Brand New World: Leaders Join Senior Living From Other Industries During Covid-19

Like a lot of people, Janale Flores at first believed Covid-19 would be a short-term disruption to her job as director of human resources and area director of international recruitment for Omni Hotels & Resorts in Broomfield, Colorado.

As shutdowns across the country took hold, however, Omni lost business. Meetings were canceled, employees were laid off, and Flores soon realized that the fight against the pandemic would become protracted, she told Senior Housing News.

During that time, she received a message from Adam Kaplan, founder and CEO at Solera Senior Living, informing her that the Denver-based owner and operator was looking for a corporate director of human resources.

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Kaplan, a 2004 graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, has spent his career exclusively in senior living, blending hospitality with senior care. Since launching Solera in 2016, he has always sought talent from outside the industry to fill job opportunities.

As the communication between Flores and Kaplan continued, she realized that she had the skills and experience Kaplan was looking for. She officially became Solera’s corporate director of people and performance last April.

“I knew it was the right opportunity for me, and it just felt very comfortable,” she said.

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Early in the pandemic, Kaplan and other senior living leaders anticipated that massive layoffs in other sectors might bring new workers to senior living. It has proven difficult to attract new frontline workers, due to higher unemployment benefits and other factors, but operators have had greater success in recruiting talented industry newcomers like Flores for leadership roles.

I said, ‘Well, what other industries are out there that would complement my skill set?’

Retirement Center Management Vice President of Hospitality Spencer Lane

Workers with proven track records in their previous career paths have skills that are transferable to senior housing. They bring unique experiences which can help providers approach operations from new perspectives. And they can leverage their own professional networks to bring in more new talent.

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During the pandemic, providers such as Solera, Retirement Center Management and Belmont Village have hired people for leadership roles with experience ranging from hospitality to public relations and communications to sales.

Houston-based Belmont Village filled several leadership roles during Covid-19, including high-profile positions in sales and communications, Chief Marketing Officer Carlene Motto told SHN.

“I’ve probably brought over 100 years of experience from the hospitality industry during Covid-19,” she said.

Transferable skills

Before starting her current role as senior vice president of communications at Belmont Village in July, Katie Gray was a vice president at Pennebaker, a Houston-based marketing and communications firm, where she led all marketing and communications strategies for the agency. Last spring, a recruiter with executive search firm Govig approached Gray about a job in Belmont Village’s communications department, she told SHN.

“I had no prior knowledge of senior housing at all,” she said. “It was a brand new world to me.”

After learning more about the opening and the responsibilities, Gray realized that she had the requisite skills and experience for the position and aggressively studied the industry in preparation for interviews.

“I became more and more intrigued, because the greater good — the mission of the business — resonated with me, along with the responsibilities of the position.”

Gray’s prior experience and skills allowed her to hit the ground running at Belmont Village. She has extensive experience in business-to-business and business-to-consumer settings. Additionally, she came to her new role with previous health care experience, having handled marketing and communications for The University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center, as well as Texas Children’s Hospital, at another marketing firm. This experience allowed her to identify ways to target referral sources such as physicians and social workers, and get them to engage with Belmont Village to drive potential residents and their families to communities.

“I was able to apply the same methodologies that I would [elsewhere] in a new environment,” she said.

For 20 years, Spencer Lane worked exclusively in the hotel and resort industry before he joined Retirement Center Management (RCM) as vice president of hospitality last September. Prior to joining the Houston-based operator, he was director of operations for a Hilton hotel in Houston.

Lane worked through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and other ebb periods throughout his career, but none affected the hotel industry as hard as Covid-19. Within weeks, 95% of his 270-person staff were laid off, and he knew the odds were solid that, as a higher salaried employee, he may have been next, he told SHN.

“I saw the opportunity to be proactive and look for other [positions],” he said. “I said, ‘Well, what other industries are out there that would complement my skill set?’”

I knew it was the right opportunity for me, and it just felt very comfortable.

Solera Senior Living Corporate Director of People and Performance Janale Flores

Lane cast a wide net in his job search and placed a call to a recruitment manager for RCM, the operating arm for developer Bridgewood Property Company. Through her, he learned that the operator was looking for candidates to fill the vice president of hospitality position – a completely new role at RCM.

Lane believes his extensive experience in hotels prepared him for his new role. Running resorts and hotels, he was in constant contact with customers including seniors who had the necessary wealth to stay for extended periods. As he went through the interview process, meanwhile, he did extensive research into senior housing, RCM and its competitors. This helped him get an understanding of what hospitality initiatives other providers were presenting to prospective residents in their sales and marketing strategies, and helped him overcome preconceived notions about senior housing.

