Retirement Unlimited President: With Strong Occupancy, We Are Gaining Scale and Bolstering Operations

Retirement Unlimited opened two new communities in 2019 — and then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

But the organization’s efforts to quickly stabilize occupancy and operations in its lease-up communities laid the foundation for the Roanoke, Virginia-based provider to defend its overall census and position it for success in a post-pandemic environment, President Doris-Ellie Sullivan told Senior Housing News.

Despite securing communities from April to June of last year during the peak of the first wave, as well as losing staff during that period, Retirement Unlimited rebounded and met its 2020 occupancy targets, without needing to readjust lease projections, Sullivan told SHN.


She also credits the company’s signature programming with helping to maintain occupancy levels and operations throughout the pandemic.

Now, Retirement Unlimited is focusing on recruiting new talent to the industry, and on growing its portfolio through development and acquisitions. The organization’s portfolio currently consists of 10 communities in Virginia, two in Florida, and two under construction set to open in 2023.

Weathering the pandemic

The company opened two new communities in the months prior to the pandemic – The Wellington in Gainesville, Virginia in August 2019, and Woodland Hills in Roanoke in January 2020 – and managed to stabilize occupancy at both buildings by the time the first wave of positive Covid-19 cases swept across the country. This helped overall operations when Retirement Unlimited closed its communities to all new move-ins and tours from April 2020 to June 2020. 


Sullivan credits strong pre-leasing at both communities with being able to stabilize occupancy in a short period of time, and allowing the operator to focus on keeping residents inside the buildings safe throughout.

Moreover, sales and marketing teams were able to hit the ground running when community restrictions were relaxed, and residents who paid deposits prior to the lockdowns moved into the buildings in short order. Today, The Wellington and Woodland Hills boast a combined 95% occupancy rate.

“We were so far ahead of our lease-up [pro formas] that, by the time we opened up the doors, we never missed our targets,” she said.

Retirement Unlimited struggled with labor issues during the pandemic, along with the industry at large. Sullivan noted that there was an initial panic among frontline employees during Covid-19’s first wave, resulting in a 24% turnover rate by the end of 2020.

But in sharing stories with other industry executives about their pandemic-related struggles, she found that the operator fared better than most, which she attributes to Retirement Unlimited’s family-based ownership structure and hands-on leadership. Staff at its communities were already offered meals during shifts, and the operator held its own with enhanced benefits throughout the pandemic, relative to other companies in its markets.

Responding to current challenges

This year has presented different challenges in two specific areas.

As restrictions on communities are relaxed and normal operations return, Retirement Unlimited finds itself competing with other industries for new talent, particularly in dining operations. Its communities have multiple dining venues, from tablecloth dining service and bistros, to wine clubs and coffee shops, and it is fighting for new workers with restaurants and other foodservice establishments that are resuming normal operations.

The company is addressing this competition by adjusting its culinary budget. It offers shift differentials to frontline staff, implemented a bonus structure in lieu of tips, and is exploring other payroll enhancements to entice new workers to the fold, as well as thank existing employees for their service.

The other pressure point involves staff vaccinations, where employee rates have lagged resident percentages across the industry.

Retirement Unlimited mandated staff vaccinations with the launch of vaccine clinics last January. The mandate did result in some staff resigning, but the operator’s vaccination rate among its workforce currently stands at 95%. Furthermore, with more providers across the industry mandating vaccinations, the company is finding some workers returning to their old positions.

Despite these challenges, Sullivan credits Retirement Unlimited’s signature lifestyle and wellness programming as an essential component for sailing through choppy waters.

One of its more popular programs, RUI University, experienced an uptick in enrollment over the past 18 months. The program provides free continuing education to residents via partnerships with colleges such as Virginia Tech University and Radford University in Radford, Virginia. Community lockdowns led Retirement Unlimited and its university partners to pivot to virtual courses, which were well-received and attended during lockdowns, via tablets and other hand-held devices.

Another program, Leash on Life, provides pet concierge services at Retirement Unimited’s communities. The Leash on Life program ensured pets received above-and-beyond care throughout the pandemic, particularly for residents with mobility issues. Concierges also made sure that residents’ pets had ample supplies available.

Covid-19 is not deterring Retirement Unlimited from future growth plans. The operator opened a new community, The Westmont at Short Pump in Glen Allen, Virginia, in May 2021. Two more communities are under development and set to open in 2023, and two of its Roanoke communities are adding cottages in expansion projects.

Retirement Unlimited is also looking to build scale through acquisitions, and is exploring several opportunities. And it is exploring an expansion of Care Impact, a home health and private duty concierge program. The operator recently hired a director of home health, applied for licensure in Virginia for Care Impact, and identified clinics across its portfolio which it will staff with nurse practitioners to work inside its buildings, as well as within the larger community.

“All of this is critical to everybody’s success,” Sullivan said.

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