Senior living providers will need to come up with a new playbook to attract the baby boomers in the post-pandemic world — and boutique hotels could provide a roadmap for that reinvention.
Just ask Danette Opaczewski, executive vice president of resident experience and COO at Revel Communities, the senior living brand of The Wolff Company. Opaczewski, who joined Revel in January 2020 after a long career in the hospitality industry, recalled the way boutique hotels operated during the 1990s.
“Everything we did was sort of built from scratch and different, and we didn’t look at the training the same way. … there was diversity and inclusion, and there were servers with tattoos,” Opaczewski said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform. “I feel like senior housing has to start to grow in that diversity and inclusion space.”
With nine communities open and five more in pre-leasing or under development, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based operator is a growing presence in the high-end independent living space. As it grows, Revel is trying to break the senior housing mold with tech-forward operations, unique “staycation suites,” and a seasonal rental program that allows residents to move among all of the operator’s communities.
“What I think I’ve learned through this Covid experience is, what are the rules in senior housing — good, bad and ugly — and when is Revel going to break them?” Opaczewski said.
On how Revel handled Covid-19:
I came into senior housing from hospitality. In January of 2020, I made a career change, and Covid hit in March of 2020. And it was a really quick learning as to how to contain a virus in a community setting. However, I did have experience working in Manhattan during 9/11, so I really kicked into what I call emergency communication mode.
From minute one, I started focusing on how we serve our residents through this process and how we communicate to our team members, up through the broader organization and out to the residents. What we really focused on was strong, transparent communication, and on setting up policies and procedures that really helped the team members know what to do in a crisis like this.
What’s been tough for our communities, obviously, is the isolation. Being an independent living community, this is our residents’ home. Telling them they can’t see their friends and family is a very difficult thing. So, we worked on ways to help the residents not feel isolated, through technology and through allowing … residents’ family members into their apartments, not necessarily into the broader common areas of the community.
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What we did well was focusing on how to make sure every single person within the Revel family knew what was happening. There were a lot of local mandates and changes throughout the course of 2020 on what to do and how to do it. And we really focused on keeping up with that, and on trying to make sure everybody felt safe and secure.
We didn’t have major outbreaks in our communities, but we did have a few residents and team members who tested positive. The minute we found out, we contained any person and isolated them. I think that was the biggest learning … and the residents socially distanced themselves pretty quickly knowing the best way to stop the spread.
On what senior living providers can learn from the boutique hotel world of the 1990s:
When I worked in boutiques in the 1990s, they were unknown. They were very unique within the broader hospitality space and [were] very experiential. They were design-focused, they provided an ambience and an energy for the customer at the time, and they didn’t compete directly with the franchise brands — Marriott, Hyatt and so forth.
So when I was working and growing in that space, everything we did was sort of built from scratch and different, and we didn’t look at the training the same way, we didn’t call people mister or missus, and we really focused on that particular guest and what made them special. There was diversity and inclusion, and there were servers with tattoos.
I feel like senior housing has to start to grow in that diversity and inclusion space. It has to open it up and let the staff be who they are, and build relationships between the staff and the residents so that it’s less formal and more supportive and sharing. The residents just want someone to help them do a little bit better every day, feel a little bit better every day.
What I think I’ve learned through this Covid experience is, what are the rules in senior housing — good, bad and ugly — and when is Revel going to break them? The conversation around staycation suites in these types of communities — how do we do that in such a way that we educate the population and leverage it so people feel supported when they go to a new community?
And all the big brands now have boutiques, right? They’ve all bought them all up. They recreate that ambience and so forth.
On the prospect of a wider recovery in 2021:
We are seeing inklings of a recovery.
Revel was blessed to have growth in occupancy in 2020. I say that knowing that markets declined throughout the senior housing space. But we did a really good job trying to make sure that people who were interested in moving into our communities had an opportunity to do so when moving conditions allowed.
Going into Q1 of 2021, we’re actually seeing our leads up significantly from last year in Q1. We’re at about a 28% increase in leads alone. Now, hopefully, that turns into move-ins. But I would say for me, the recovery is really going to happen in full swing in the back half of 2021 when the vaccination rate is very high, and people feel more comfortable moving in.
What we’ve seen is, frankly, people who are in assisted living and on the cusp of maybe needing assistance [are] moving back into IL. I think the complete lockdown and isolation in health care facility-based senior housing really affected people and their families. And we’ve had many family members reach out to us asking to move their parents into our communities and have some outsourced support — whether it was a family member, or a third-party nurse — come into the apartment. So, we have seen some displacement from AL back into IL over the course of 2020.
On the biggest hurdles ahead to regaining occupancy:
One is that, senior housing, it’s run at a pretty high occupancy over time, just from the fact that there has been a need for it and people were open to transitioning much quicker out of their homes. However, the industry lost a good amount of occupancy — I believe it was somewhere between 6% and 8% in some markets and 10% and other markets — and that creates more competition, which I’m not necessarily sure is going to help the pace of lease-up coming in the back half of 2021.
I see a lot more concessions out there, a lot more rent reductions. Also, there is some competition coming into our markets, as well.
