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After 24 months into the pandemic, it’s safe to say the senior living industry has come to expect the unexpected.
“What we do matters,” said Vitality Living founder and CEO Chris Guay, a panelist on a Wednesday webinar looking at trends and predictions for the senior living industry in 2022. “When we do it right, it makes a difference. Stay focused on the great things you are doing.”
Guay was one of several senior living industry experts on a panel hosted by technology company OneDay discussing how community leaders continue to lead and innovate through adversity and challenges beyond their control.
Improving the employee experience
Amidst record staffing shortages, many in the industry said a top priority for 2022 is improving the employee experience.
Frontier Management CEO Greg Roderick said that beautiful employee lounges and increased wages simply aren’t going to cut it any longer. Frontier added a $5,000 monthly stipend per community to fund employee recognition, education and tuition reimbursement.
“We are marketing to employees as hard as — if not harder than — we do to prospective residents,” Roderick said, adding that the focus is on increased training to build confidence and skills. “As a profession, we are grabbing hold of what needs to happen. We need to make sure our employees feel appreciated and are paid adequately for the hard work they do every day.”
Guay said his Vitality Living’s priorities for 2022 are sales and people.
“It still goes back to what you do at that ground level,” Guay said, adding that he’s challenging his teams to treat every employee — or potential employee — the way they treat a prospective resident. “How do we make the experience better? By creating culture and making a difference. We’ve got to start treating people better and attracting more people to the industry.”
Life Care Services Vice President of Sales and Marketing Rick Westermann said the strategy is a good one, given that healthcare resignations are at a record high — up 37% year over year. He said LCS has tried to own the recruiting process and make it more like the sales process.
“We roll out the red carpet to welcome our employees,” he said, adding that senior living should be “flying that banner” that it offers more than selling widgets. “We have a lot to sell. We just have to bring that to the candidates who are coming, and do the right thing through the onboarding process.”
Senior Lifestyle Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Janine Witte said the industry has to talk about employment as if it is a career move, regardless of the position. Doing so begins with creating a meaningful onboarding process that provides career paths and demonstrates that “we’re glad you’re here.”
Five Star Senior Living Vice President of Marketing and Brand Cindy Hale added that senior living tends to get mired in “what we don’t have.”
“Step back and think what do we offer, what do we have: We have the power to change a life every day,” Hale said.
Changing sales cycles
Although the industry is seeing occupancy growth since the early days of the pandemic, customer expectations have evolved. Westermann said that the pandemic has thrown the sales process on its head. Companies now are looking at and responding to trends cycle by cycle, variant by variant.
“Being nimble is super important,” Hale said. “It’s important to keep bringing up the positive benefits. Loneliness is an awful disease; the antithesis is engagement.
“Our places are the safest places. People are going to live a better life with us,” she added. “What we have to offer can change lives.”
Guay said that although everyone thought 2021 would be the year people learned to live with COVID-19, that theme is more on point for 2022.
“Social disconnect can be devastating to an older adult,” he said. “Tell the story that what we can offer really makes a difference.”
All of the panelists warned against offering too many incentives or discounts, saying that doing so can erode community value.
Incentives and discounts, Witte said, can be a mechanism to drive a lease date, but they never should be what makes someone choose a community. The industry teetered into some dangerous ground in 2021 by chasing the competition down to the bottom with rates and incentives, she added.
“Once you devalue a community in the market, it takes years to repair that,” Witte said.
Technology buy-in can be a struggle
Although the pandemic launched technology initiatives into the industry at light speed, it still can be a struggle to get employees to buy in.
Technology has helped reduce redundancy in the back office, with data feeding into multiple avenues of the business, Roderick said. Business intelligence software, he added, can help a community identify where to save money, and communication technology can help with infection control messaging, reaching out to families or connecting residents with physicians.
“The pandemic accelerated the technology we’re buying,” Westermann said. “And now we’re hiring people who know how to use better technology. This landscape in the next five years will be incredible. “