Danette Opaczewski is the EVP, Resident Experience and COO of Revel Communities, an independent living brand developed by The Wolff Company.
After an extensive career in hospitality, Opaczewski joined Revel in January 2020 and has overall responsibility for the operations and financial performance of the management company.
Through the Changemakers series, Opaczewski talks about her background in hospitality and the inspiration it has given her to redefine the resident experience in senior living. She discusses the importance of pricing transparency and how to show value, and initiatives her team is taking to drive diversity, equity and inclusion in Revel and retirement living as a whole.
Looking over the landscape of senior living with some fresh eyes, what are some things that you think could use a new perspective or a different approach?
I joined back in January 2020, two months before COVID officially hit the market. I moved out west. I wasn’t looking for senior housing as a career opportunity, I was just coming out of a CFO role. I was also an EVP of Operations, and I’ve been in all facets of hospitality for 33 years. Through a hospitality connection, I met the Wolff Company, and they were looking for a chief operating officer who could operate their Revel Communities from a truly experiential perspective.
Their resort-style communities provided strong amenities, food and beverage, a pool, and all kinds of interesting spaces. My parents and my in-laws are both in their 80s, fighting to live independently in their homes or in an apartment that they’ve rented, and they did not understand that senior housing is more than just nursing care. I really connected with that.
In their mind, anything to do with senior housing was nursing care, and they did not want to go down that path. I started to dig into this business after interviewing with the Wolff Company, and I had many different conversations with them about the mindset of the aging population before I decided to move. I didn’t realize the deep amount of education and surveys around that subject, so I began to uncover what makes this industry what it is, and thought about the opportunity for an organization like Revel to change the tone.
Looking at it with a background in hospitality, I said to myself, “What is hospitality in this space? How do we deinstitutionalize it? And how do we make money in this business?” It’s a real estate play in a lot of ways, but I had to detangle all of those elements.
The boutique hotel industry in the 80s and 90s was very experiential. How did you feel when you walked into our properties? What about your dining experience made it special? What about our team members was different from a Marriott or a Four Seasons, where every layer of training existed? I started to apply the same philosophy in senior housing, then COVID hit. Obviously, it changed [our focus] and we pivoted fairly quickly, but I still see a huge opportunity to integrate the concept of being in service to the resident, providing service recovery when we don’t live up to their expectations, and treating seniors as independent individuals who have a life to lead all the way until they don’t.
I initially came from a place where I sold 4,000 rooms a day, and you could find the price of anything, anytime, in any capacity against your competitors. The minute I stepped into senior housing, I couldn’t figure out who was selling what, how much they were selling it for, and whether the price points of the apartments I’m offering were right for residents who are looking for a worry-free lifestyle. That was just a huge red flag. I came into this space trying to understand what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and I couldn’t figure out the pricing methodology behind it.
Having a finance background, I started digging into why it is so complicated, and immediately, I pushed my team to put pricing on our website and be very transparent about it. The more transparent we are, the more people will understand what the value is and why they’re buying it. I’m going to continue to push that across the board.
Another challenge is the market perception. The market perception is such that you’re disabled as you age, but you’re not disabled — you just need additional tools and resources to help you live your best life. Health care is only a small component of that, and I’m trying to figure out how to distinguish independent living as a way to be your best self by layering in care as needed. This is twofold, both personal and societal.
Do you see yourself as a Changemaker? And are you always excited to drive change, even when it sometimes involves risk?
We recently rolled out a program within our communities called Predictive Index, with the goal of analyzing our team members’ behavior to help them fit into their role and the industry in general. After participating in the program myself, I learned that I’m considered a venturer. A venturer is defined as somebody who is open to change and is motivated by the ability to make an impact on what’s in front of them.
I didn’t come into senior housing planning to be a changemaker, I came in and said, “This is a fascinating business, what can I do to make it better?” Leveraging both the operator’s view and my financial expertise inspired me to say, “Hey, there is a real opportunity here.”
I have a great company and a small enough platform to try things that others can’t. Frankly, I have never feared change because it has inspired me to try things.
Talk about a time when you tried to execute a change and things didn’t go according to plan. How did you pivot and what did you learn as a leader?
One experience was inside Revel and one outside.
At the onset of COVID, I had been with Revel for two months. I’m very new to the industry and 75% of my team is made up of talent who have been in the industry for their entire careers. A bulk of them have some form of medical background, medical training, or support, and have come out of AL or nursing care and into IL in order to try something new.
When the conversation of mask mandates and lockdowns happened before the CDC guidelines, I was like, “We’re independent, we’re not going to tell our residents and team members what to do.” But my entire team pushed back on me: “No, we can’t do that. We have seniors and they’re vulnerable.”
We had some really good debate, because I’m very open-minded as my team members throw stuff back at me. Then as the CDC started to put out some guidelines and I understood the implications of what it means to shut down the community, I said, “Okay, let’s take this in sections. Let’s follow the CDC guidelines while bearing in mind that we have independent residents who, if they lived in their own home, they could do what they want to do.” So we had to figure out how to bring them into the conversation.
