The COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis in confidence on the part of adult children making long-term care decisions for their parents. It also demonstrated how difficult it can be to differentiate senior living from skilled nursing in the eyes of the public, the media and regulatory agencies. But for many senior living operators, the pandemic also has provided the industry with an opportunity to emerge bigger and better as a result of lessons learned, according to panelists Thursday at an Argentum Senior Living Insights webinar.

“You can set the standard for transparency and procedure that simply didn’t exist before,” said crisis communication expert William Espey, who spent years helping Chipotle develop its unique brand voice, “Senior living as an industry is going to be defined in a better way because of COVID-19.”

Panelist Brenda Bacon, president and CEO of Brandywine Living, added that the pandemic pushed the senior living industry into the public eye and has now given operators a chance to share stories of just how much they help older adults in need of both physical and social services.

“We’re not an invisible industry anymore, and that brings an opportunity for us to talk about our unique product,” Bacon said. “The mere existence of our industry saves every American taxpayer money because our clients are private-pay and are not a burden on the state and federal government with regard to Medicare and Medicaid, so we bring something really important to the table.”

Bacon added that the industry also has risen to the challenges of the pandemic and has done an exceptional job keeping residents and staff safe.

Discovery Senior Living founder and CEO Richard Hutchinson agreed, noting that confidence is very high among existing residents that the industry is taking good care of its residents.

“We now have to translate that to our future customers and make sure they can see and understand and feel that trust we’ve developed over these last 12 months with our existing residents and their families and feel confident that that trusting relationship will be imparted on them,” he said.

Panelists also discussed the need for the industry to “level up” when it comes to making itself known within the public policy arena, Eclipse Living CEO Kai Hsiao said.

“If we want to be at the table quickly and be understood quickly, our focus and our energies and our resources committed to public policy needs to increase, and that’s something that hasn’t occurred until now,” he said.

All three operators expressed optimism that the vaccine rollout will lead to an uptick in demand, with some even noting they’ve already seen it starting.

“We saw a huge pick-up in leads and sales in January, but one month does not a trend make,” Bacon said. With variants of the virus picking up, the industry is still very much in the middle of this, the panelists concluded.