Hospitality, once reserved for hotels and resorts, now a key component of senior living

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David Miller
David Miller

When you think of hospitality, certain things come to mind.

A hotel concierge might fit the definition. What about a server at a fine dining establishment? Or perhaps you think of “southern hospitality” and envision a down-to-earth, friendly atmosphere.

Whatever you think of when you hear the word, there's probably a good chance you may not think of a retirement community. That's all changing, however, at places like Friendship Village of Bloomington, a Lifespace community located in Minnesota, where I serve as executive director. From our residential living to assisted living, memory support and skilled nursing, it's the little things that are making the difference in terms of offering true hospitality to our residents.

Our Lifespace CEO, Sloan Bentley, had the foresight to put in place a new focus on hospitality, which included hiring hotel professionals like me. I spent several years at the helm of a top-tier hotel, and that time has allowed me to use my experience to bring new insights to senior living here at the community.

It's safe to say that the field of senior living today is about much more than offering seniors a space to call their own. It's about the rewarding experience of creating an environment where seniors can thrive, not just retire.

Although the premise is the same, the difference between hotel management and senior living is that the guests don't leave, making it even more critical to provide an exemplary level of service. You might say it's hospitality on steroids.

The difference we've created, as mentioned above, is all about the little things. Most communities already strive to provide some form of hospitality, but the differences residents truly notice often come in small packages. You'll find a few such examples in our dining room, where our team members are trained to pick up on fine-dining essentials, such as making sure the protein is placed at “six o'clock” on plates when served, and taking women's orders first. Our meeting rooms, often used by residents, have linens on the tables when gatherings take place, and we make a point to use real glass and silverware when we host various events.

We also named our dining venues and removed the number cards that used to be placed on our tables. You typically don't see those in a restaurant setting, and we didn't believe you should see them at a senior living community, either.

All those little “extras” add an additional feeling of crispness and sophistication to our community that residents appreciate.

One of the key reasons for the shift toward hotel-style hospitality in senior living has to do with the incoming generation of baby boomers, who bring different expectations to the table when it comes to what they look for in a community such as ours. This generation of Americans, born in the 21 years following World War II, is expected to live longer than those who came before them. They've been part of a technologic revolution like nothing seen in the past and have experienced more travel, culture and prosperity than generations that came before them.

Communities, including those within our Lifespace organization, are trending toward hiring experienced executive and country club chefs to transform their kitchens. This trend, which began in the mid-1990s, has continued to pick up steam as the march of the oldest boomers toward retirement picks up pace.

If you stay at a nice hotel, you remember the way you're treated by each individual you encounter, from the person you meet at the front desk to the staff member you encounter in the elevator. Although the stay at a hotel might only last a couple of days, these impressions matter.

In senior living, the community is much more than a place you'll stay for a night or two. Therefore, incorporating hotel-style hospitality into the culture is about making sure those impressions last much longer than just a short period of time. Residents should come to expect the highest levels of hospitality and attention to detail throughout our organization.

Another consideration about baby boomers is that they've generally been regarded as being the most affluent generation in American history. From a senior living standpoint, this means most of them have material items, and have had such things for most of their lives. What hospitality provides, then, is an adventure, of sorts. It's an experience, much like a vacation. That's what we're trying to achieve, and so far, it's leading to great success.

David Miller is executive director of Friendship Village of Bloomington, Bloomington, MN.

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