Sales and marketing staff were among the first in the senior living industry to feel the operational effects of the pandemic — and they will play a crucial role in ushering them out, too.
With national senior living occupancy rates at a historic low, the work of sales and marketing teams is perhaps more important than ever before. That’s why senior living companies such as Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) and Belmont Village are switching up their strategies now in order to succeed in the so-called “new normal” of senior living sales and marketing.
Much of that has to do with the way the pandemic has changed consumer behavior and preferences. Senior living prospects were already using the internet to shop for communities before the pandemic, but thanks to Covid-19, that trend has greatly accelerated.
For example, the majority of Houston-based Belmont Village’s leads now come through the company’s website. In fact, the company saw 57% more new users on its website last year than it did in 2019, according to Chief Marketing Officer Carlene Motto.
“Our website is our new front door,” Motto said Tuesday during an SHN Sales Summit panel. “This gives us an opportunity, though … to control the messaging, create and build great content on your website and engage the consumers in a very different way.”
Brookdale and Belmont Village were already building digital sales and marketing infrastructures, but both companies had to turn on a dime when the pandemic hit last year.
For example, while Brookdale began experimenting with video engagement for sales prior to Covid-19, the pandemic’s arrival forced the Brentwood, Tennessee-based provider to quickly ramp up those plans. The company held a seminar last May in order to rally its sales teams and recenter its sales and marketing plans, with the expectation that the pandemic isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, according to Rick Wigginton, who is senior vice president of sales at Brookdale.
“For prospects and tours, we will continue to use digital enhanced engagement,” Wigginton said during the panel discussion. “Let’s face it, it may be well into the summer before we’re able to get close to anything that we consider more normal.”
Brookdale is the largest senior living provider in the U.S., with 726 senior living communities.
Belmont Village also was pivoting toward digital marketing before the pandemic began. The provider began building up its digital platform in 2019, and has allocated even more of its budget for digital marketing in the two years since. While the company has shifted back to hosting some in-person tours where state regulations allow, Motto doesn’t think the role of digital marketing will diminish anytime soon.
“Our prospects and our families now, this is all they’re doing. This is how they’re interfacing with their families,” Motto said. “So I think everybody together, as they’ve tried to navigate through Covid, have become much more comfortable with some of the technological aspects.”
Using its website as a “front door” has helped the company gain the trust of residents and their families. Belmont Village created new landing pages with video content to emphasize and demonstrate its Covid-19 safety protocols.
“We’ve created new videos, digital and offline advertising tactics that showcase Belmont village and, most importantly, this industry are resilient,” Motto added.
New inquiry and move-in volume had declined significantly by the second quarter of 2020, pushing down occupancy at Belmont’s 32 communities across the United States. Move-ins have rebounded somewhat in the months since, but not at pre-Covid levels, as some of the provider’s prior referral sources have dried up, Motto said. And many of the provider’s newer residents are needs-based and higher up on the acuity spectrum.
“We know that no one window shops for senior housing, but they surely don’t during a pandemic,” Motto said. “We are seeing a little bit of a shorter sales cycle from the initial inquiry to move in because they’re not looking at five or six different communities like they did, pre- pandemic.”
The same holds true for Brookdale, as Covid-19 outbreaks have affected the provider’s key metrics, according to Wigginton.
“If there’s anything that we’ve taken away from this pandemic, it’s to focus on what you can control, and to stop and reassess process and dynamics as they change change,” Wigginton added. “I can’t predict how the timing will play out, but we are leading our teams to be situationally aware and to be ready to make plays faster as markets open back up.”
Faced with a shrinking list of reliable referral sources, Brookdale worked to make up the difference in other ways, such as by offering virtual continuing education courses for medical professionals.
“We’re working to use that engagement to produce more referrals [from medical professionals],” Wigginton said.
Some senior living providers have implemented rate discounts or other incentives to lure residents back into their communities, a practice that worries Wigginton.
“I am concerned when promotions and deep discounts are used for short-term occupancy gains. There is a cost to creating high quality experiences for residents,” he said. “I was an arts major, but I can do enough math to know that isn’t viable, long term.”
Motto agreed that such discounts are unsustainable, especially given the fact that expenses are up and revenue is down for virtually all of the senior living industry at the moment.
On the staffing side, Belmont saw “very low” turnover, Motto said, and successfully recruited some sales people from the hospitality and event industries — a goal many other providers have shared.
“I found that these individuals … have a solid foundation in sales training, sales metrics, hospitality, financial acumen, business development and customer engagement,” Motto explained. “And many of these skill sets are very transferable to senior living.”
And Motto said she sees little indication these workers will leave the senior living industry if and when the hospitality industry returns to more normal operations. For one, Belmont Village makes sure in the interview process that applicants understand this is a business that requires long-term personal relationships with residents and their families. Many of Belmont’s applicants are re-evaluating their careers and seeking purpose and fulfillment — two things the senior living industry can offer them.
“The hotel business, a lot of it was seven days a week, some of it evenings if you had an evening presentation or a pharmaceutical group that was coming in late into the night,” Motto said. “So, some of them are also looking at some of the work-life balances that potentially you can obtain here in our industry.”
At Brookdale, the focus is on training employees to be “corporate athletes” that can function in the long-haul, Wigginton said. About 19% of the company’s sales hires in 2020 were “Brookdale boomerangs,” meaning they were returning to the company after leaving it in the past.
“Keeping a winning attitude electric and alive during the crisis is incredibly important to continue with morale and encouragement,” he added.
Both Brookdale and Belmont Village are preparing for more turbulence in 2021, and are unsure whether record-low occupancy rates will drop even further this year. But both companies are also starting the year with some hope now that the Covid-19 vaccine effort is underway.
“Last year was … awful in so many ways, but our teams are energized and we’re excited about the possibilities of 2021,” Wigginton said. “And I don’t think that’s wishful thinking or shallow optimism.”
Although Motto is encouraged by the prospect of a senior living industry recovery in 2021, she is also concerned about the speed of the vaccination efforts, and by the amount of education that will be required to boost vaccination rates among senior living workers.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns,” Motto said. “But I am energized by the business that we’re in, the people that we have [who are] every single day making so many personal sacrifices, and we will get occupancy back.”