Though they are not easy to undertake, partnerships between senior living operators and universities can help create opportunities for marketing and hiring.
In recent decades, senior living operators have sought to join forces with universities for forward-thinking projects, partly with the idea that it will appeal to the incoming baby boomers.
The prospect does have its challenges, such as the glacial pace at which universities and collegiate institutions move. But doing so has paid dividends for companies such as MedCore Partners and its Sooner Station community with University of Oklahoma ties.
LCS VP of Development Todd Shaw said the Des Moines, Iowa-based senior living operator has also seen the benefits of university-based senior living at the company’s Broadview Senior Living at Purchase College community in New York. And it’s a similar story at The Spires at Berry College, a senior living community on the campus of Berry College near Atlanta.
By building on or very near a university campus and affiliating with it, senior living communities are accessing built-in resident bases in the form of former students and faculty. They also are potentially gaining new workers in the form of students who live on campus.
“It took so long to get this relationship going,” said MedCore Partners Director of Senior Housing Operations Tiffany Cobern during the recent Senior Housing News BUILD event in Orlando. “But it’s really paying off in the long-term.”
Working with a university is complicated given the number of steps and reviews embedded in the process. And operators are often beholden to university boards or other regulatory bodies that can cloud future certainty for even the best-planned projects. For example, in order to get the Sooner Station project going, MedCore appointed someone to manage the relationship between the operator and the university, a process that took about four years in the end.
Marketing a built-in neighborhood
For years, many operators have sought to move senior living communities off of “islands” in the suburbs and into the larger community. Universities offer a big perk in that they already come with built-in vibrant and walkable neighborhoods that are almost tailor-made for intergenerational collaboration. They also carry strong opportunities to market to former students and faculty, especially if operators can tie their brand to the university itself.
Sooner Station opened in 2022, on land once owned by the university. The community’s designers sought to replicate the campus’s “university feel.” To do this, the community was designed to be open and “flow from space to space,” and is meant to feel similar to a university student navigating campus.
The most popular space in Sooner Station is a tavern called Town Tavern, named after a popular local establishment that had closed in the 1980s. Now, the name survives and is a nod to the surrounding community.
One persistent challenge to university-senior living projects are the naming and logo rights, especially for schools with big sports teams.
Sooner Station won university approval to use OU’s mascot and school colors in its namesake and marketing. The community also incorporates collegiate design elements such as a “wall of champions” that honors all of the university’s sports championships.
”We have a lot of photos of the university expansions and things like that,” Cobern said. “When you come and visit, even though we’re not on the same campus, you feel like you kind of are.”
Other senior living companies, including McNair Living and its Varcity senior living brand, are looking to flip the paradigm for university-based senior living through securing logo rights. The company’s first such community was with Purdue University.
LCS’s Broadview Senior Living at Purchase College community is located on the campus of Purchase College. The university was founded in 1970, and thus does not have a deep well of older alumni for the community to draw from, nor does it have a century-spanning history to reference.
LCS announced plans for the $320 million community in 2019 with development plans more than a decade in the making. The community’s design centers on creating places for students, staff and residents to interact organically, with a learning commons in the building that will be accessed by those at the college, alongside meeting spaces.
The Spires at Berry College was designed with the university’s themes in mind. The community’s designers drew on design elements from the nearly 100-year-old campus and incorporated spires into the architecture of the project to “seamlessly” blend with the college, both on the interior and exterior. The founder of Berry College, Steber said, included the design choice on the campus because “when you look up at spires, you look to heaven.”
Purchase College’s performing arts center, which is one of the largest in New York, helps with the marketing angle for the community, according to Shaw.
While all three projects focus on the university appeal to garner new prospects, it is also important to remember that these are not the only residents such communities must appeal to. Even at Sooner Station, a community made to be an extension of Oklahoma University, about half of the 140 residents have some kind of university connection, according to Cobern.
“I think it’s a bit of a misnomer that you’re going to build something next to a university … and people are going to move from all over the country,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen. We’re still a senior community, most residents are going to come from five to seven miles away. It’s a plus to have that affiliation.”
While senior living companies often position university-aligned communities to appeal to new residents, they also carry hiring opportunities.
For one, on-campus university projects are literally surrounded with young talent in the form of students. The Spires at Berry College Executive Director Laurie Steber previously worked in North Carolina before accepting her role with the community.She said she was initially drawn to the job by the prospect of working on a campus with intergenerational learning opportunities.
Now, senior living operators have a golden opportunity to find more workers like Steber through on-campus projects.
“You’re going to be able to meet some of the next generation of senior living employees and leaders that are going to come up,” she said. “Some of them don’t know they can work in the senior living industry until they start working with us.”
However, getting students to begin working at communities on or near university campuses can be a slow process. For the first year, Steber noted the community had difficulties getting students to work there and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm around it.
Berry College was “built on the basis of work,” and around 95% of the student population there has a job, Steber said. The community leaned into those characteristics and changed its messaging to show more professional positions within senior living, which ultimately brought more students through the doors.
The location of these communities can also open the doors for additional partnerships, such as a health and medical center around 30 minutes away from the University of Oklahoma. Cobern said conversations started before ground had broken on Sooner Station about receiving support, but the Covid pandemic slowed those talks down.
Now, however, there is the possibility of resuming talks and allowing medical students to get clinical rotations hours at the community through a clinical practicum agreement.
“In the meantime, we can add to establish a relationship with the local regional medical center for the day to day clinic operations,” Cobern said.