Problem Solvers: Improving Virtual Tours to Sell Senior Living

The Covid-19 pandemic has created myriad problems for senior living providers. But these problems are not insurmountable, and companies across the industry are devising creative solutions.

In this series, we’re surveying industry leaders to highlight these actionable solutions. For this edition, we asked leaders with Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), Senior Lifestyle Corp., Kendal Corp. and Westminster Communities of Florida:

How are you improving virtual tours to sell senior living?

Janine Witte, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Senior Lifestyle Corp.

We have a very sophisticated agency — Investis Digital — that was able to respond very quickly during the onset of the pandemic and the ongoing changes from a communication standpoint that were important as we move through all of this.

[Our digital] platform was already set up where, if we wanted to do 3D tours, it’s already built to absorb all of that. We have a good platform in the sense that it can be very sophisticated. [For] virtual tours, we adopted the OneDay video platform for the communities to put out some branded videos directly to prospects, so they could still be in touch.

There was really nothing required to it. The OneDay team sets us up with coaching. You can call the account reps at any time; they’re hyper responsive. For us, it was a seamless implementation. When they put our branding together, they hit it on the first try.

At the community level, [transitioning to virtual tours] to learn how to do a good tour, they had to practice it, watch it and repeat the process until it was perfect. It’s literally all camera work. It’s holding the camera still. It’s learning how to pan a room from left to right, instead of flipping the camera wherever your eye is going. They got the hang of it real fast. The communities understood the value, the opportunity and the necessity [of virtual tours], and they’ve done a good job. They love doing resident and staff testimonials, and found all kinds of ways to help someone exploring their community feel a little bit more connected. They did a beautiful job.

Video is a big strategy for us and we want to spend more time doing it. This solves a lot of problems using this platform. What we’re trying to do is keep pushing to get some virtual sneak peeks in so we have a bigger audience faster, before we get them to the community. We have to keep finding ways to get face-to-face with prospects, even if it’s off-site and doing a socially distant meet for coffee and get back to having a real conversation about what’s going on in their lives that made them call us.

The ease of use makes the practice joyful. The divisional directors of sales and marketing spent copious amounts of time watching videos, giving feedback, and we built training around the videos. We have fun with it because if something’s easy to use, and you can practice it, you can get good at it. And they want it to be good at it.

The important driver is the end product is really nice looking and they can be proud about sending those videos out. OneDay helped us understand where we had high adoption or low adoption and where we could apply more training and we just made it part of our life.

I’m always a sucker for a good resident testimonial or staff testimonial — it just makes your heart pound to hear the joy and the passion. The ones that I really liked the best are when the representative is clearly coming off some type of discovery call. Watching those compassionate messages go back to a family that doesn’t know what to do, those were the ones that honestly advanced the sales.

Howard Braxton, Director of Sales and Marketing, Kendal Corporation

We had seen a significant migration of prospect leads [to digital] for two and a half years, through Covid-19. The digital migration for us did not seem to be difficult, other than turning it up a notch, as [celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse] used to say.

All of our affiliates had been doing some level of digital migration — either very aggressive or some minimal migration — long before [the pandemic]. Specifically we have a community in Ohio, one in Chicago, one in the Philadelphia area, and one in the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area, that had been doing very aggressive digital marketing campaigns. In one case, the community in Ohio really has probably shifted 80%, if not more, of their marketing efforts to digital marketing campaigns.

Again, this was all prior to Covid-19.

We took a three-pronged approach with our virtual tours. First, we increased the number of virtual tours of campuses, communities and, in some cases, individual residences on our affiliates’ websites.

Second, we made a significant effort to have [both] virtual events and tours. We would go on Zoom, for example, and have a number of people attend a particular event. From that point, we would take people through a virtual tour.

Third, we personalized tours based on the type of residents that we were showing. For example, we would send video tours in emails directly to prospects, based on their [shopping preferences]. If they wanted to see a one-bedroom, we would send them the one-bedroom tour. If they wanted to see the campus, the same thing. We did have a few communities that did point-of-view tours where the marketing director and the salesperson actually walk through the community or a particular residence, where the salesperson was the presenter and the marketing director was the camera person. In one case, they were able to take live questions as they were walking through the apartment and create an event out of the virtual tour.

There was a learning curve; none of our directors or salespeople were hired to be cinematographers. We were able to provide them with information from the industry as model practices, to ensure that they were getting the best results from their videos. And they also shared those practices with each other, as to what was working and what was not.

