COVID-19 Q&A Senior Living Expert Series: Industry Observations

 

About the COVID-19 Q&A Senior Living Expert Series: 

While working with over 300 communities across the country, we’ve diligently been monitoring the changes that are happening rapidly — daily — during this quickly shifting marketplace. We’re all feeling the effects of the “new normal” on community operations, sales and marketing, but quick action is needed. Trust us when we say this is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve been working around the clock to help our communities pivot to the right methods in order to sustain business, and this video series is a direct output of that thought leadership. Each week, we’ll be speaking with a new senior living marketing or sales expert as we explore ways in which you can steer your community’s occupancy efforts and facilitate change as we weather this storm. Together.

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Moderator: Brandon Painter, Director of Integrated Content

Expert: Sharon Brooks, outgoing President of East Coast Operations

Q. You’ve seen almost 40 years of ups and downs in the senior living field — how does COVID-19 compare to other challenges we’ve faced?

A. This is new. It’s not a discrete event like a hurricane or even an economic downturn. It’s particularly complex and multilayered with a lot of downstream consequences of the virus, and senior living has been especially impacted by this particular crisis.

There has been confusion in the media by lumping all types of senior living together with nursing homes, and headlines have definitely been damaging. Potentially the most challenging aspect is that the way-forward path depends on testing, treatment, how the virus behaves in the coming months, and ultimately — hopefully sooner rather than later — a vaccine; it’s a moving target, and we have to be nimble and ready to pivot as realities change.

Q. What worries you most regarding the senior living industry?

A. I worry about our clients with large nursing homes and health-care-heavy campuses. ALOS in nursing homes was dropping precipitously before COVID-19, and the virus has shown us that — nationally — we need another approach to caring for the frailest seniors. The household model and in-home care — whether that means a private home or a residence in a community — are the future of nursing care.

I also worry about organizations that went into this crisis with occupancy problems. Nationally, occupancy and sales were very strong as we entered the coronavirus situation. And according to Case-Schiller, real estate trends were also strong. But some organizations — for various reasons — went into this crisis with challenged occupancy. For those providers, the need to access good advice and solid marketing is critical.

You know, history tells us that the best-managed brands actually increase marketing spend during a crisis, and that builds brand strength incrementally compared to those who step back. This was true in 1929, true in the 1970s, true through 9-11, and true in 2008. It will be the case again now, I believe.

Q. At a 30,000-foot level, how will senior living marketing move through this very different challenge?

A. I see four phases to COVID-19 recovery: Crisis, Containment, Management, and the New Normal. I can’t say enough about how well senior living performed in response to the crisis phase. Containment appears to have been successful in flattening the curve. We’re still in the containment phase, with a lot of controversy and hard work happening around how to best “reopen” and reengage. There has been some very good thinking done in this regard to date.

We are going to spend a long time — 12-18 months — in the Management phase — operating and marketing communities while COVID-19 is still at large, and before there’s a vaccine.  Neither senior living communities nor consumers can “just wait until this is over.” We have to reengage buyers and give them a safe road to residency.

It will be a long time before the “New Normal.” When it does arrive, I think there will be a lot that is truly NEW. We won’t go back to business as usual.

Q. So you talk with a lot of senior living operators. What steps are the leading organizations taking that others should emulate?

A.

  • Pulling out all the stops to keep residents safe.
  • Being transparent.
  • Communicating consistently with their core audiences.
  • Tapping resources from their health department and associations for support.
  • Innovating — from the design and ops standpoint. I see clients changing the way they receive food, the way staff enters and leaves the building, cleaning products, hand-washing and hand-sanitizing, entry mats that disinfect shoes, voice-activated elevators, and more.
  • Recognizing that the outcome of this will be path dependent; modeling different scenarios.
  • Lastly, leaders are looking for opportunities — acquisitions and consolidation were already up — they’ll likely go up faster — and stronger organizations are strategizing how they might implement acquisition goals earlier.

Q. What are some things community marketing teams should be focused on right now?

A. Use this time to develop and nurture relationships with leads — it’s a great time to call. Introduce a “technology toolbox” that allows people to experience multiple facets of community life prior to an in-person visit. Collect hero stories and document your Covid-19 response — be ready to tell your story of what your community did and what you’re doing moving forward to keep residents safe and connected. Adjust marketing goals and messaging to be in sync with consumers — we have to meet people where they are.

Q. Where is the consumer mindset right now, and how do we tailor messaging to that mindset?

A. We’re seeing that prospects who were already interested in a community are still interested. And solo agers — those without a spouse, or those without family nearby — are seeing how difficult it is to navigate something like this on their own. Advance intel from GlynnDevins’ latest survey results just yesterday reported consumer confidence in senior living is ticking back up, but there’s still work to be done.

Marketing tactics must be carefully executed to be accepted by consumers and families. Reexamine all marketing materials to see if messages are still appropriate. Tone-deaf marketing indicates a lack of empathy at a time when prospects are feeling significant stress.

Recognize that our “product” has changed. With residents self-isolating, families precluded from visiting in many communities, and new residents having to meet testing requirements or self-quarantine, this is not a “carefree lifestyle” sell.

Acknowledge that the process may take longer, especially when a home sale is involved, and stretch the typical requirements to be reassuring.

Communicate confidence, strength and consistency in your brand and core values. Share hero stories of how residents and staff showed their courage during this time. Help prospects and families process how much easier it might be to live in a community through this next phase of the pandemic.

Q. What will change forever in senior living post-COVID-19?

A. Of course, there will be a new question in our FAQ — “How will you handle the next pandemic?” It will be important to have a specific and detailed answer for that question. The necessity of using technology during this time will speed the overall adoption of tech by our consumers; they’ll be proficient at Zoom calls, virtual tours and webinars, which has some really positive implications. There will be a focus on in-home communications technology, online food and grocery delivery, voice, telemedicine, virtual fitness classes — the things that can make reverting to isolation more seamless and less painful if there’s a “next time.” Many of these things have become popular and will stay with us post-crisis.

Lastly, and potentially most importantly … The need for community — and the importance of friends and neighbors — has gained recognition in this crisis. And the significance of good community leadership that can navigate this kind of crisis will be a really big deal — that’s why telling your story is so vitally important as we market through this.