won’t be the focal point. You traditionally see the AL/memory care is the focal point of the project. It’ll kind of be an add-on.
If we phase out the whole thing, we’ll have over 200 patio homes. And these are high-end, large square foot, modern amenities, modern finishes. It’s a really neat project. It feels very residential, which I think our residents appreciate, too. They don’t want to feel like they’re moving away from something more residential to something more clinical.
I’ve been wondering about the place of traditional IL, because it seems boomers are preferring this active adult model. And they can age in place there with the help of technology for a longer time, until they need AL. Is that the model that this community might be?
That’s exactly it. We’ve got a really cool concept. The partners we’re doing it with did a lot of student housing. So we have our villas, which are two-bedroom condos that are great; the more traditional patio home; and then we have our villages, which are actually a one-bedroom quad.
So, what it does is give each of the residents their own private space, but there’s some shared common space if they want to use it, and then each quad has a courtyard area. So, it’s a way to have different price points. [They’re] maybe a little smaller — they’re still really big, but they have a little bit more privacy, and [you] are still able to share a space with folks if you want to. So, we’re really excited to see how this concept works in the market.
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