We did. We immediately brought all of our residents into the conversation, and that was a great learning experience for me and my team because I had to adapt quickly to keep everybody safe.
I also think my team learned that this isn’t an institution. This is a place where people live — this is their home. When you shut them down or shut them out it creates a perception that we can now keep you away from your family, which is not good for society and not healthy for either the senior or the family.
A lot of people ended up moving out of traditional senior housing because it went that far. I’m a big proponent of free will, and I believe it’s important to keep the humanity in that conversation.
Before joining Revel, I built a company with a group of people, and we sold it to a family-owned hospitality group in New York. They were a 100-year company with multi-generations of people working in the business. I came in from the outside as a VP of asset management and I was ready to go. I didn’t realize, however, how deep and institutional all of their processes were, as I had never been in that environment before.
My immediate request from the family was to evaluate the health of their companies, and I did that. The outward impact for me was getting to present my material to the team on the ground, but the team who had been working with the family for 20 or 30 years did not like the result. They were very unhappy with me and very unhappy with my vision, and that created a disconnect for me in the first year. I had to adapt to that and was very successful in bringing them along in the business with the changes that were needed.
How do you think about timing in order to innovate without getting so far ahead of the market that a new idea doesn’t work?
In the spring of 2021, we launched a very innovative program [to allow residents to travel to different Revel communities], called Revel Seasonal Residences, thinking we were coming out of COVID and there’d be a lot more travel. We were super excited about it, but we had no takers and couldn’t figure out why. As we dug deeper, we realized people still had a fear of leaving their community or spending time without a clear, visible trajectory into the health of wherever they were going.
We pivoted and we ended up relaunching the program this spring and showing the health of our communities. We basically said, “Hey, we are healthy. We have healthy communities and we’re opening it up to prospects.” Now that most people are vaccinated, we’ve seen a much better response. I think timing is everything in this space. We were so excited to have something new last year even though the market wasn’t ready. Now we feel the momentum and we see a lot of movement.
We’re also piloting something that is a risk for our capital partners and our organization … to provide points to our residents to dine.
Most of the food and beverage in these spaces is one meal a day, two meals a day, three meals a day, buffets, whatever that looks like. Our vision is to give residents a minimum number of points that they can use for dining, services, groceries and activities. Just like a membership club, you have to spend a minimum amount of points on food and beverage for the price of entry, then you buy more as needed.
We’re taking some risk here, but having worked with Soho House on the membership club side, I think it’s important to have choices for people at all price points, and that’s where the transparency comes into play.
Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement? How would you describe your own appetite for risk?
Because I have a background in both finance and ops, I take an analytical slant to risk so I can quantify the impact. It’s called sensitivity analysis, and inherently, changemakers are people who can weigh the impact of risk to determine how their organization can move in a certain direction.
There’s a difference between a changemaker and a risk-taker, but they collide in certain spaces. So I look at myself as a changemaker and a modified risk-taker. I’m not going to drive us off of a cliff because of my financial acumen; however, I’m very interested in finding new ways to move the needle.
How can the senior living industry drive more diversity, equity and inclusion?
Having been in New York’s hospitality industry for my whole career, I have only worked in diverse and inclusive environments. One of the companies I worked with back in the first days of my experience was very LGBTQ, and it was an opportunity for me to learn and understand that environment.
When I came into senior housing, it didn’t have that same vibe. There wasn’t the same acceptance of everybody, which is why today, one of our culture codes is “Be You.” I know that sounds like the thing of the day today, but back when I started in early 2020, it wasn’t. I believe we need to create community environments where both residents and team members can be themselves and support each other.
It doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict, it just means we’ll work through that conflict in alignment with that vision. If you don’t believe in that, then maybe you shouldn’t be a resident in our community, or maybe you shouldn’t be a team member in our community. Culturally, I’ve found that our residents love the diversity we bring into this space, and our team members feel empowered as well.
We have a DEI team we call the Culture Crew, and it’s made up of volunteers that rotate out every few months so new perspectives can flow in. We are starting to move the needle within our space at Revel, and when I go out and talk to residents, I am thrilled by some of the feedback about our diverse community.
Our resident agreements state that you have to be a solid member of the community who brings positive enhancements to the people around you. It sends the right message to both sides saying, “Hey, we are a real community, and we have to respect one another.” That’s the hardest part in all of this. You are dealing with a generation that hasn’t necessarily lived in a diverse culture, and sometimes they are afraid of it, to be quite fair. With the Boomers coming in, I think it will be less of a challenge, and we can move together in the right direction.
As a company, you can’t ignore DEI. You have to be in it, and you have to address it. Especially in these independent living spaces, it is important to invest in the communal living concept, because it is a key part of making people feel like this is a great place to call home.