What we did find is that prospects really liked more of the “home grown,” casual type of presentation versus slick productions. They really liked the fact that the marketing people were being casual and matter of fact in what they were showing. The only times that we really did more of a professional video is when we did have something that we were producing for our website. In those cases, we use that platform a bit more specifically. We had a few do a few retakes to get it looking good for the websites.

We did not use a video production company. But there is a company that we signed a contract with to secure their video equipment, and allowed us to use that as our specific video platform. We could migrate clips of videos, edit them and make sure that they were somewhat standardized in look and feel. Some of the affiliates use their own video equipment they may have had on hand, as well.

We’re able to track the success of our digital marketing and virtual tours through our CRM. A [targeted] email is very easy to track through our CRM.

From a perspective of tracking our leads, and incoming prospects, we do so in a variety of different ways. First, we use our CRM and marketing automation platforms. And we have a call tracking system, so if there were phone numbers for people to call after they watch a video, we could use the system to do the same thing. There are a number of different ways to be able to track that individual success.

Most times, it was because the prospect got back in touch with us and said, “I saw your video. Thank you for sending it to me. We were able to kind of double back to that prospect based on their interaction with us. All that information was captured in our CRM, so that we could run reports as necessary, based on what we needed to know.

It’s almost as if what we saw was what the prospects were also experiencing. The majority of our communities are only really selling to independent living, seniors who are looking to move into that life care type of setting. A lot of these individuals are not the adult children — they’re the end user. What we were finding is that there was a learning curve for the prospects. When this all launched, we had to shut down community visits and we couldn’t have tours or people coming to events on site. We started producing these virtual assistant virtual tours or virtual events, and the prospects warmed up to it very quickly, but they had a learning curve as far as how to access .

We need to make sure that a lot of the directions as to how to access the virtual event or virtual tour was very specific. And we had to sometimes indulge people coming in late to the event, because they had some system issues of their own, whether it was technical difficulties beyond their control, or just not understanding how it was set up. As we migrated through Covid-19, that became less and less and attendance increased, as people became more comfortable with this particular type of style of interaction

As we reached September, pretty much across the board, we did see sort of a slowing in attendance of virtual events and tours. We called that “Covid-19 exhaustion.” [Prospects] wanted to see the real deal. They wanted to come to the communities and see the dining rooms, taste the food, et cetera. To manage that, we started putting more specialized events: coffee hours; talk show-style events where featuring a different person from the community, such as a culinary director, a director of nursing, a care coordinator, a marketing director or a CEO. We gave people more specific information about what we do at the communities, and let them delve into a question and answer. Those seemed to improve attendance.

Some affiliates did specialty events that were more related to something that happens in their marketplace, or something that they know is a trend for their marketplace. In the Pennsylvania area, we have a community in Chester County. That area is very well known for the artist, Andrew Wyeth. So they put together an event that featured some historical perspectives on Wyeth’s paintings, and that event had a huge turnout. We were able to capture the essence of why people were coming to the virtual event.

Nicole Muller, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Westminster Communities of Florida

Prior to the pandemic, we were not typically doing virtual tours. We quickly had to adjust to the new sales realities and embrace technology to find solutions.

We discovered that we had to start over — rethinking our marketing plans, as well as how we sell. Senior living very much remains a relationship sale and our teams had to adapt to building that relationship virtually. The pandemic really caused us to innovate and create new ways of doing things. We realized that we had a lot of work to do, by increasing our digital marketing strategies and move to virtual selling. We also had to inventory our online presence and virtual content libraries to ensure we offered enough valuable information for prospects to learn about our communities. We had a lot of catch-up to do.

We decided we would have our teams try a lot of different things and brand new ideas. We had to experiment and be very creative and not be afraid to make a misstep. Evaluating and analyzing these new efforts was important to understand what was working and what wasn’t and how we could adapt and improve. Some of the things that turned out to work totally surprised us. As we’ve gone further along, we’ve been able to refine and hone in on what works, like using FaceTime calls, or customized videos rather than pre-made videos.

Our goal has been to really focus on personalizing the tour. Rather than show everything at the community, our most successful sales counselors are using discovery to determine what to show each prospect and what to focus on during the virtual tour – much like an in person tour. Some of our biggest early challenges were about technology and experience — how to make sure the video quality was good and the community showed well. During the pandemic when no personal tours or activities were taking place, we found that some of the common areas were being used for storage or other uses and did not show well virtually. So we learned that we had to focus on cleaning up those areas.