Our residents are very resilient, and they have very much been a positive source of energy for our team members in coming through this pandemic. However, they are becoming impatient with the concept of opening, then locking down … and then opening up and shutting it back down again. I think they’re not going to tolerate a lot more of those types of mandates that we’ve seen in the past year, so focusing on making sure that we don’t have to go back into lockdown mode is a big challenge for us.
On competition from active adult providers:
Absolutely, 55-plus has become a big part of who we sell against.
It’s similar [to independent living, but] it obviously doesn’t provide the same level of what we call growth options and support. So, 55-plus is truly just moving into an apartment and having a pool, you’re there and you find neighbors and you have friends. Whereas, I think IL really needs some positive market education. It is truly a place where seniors can have choices, have support, have food provided for them if they so choose to dine with us, take activities and bring those activities to life based on what they want to do, but it is important that we educate the broader market.
I’m going to tell you a funny story. I have a house in Fort Myers, Florida, with my in-laws. It’s a multifamily community, but we have lots of neighbors in their 70s and 80s. One of our neighbors, who is 88 and very independent and active, says that all the people [her age] she talked to do not understand senior housing. When she found I was working in this industry, she was asking me a ton of questions.
So, I find it fascinating coming from hospitality into this market that there is still a lack of broader market education on what this means and how people can choose and have options in their life as they age. And that’s what we’re trying to do at Revel: provide some source of education.
On how Revel is preparing for the future of independent living:
I’ve been learning about this industry as quickly as I can. I feel like independent living is definitely verging more toward 55-plus and away from the care model. At Revel, we call our model the growth model, versus the normal senior housing care model.
I think people over 80 are very much struggling with the future of technology, but I think people in their 60s and 70s today absolutely embrace technology. So, we’re actively working on making sure all of our interactions with our residents are technology-forward. For example, we are automating all of our leases and we’re going to a 12- and 24-month lease program versus month-to-month.
We’re looking for transparency in rent. In IL, AL, or anything in senior housing, you have to really dig deep and provide a lot of information in order to [learn] what the rent is and what it includes. We’re working toward making sure [we have] a very transparent approach for family members and residents who want to know, ‘What is this going to do for me? What does it look like? How can I live here?’
We have a program on our sales side called My Journey, and we’re really focused on taking each individual, and their thoughts and questions in their journey of aging, and trying to make sure that this is right for them. We may not be right for all people who reach out to us, but we may be, as well. So, we’re really working on an individual basis to try and figure out, is this the right home environment for you? And if so, here’s what we can do to support you as you age.
On how Revel plans to attract the baby boomers:
I go back to transparency and pricing, and being able to source and sell online better.
One of the things that Revel is working on is what I’m going to call a staycation and seasonal rental program. We look at Revel as a holistic brand, not individual communities. So if you’re a resident at any one of our Revel communities, you can now go stay — once Covid restrictions are lifted — for a couple of weeks per year in what we call staycation suites. We’re also working on a seasonal rental program where you can live in one of our communities, and rent for a couple of months in a different community.
I think it’s just broadening the horizons of the boomers that independent living isn’t a healthcare-based approach. It’s about providing support for you as your age, and whatever that may be educationally, artistically, intellectually, physically — we work on all of those parts of an environment in which you can be yourself.
On how residents feel about reopening plans:
Our residents have been resilient, but they are very eager to get back and socialize.
I think they’ve actually been pushing our staff to open up faster than we’ve allowed, given the local mandates. Our team members are more apt to be nervous about doing broader socialization and larger group events versus the residents, who are actively pushing to do those things at this point.
Our dining rooms are open at whatever the local mandate allows. The residents, as people looking at the last quarter or less of their life, they’re eager to get back out and meet their friends and have lunch and share their stories. So, I don’t think it’ll be hard to get them back [into normalcy]. I do think once we let them out of that space and all the lockdowns are gone and there are less mandates … it will be very difficult to do any type of lockdown again after we open things up.
On Revel’s growth plans and strategy:
In 2021 we’re opening four communities, which, coming out of Covid, is a challenge in itself. We’re opening two in Scottsdale, [Arizona]; one in Palm Desert, California; and one in Folsom, California, as well. But we are looking up and down the West Coast.
I think our investment committee is really focused on trying to be opportunistic. So if something comes up, and it looks like it’s going to be a great space for a senior living community on the IL side, we’re looking at them. We’re also looking in Texas, and we have a couple of things in the pipeline.
But we’re not looking to expand rapidly. Revel started a couple years ago, and we’ve expanded pretty quickly. And I think we’re looking to now make sure that the brand is holistically connected. So I would say [we want to have] 20 to 25 communities, and all connected in such a way that everybody feels like they’re part of the same family.
Up until today, everything has been new development. But we are absolutely open to doing one-off [acquisitions] for something that would fit the Revel model, which again, is very luxurious. If our residents have the opportunity to travel between each community, we want them to feel like they’re in the same place, that they understand the environment that they’re in, and that they’re going to have that same level of expectations on the amenity side.