How HDG, Mather, Experience Senior Living Use Dining as a Marketing Differentiator

Senior living operators are evolving sales and marketing, and dining is taking a larger role in helping showcase a community to prospective residents.

Dining rooms, chef-prepared meals and culinary-focused amenities have long been a feature in senior living tours. But in 2024, culinary teams are stepping up to captivate prospects with health-focused, organic options and food-related programming like tableside service or cooking demonstrations.

That’s because the very nature of how prospects and their families interact with communities is changing as prospects expect more services, programming, and lifestyle options — and are often well-versed in a local area’s senior living options the moment they walk through the front door.


“In existing buildings we have, it’s about how do we get the culinary team involved in not only the tour process, but a little bit more intimate engagement with the prospect or family members,” Experience Senior Living Vice President of Culinary Experience Greg Sever said during a DISHED panel in Chicago earlier this month. “Engagement with the new generation of residents that’s coming in is going to be a big piece for us.”

Tweaking tours to showcase dining

The senior living community tour is among the most crucial tools a senior living salesperson has. Dining can be among a community’s crown jewels, and help drive home the value of living in one.

Senior living providers have revamped dining rooms in an effort to make a resident’s culinary experience more like dining in a restaurant, driven by broader menus and an emphasis on rotating specials as palates expand for modern fare. But that change to make communities more marketable through their dining rooms didn’t happen overnight in many cases.Evanston, Illinois-based Mather Communities brought in hospitality and restaurant experts to build out culinary teams over the last five years, according to Assistant Vice President of Restaurant Operations Thad Parton.


“We’ve focused on bringing it back to the restaurant way of thinking,” said Parton. “It’s the mindset that we’re running restaurants and the boomer generation is why we’ve been successful, and these are people who dine out regularly, and they’re going to places where they can enjoy multiple restaurants.”

Across Mather’s four life plan communities, sales teams and culinary teams meet regularly ahead of new prospects visiting to go over key points to personalize a tour to a resident’s preferences. Parton added Mather’s communities are “always in sales mode,” and that sales teams hold monthly lunches for prospects to dine on selections from a multi-course tasting menu.

Now more than in recent years, selling a community and presenting its value to prospects is “a team game” for Health Dimensions Group, according to HDG Vice President of Culinary Mika Stevenson. Through a resident ambassador program, HDG communities have identified extroverted residents who enjoy their experience at a community in order to share that with prospects.

HDG also gives prospects a parting gift, often a dessert from the menu, to help them remember their experience at home as they are deciding whether to move in. 

Merz Photography for WTWH Media

“Being in constant communication and being present for your residents is really important, and the goal would be to provide great food, great service, and build those relationships,” Stevenson added. “That’s absolutely the key.”

Marketing menus to drive marketing, remain competitive

Senior living operators have had to improve menus and pay more attention to detail in the dining room. That’s because new residents moving into communities nationwide demand more choices, healthier options and more flexibility in dining.

Experience Senior Living markets Reserve Collection of luxury communities with all-organic menus, Sever said.

“Organic, 10 to 15 years ago, was a buzzword. And now, it’s what people are used to,” Sever said. “It’s an expectation of what the next 10 to 15 years looks like.”

Having staff who are well-versed in various aspects of a community’s operations makes them more knowledgeable and helps the community stand out to potential prospects. For example, HDG department leaders go over five main points when interacting with prospects, Stevenson said.

Stevenson added that operators must make lasting impressions with customers through dining and coordination among other departments, which improves the tour process overall.

“Being transparent with families is important, and we let them make the decision,” Stevenson said. “So you know that those first impression pieces are very, very important.”

As they do so, operators must be “realistic” with residents about what a community can offer, Sever said.

“We continue to be realistic about what we’re capable of doing,” Sever said. “Food is not only a social event, it’s ambiance, it’s an experience, and if everyone is not on the same page, it’s a missed message.”

To improve the message sent by frontline teams to prospects, Parton said Mather wants corporate leaders that oversee wellness initiatives connected to those leaders and frontline teams. That creates better communication and a more cohesive marketing message.

“It breaks down the walls, and it’s easy to get stuck in our restaurants or stuck in our programming,” Parton said. “But if you see leaders working with each other, the frontline staff follow it.” 

Culinary teams at Mather also have access to specialized photography equipment, such as light boxes, to take high-quality photos of dishes.Doing so helps highlight on social media what the restaurant staff are cooking up, Parton added.

“We have to change those perceptions of what’s going on, and we do that in many different ways,” he said.

Some of the strongest marketing a community can do is through marketing its culinary program in cooking competitions, at least in the case for HDG. Stevenson shared an example of how an executive chef from a Denver, Colorado community won a cooking competition.

“I’m constantly trying to get myself and my people out there in the public eye to show them that this isn’t senior living of the 1980s anymore,” Stevenson added. “This is a new generation, and we have the talent, and we have to showcase that.”

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