Some of our earliest successful experiments included sales counselors strapping their phones or cameras to a golf cart or a tripod and running live tours and apartment walk-throughs via FaceTime. Discovery at the onset was still an important focus to build the relationship. As we’ve gone along, we’ve been able to discover new and different ways that we can refine how they’re able to do it.

Prospects are very appreciative of the effort. Our teams learned that the prospects were very observant and had very specific questions and wanted more detail and in depth information than we first thought.

We have had to ensure that all of our marketing efforts have incorporated a strong call to action to engage prospects in the way that they’re most comfortable, both with virtual tours and now in-person tours. As we’ve seen a significantly greater focus on online marketing tactics and enhancing those content libraries, we continue to see more traffic driving to virtual tours on our websites.

Just as our sales counselors had to get more comfortable with technology, we have also found the same effect among prospective residents and their families. At first, acceptance wasn’t there. Today, we are seeing much greater willingness, enthusiasm and expertise among our prospective residents especially. For our independent living prospects, though, we are still seeing a lot of prospective residents who would rather wait until they can come in person.

What we’ve heard the most is an understanding that it’s going to take time to adapt. We have put a lot of effort into building the relationship and not skipping discovery so that the prospect feels comfortable.

We have had success selling in several cases entirely virtually. This kind of surprised me. One resident recently moved sight unseen because her daughter lived nearby. Another was on the wait list and familiar with the community but virtually accepted a residence that had become available.

Dave Cygan, Chief Marketing Officer, Brookdale Senior Living

Most of our communities were equipped to conduct virtual visits and were testing capabilities via video. We were really focused on customer experience to ensure our sales teams could build a strong connection with prospects.

With visit restrictions placed on many Brookdale communities, we had to analyze our web and digital technology as well as our sales enablement platforms to quickly transition from traditional in-person meetings and events to a virtual environment. The good news was we had been making investments in our marketing technology platform so we were well-equipped to adapt to this new environment and support our Brookdale communities across the country.

We knew that Covid-19 was going to make a lasting change on how we could conduct tours at our communities, so we assembled a cross-functional team to address the technology, systems, processes and training that would be required to shift to a virtual environment. We leveraged our digital advertising and social media channels across our communities and major markets to promote virtual tours and ensured our sales teams could still conduct virtual events and seminars. All the while we knew we had to make prospects feel welcome and motivated to take the next step in their journey to senior living.

We relied on video and applications such as Zoom and FaceTime to capture important features of a community. We also used custom videos made in the communities which enabled local community leaders to showcase local communities to prospects, families, and medical professionals. We are very proud of our associates’ ability to embrace new technology, not only for themselves but to provide assistance to prospects to conduct a successful virtual tour. At Brookdale, a visit to a community is a very personal experience, so we wanted to make sure we could still capture those important interactions and special moments that are often created when a prospect meets community associates and current residents for the first time.

We incorporate feedback from prospects who visit our communities into our processes, so we’ve been able to focus on the things that mean the most in a virtual environment, such as seeing an apartment and experiencing the culture of the community.

We continually capture feedback from our field sales, senior living advisors and divisional marketing teams. With virtual tours, we’ve been able to quickly make changes. Our sales teams have been able to pivot to virtual tours and still deliver a good customer experience. One of our Divisional VPs of Sales, Elaine Jordan, has noted, “We have the ability to move a prospect more quickly through the sales process by offering a virtual tour immediately upon inquiry, and then offer a nurse visit to determine care needs.”

Prior to the pandemic, earned and paid media played a major role in engaging prospects. With virtual tours becoming the new normal due to the pandemic, we had to shift almost overnight all digital campaigns to promote virtual tours. As we know, online search is often the first place prospects turn to for senior living information. So, it was important to ensure our online channels were modified to promote a new way to visit a community. Social media played a significant role and we were even recognized by Facebook as an exemplary leader of social media for our Covid-19 response.

As Covid-19 has caused the entire nation to change almost every aspect of life, our prospects have become more familiar with technology and open to virtual tours. We continually monitor prospects’ visit experience to a Brookdale community through surveys as well as reviews on Google.

The conversion from lead generation has many factors. We have definitely seen a stronger shift to our digital channels throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with inquiry volume remaining consistent to 2019. With our traditional community events and larger gatherings being paused, much like the rest of the industry our overall inquiry and move-ins volumes are down. However, with the addition of virtual tours, we have been able to move in prospects who would have otherwise delayed this decision, waiting to make an in-person visit.

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