Atria CEO Belter-Chesser: Senior Living Buying Experience Has Changed, Innovations Needed

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Holly Belter-Chesser has been with Atria Senior Living for 15 years, but becoming CEO has changed her perspective – and she is embracing the leadership transition as an opportunity to “take a fresh look at everything.”

She compares the experience of becoming CEO to “putting on a new pair of glasses” and says that she and the leadership team are prioritizing the “list of things that we want to do” after seeing the company and industry in this new way.

“It’s very energy inducing,” she told Senior Housing News.


One area of focus: Innovations tied to changes in how consumers shop for – and elect to move into – senior living communities. She believes that providers can learn more from the multifamily and hospitality sectors, and anticipates more people will be selecting senior living communities without even visiting them in person.

“The reality is, now it’s a different buying experience,” she said.

Since becoming the new CEO, Belter-Chesser also has made it a mission to visit as many of Atria’s communities as possible. So far, she has visited nearly 50, with a goal to reach 100 by the end of the year.


Prior to taking over as the CEO, Belter-Chesser served as the Louisville, Kentucky-based company’s CFO. She joined Atria after a career in finance, and every role she has had within the company has been shaped based by the company’s growth and needs at the time. And the company did grow substantially over her tenure, to take its current place as the second-largest operator in the country, with a portfolio of about 232 communities.

“I didn’t have very defined job descriptions in my first several roles, because it was a new role created out of a need that we had,” she said. “And so coming into the CEO role, it allows me to leverage my background in supporting all of those different departments, and figuring out how they work together.”

Atria CEO Holly Belter-Chesser

Operational changes

Since becoming CEO, Belter-Chesser has made it a priority to fill out her leadership team with two internal promotions: Mark Alexander, who has been with Atria for 26 years, has become CFO, and Tyler Whitty has become general counsel. Belter-Chesser said that Atria’s leadership team has a combined total of about 120 years of experience, with 15 years being the average tenure at Atria.

Operationally and financially, Atria has been seeing increases in recent years as well, with inquiry rates increasing by 20% compared to 2019 averages, and conversion rates on the company’s site “at an all time high.”

“We are in a really strong position from an operational momentum standpoint, and we’re in a really unique position where we have the cash to invest in our platform as we move forward,” Belter-Chesser said.

As far as potential changes, she spoke about continuing to push the envelope in adapting to new consumer behavior and expectations, adjusting the sales and marketing process in particular.

Atria has pursued what she described as “more of a content strategy” on the company’s website, with blogs, informational articles and media meant to reach people “well in advance” of moving to senior living – for example, offering resources and education for family caregivers.

Pricing transparency on the website is also critical, she said. And providing consumers with even more online information – such as detailed floorplans – is increasingly crucial.

It has been an industry truism that visiting a senior living community is an invaluable step for a potential resident. While that remains largely true today, Belter-Chesser believes that more people – particularly those with less robust health care needs, such as older adults considering independent living – will be conducting the senior living buying process entirely online. If that seems far-fetched, she notes that Covid-19 has already shown how the sales process can be conducted virtually. And a decade ago, Belter-Chesser says, she could not imagine buying a car without taking it for a test drive.

“You can buy a car online now, you can sign a lease for an apartment online, and senior housing is a little bit behind from that perspective,” she said.

She also emphasized the extent to which the home-buying experience has been radically transformed, with high-quality video and innovations such as drone footage not only taking potential buyers into a house, but touring them around an entire neighborhood. Atria is leveraging some of this same technology, but Belter-Chesser sees more potential for the company and the senior living industry as a whole to innovate in this area.

The need for a more virtual sales experience is even more urgent due to the fact that families are more disparately located today than in the past.

“Brother, sister, and younger brother are not all living within 20 minutes of mom and dad, and then within 20 minutes of the community,” Belter-Chesser noted.

And, consumers are increasingly expecting that they can shop for anything – from new shoes to senior living – on their own schedules, not just during traditional business hours.

“The reality is, people shop in different ways, and we need to be able to meet that need,” Belter-Chesser said. “And so we’re putting ourselves in a position, and taking a page from lots of different industries, to do that.”

Multi-brand approach

Moving forward, Atria also plans to continue to develop its multi-brand offerings for a spectrum of price points and needs in order to meet the incoming demand.

One of those brands is Coterie, which includes ultra-luxury buildings that recently opened in San Francisco and New York City, built in partnership with development behemoth Related Cos. Belter-Chesser says she is excited about the lease-up trajectory that Atria has seen in those markets. Atria and Related are continuing to look for opportunities to expand Coterie. However, Belter-Chesser said potential markets have to make sense for the high-end luxury offering, and making deals at this time has its challenges.

“It’s hard to do deals these days from a debt and equity structure … And so looking for the right opportunity will be something that we continue to do,” she said.

Serving a different price point, Atria launched the Holiday by Atria independent living brand after acquiring the Holiday Retirement management company. Earlier this month, it was announced that 89 Holiday by Atria properties would be transitioned to other operators, including Arrow Senior Living, Cogir, Discovery Senior Living, QSL, Sagora and StoryPoint. Real estate investment trust Welltower (NYSE: WELL), which announced the transition, cited that the transitions will “create strong geographic density with best-in-class regional operating partners across the U.S.”

Belter-Chesser said Atria is still operating around 100 Holiday by Atria communities and will continue to do so moving forward, and she is excited about the opportunity because the brand meets the needs and price points of seniors in those areas. In some of Atria’s more clustered markets, she noted there are times when residents will transition between the various Atria brand offerings based on their needs.

“I think the exciting part about … having a multi-brand strategy is it allows us to meet the resident experience and the employee experience also, and allows for that progression … from a career standpoint,” Belter-Chesser said.

As for what the future holds from a growth perspective, Belter-Chesser said the overall growth of the company has been opportunistic in nature, and there isn’t a number of communities that she sees as an upper limit. It’s been a hot topic in senior living for many years, given the challenges that several large operators have faced in maintaining financial and operational results.

“I think there are some good, valid questions [about scale], and both benefits and challenges that can come with being every size,” she said. “I don’t think, given how fragmented our industry is, that we have ‘too big’ in our industry yet. I don’t think it’s a numbers game in that case. I think it’s fit, market and alignment that drives results.”

Looking ahead, Belter-Chesser sees two potential paths for how the industry can face the challenges of low construction starts: either rents will increase until there’s a convergence with feasibility rents, which will lead to new supply starts, or new starts will remain low and occupancy will continue to increase. Either way, she said, it’s a good spot for the company to be in as a senior housing manager and owner.

More outside sources of capital are looking to enter into senior housing, due to the overall demand increases, and people within the industry are coming to Atria for potential solutions as well.

“I’m really open to a multitude of paths that can come from this opportunistic environment. And I think you’ll see Atria do some unique things,” Belter-Chesser said.

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