Covid-19 forced senior living sales and marketing teams to prioritize the health care component of communities, placing a premium on keeping residents safe and providing quality medical care.
For some providers, this has been a complete reversal of strategy from prior to the pandemic, when sales and marketing emphasized a luxury, lifestyle-forward product. And teams have been subject to a steep learning curve in order to answer pressing questions from prospects and their families who are increasingly entertaining needs-based moves to senior housing, and have done their homework ahead of starting their search.
The arrival of coronavirus vaccines might be a turning point in the fight against the pandemic, but it does not mean that providers will succeed by going back to a lifestyle-oriented sales and marketing strategy, according to leaders with Oakmont Senior Living and Juniper Communities. They anticipate a period of a year or more before lifestyle-focused messages resonate strongly again.
This means providers must continue to strike a balance between selling safety and care with selling lifestyle and services, and there is no uniform solution to achieving that, Juniper Communities Chief Marketing Officer Cindy Longfellow said during a January 26 panel at Senior Housing News’ Sales Summit, which was held virtually.
“Making health care a bigger part of your messaging and your advertising remains critical,” she said. “But you have to do that in the context of who you are.”
Reversal of priorities
Before the first wave of positive coronavirus cases swept across the country last spring, selling and marketing access to health care took a back seat to promoting the lifestyle, high quality buildings and services that senior living affords residents. At least, that was the case for many providers, including Windsor, California-based Oakmont Senior Living, which has a portfolio of 31 communities across California and Nevada.
“The preference was social engagement, dining experience, access to health care, and continuity of care,” Oakmont Chief Operating Officer Matt Stevenson said.
Covid-19 reversed the order of priorities, with access to health care and continuity of care now at the top of prospects’ lists, along with inquiries about infection control procedures, and sanitation and safety protocols.
“Once we [established] clearly articulated [protocols], that is a leading value proposition,” he said.
But sales and marketing teams did not focus as much training on the care component, pre-pandemic, which caught many flat-footed when general inquiries into the product took a nosedive and they suddenly found themselves handling more inquiries into needs-based moves.
Stevenson believes that curiosity-driven inquiries about the industry have all but disappeared over the past nine months, and resulted in a nearly 80% decrease in new inquiries for Oakmont.
Oakmont’s experiences jibe with a December customer sentiment survey released by Scotiabank (NYSE: BNS) which revealed that senior housing occupancy will bottom out in mid-2021 before reversing course, as seniors postpone move-ins until Covid-19 is under control. And recent occupancy updates from Welltower (NYSE: WELL) and Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) confirm that occupancy has continued to decline this winter amid Covid-19 surges around the country.
Bloomfield, New Jersey-based Juniper is experiencing a similar shift in inquiries across its portfolio of 22 communities. Prospects rarely would have raised questions about infection control procedures prior to Covid-19, Longfellow observed. Now, they and their families are asking about that, safety, access to care, cohorting in communities to reduce the severity of an outbreak, and types of coronavirus testing offered.
“The priorities have changed,” she said.
A better educated prospect has forced sales and marketing teams to burnish their training in order to answer all questions and concerns that may arise during inquiries. Juniper has always balanced lifestyle with care in its sales pitches, with its “Connect4Life” model being a centerpiece of its model. Now, that offering still takes center stage in the inquiry process, along with new care components implemented during the pandemic.
Longfellow credited the results of a study conducted last summer for the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) by market research firm ProMatura with providing clarity to the shift in prospects’ questions during Covid-19, helping facilitate Juniper’s shift.
“Honing that message to those critical questions during the Covid-19 reality was key for our teams,” she said.
Oakmont is addressing the challenge of assuaging prospects’ concerns about a pandemic-related move with more focused training of its marketing directors and key leaders. The provider convenes frequent calls between its medical director and marketing teams to discuss details of infection control protocols, ranging from the types of measures utilized to the products being used and the frequency of sanitizing common spaces.
“We need to be able to speak confidently as an expert, to gain that trust and respect and, ultimately, that confidence for them to move into an Oakmont [community],” Stevenson said.
Long road to stabilization
Eventually, providers will return to prioritizing the lifestyle aspect of senior living, Stevenson believes. But general inquiries into the product have decreased significantly throughout the pandemic, and may not return to pre-pandemic levels for some time.
He believes the occupancy losses across the industry throughout the pandemic will force a concerted industry effort.
“We’re going to have every operator trying to lease up and recover occupancy the next 12 to 18 months — at the same time,” he said.
Stevenson expects exploratory inquiries to gain momentum in the next three to six months, in conjunction with positive momentum from vaccinations and the building of herd immunity.
To build back occupancy will require a concerted, industry-wide effort to increase market penetration, which has stubbornly hovered around 10% on a nationwide basis, Longfellow and Stevenson argued. But,there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and not every provider can fill the health care needs of a prospective resident.
Operators that can return to a lifestyle-based sales approach will be able to capture those exploratory inquiries, allowing needs-based prospects to target their searches to providers prioritizing care. In Stevenson’s view, there is only so much of each to go around.
“We’re going to need sizable commitment and investment from operators across the board to help better penetrate markets,” he said. “To do that, we’ve got to get back to selling luxury.”
Juniper has long balanced health care and lifestyle in its marketing and sales approach, and will focus on the clinical side of wellbeing for the next 6 to 12 months. Longfellow agrees that stabilization will not occur until the pandemic is put to rest, and only with a concerted industry effort on market penetration.
“We’ve always looked at a cross section of physical, social, emotional, even vocational and altruistic realms of wellbeing,” she said. “We’ll continue to focus on all of those dimensions, and how having good physical wellbeing enables one to really enjoy that social connection.”