“I think most laypeople would think of senior living as nursing homes. And that is not what Retirement Center Management is,” he said. “We are a company that is providing excellent places for people to live their best lives.”

A couple years ago Kristen Jordan briefly left the hotel industry to spend more time with her two daughters. When she rejoined the industry, it did not feel as rewarding to her as the volunteer work she undertook during her break, she told SHN.

She shared those reservations with a professional colleague, and that she was exploring a move to senior housing. The colleague suggested that Jordan reach out to a mutual friend at RCM who made a similar career move.

“I decided that this is definitely the direction I want to go,” she said.

Eventually, an executive director vacancy opened up at The Village of River Oaks, an RCM community in Houston featuring independent living and assisted living apartments, and private and semi-private memory care suites. Jordan was hired to fill the position in August.

“RCM was so open and helpful in my career aspirations,” she said. “Not knowing at the time that they were looking at going in this direction – it was just me just picking up the phone and wanting to talk to somebody to understand more.”

New ideas

The professional experiences these new entrants to the industry bring allow them to address common obstacles with fresh eyes, and identify creative solutions.

In her new role at Solera, Flores is responsible for recruiting talent for open positions. For this, she is drawing on her marketing background and leveraging social media to show what the operator is doing, provide a glimpse of its culture and show recruits their prospective work environments. This allows them to draw their own connections about how to translate their professional skills to this industry.

I had no prior knowledge of senior housing at all. It was a brand new world to me.

Belmont Village Senior Vice President, Communications Katie Gray

In one instance, Flores posted to her social media channels renderings of The Reserve at Lake Austin, a 120-unit community in Austin, Texas slated to open next year. Within a day of posting, she was flooded with inquiries from hospitality professionals, asking about open opportunities.

“One thing my previous company was really good at is getting on social media and showing exactly what we’re doing,” she said. “The focus for me in transitioning to senior living is letting hospitality professionals and [others] that don’t have their eyes open [know] what this industry can offer.”

Gray also brought her past experiences to bear in marketing Belmont Village’s larger communities in markets such as Austin, Houston and Los Angeles. She knows, for example, what minimum spends in these markets must be in order to be successful. She also applied her expertise with traditional media, as well as paid and earned digital media platforms, to develop strategies to increase new leads and referrals for sales and marketing teams.

“We were constantly going after the same prospects that were within a small radius around our communities,” she said. “We’ve been able to extend our reach through some of these new efforts. I was able to apply my skills and put them towards this industry.”

Lane is drawing on his hotel experience to develop standards for RCM’s front of house, dining and housekeeping teams to create a lifestyle experience comparable to four- and five-star hotels in Forbes Travel Guide. During the fourth quarter of 2020, he implemented training standards for dining room teams to be at a Michelin Guide one-star level of service. These standards are expected to be in place across all of RCM’s communities by the end of 2021, and it is something that Lane believes will give the operator an advantage in its markets.

“One of my first observations [studying other providers] was the dining [operation] was trying to push people through as fast as possible, get them fed, and move on to the next meal period,” he said. “I want dining to be an experiential portion of our residents’ day.”

New talent pools

Hiring leadership from outside the industry brings further opportunities to recruit more talent, by leveraging these leaders’ own professional networks, as well as letting them be the best selling tool for success.

It was just me just picking up the phone and wanting to talk to somebody to understand more.

The Village of River Oaks Executive Director Kristen Jordan

RCM’s Jordan already tapped into her professional network to fill other roles at The Village of River Oaks. The community’s sales and marketing director most recently worked for Marriott. The food and beverage director came from Hotel ZaZa, a Texas boutique hotel brand with locations in Austin, Dallas and Houston. Additionally, Jordan hired The Village at River Oaks’ executive housekeeper from the last hotel where she worked before moving to senior housing.

“We’re able to capture a lot of these people that would not have looked at senior living in the past. They’re really embracing this industry,” she said.

Gray tapped into her professional network to expand Belmont Village’s vendor partnerships, ensuring that the right talent is in position to quickly execute on the operator’s digital media strategies.

“I have a lot of relationships with vendors that I can count on, who I know have the same high level of standards that I do,” she said. “I’m a very results driven person, and I want to make sure that we have a team in place that is able to generate the results that we need in order to get our occupancy levels to stabilization again, and then to maintain that pride to surpass third party referral sources.”

RCM has been very aggressive in looking outside the industry for new talent, Lane told SHN. The operator’s corporate director of human resources, Kimberly Varley, also has a hospitality background and is casting a wide net for cooks, servers, and sales directors looking for new opportunities.

“All of these people have LinkedIn, and they see many of their connections making this change into a different career path,” he said. “They see the opportunity. They’re willing to make that transition. And we’ve been fortunate to capitalize on it.”

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