As the COVID-19 pandemic sends occupancy rates plummeting in senior living communities, some operators are adding vaccine access to their marketing toolbox in a bid to entice prospective residents and fill vacant units. One marketing professional, however, urges communities to proceed with caution, calling the approach “a little dangerous.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations put staff members and residents of assisted living communities and nursing homes in the top-priority group to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and many communities have enrolled in the voluntary federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care, which follows the CDC guidance, to administer those vaccines.

Atria Senior Living already has lowered fees and offered free rent to attract residents. When access to the COVID-19 vaccine became the number one question from both professional referral sources and consumers, Sanela Graziose, executive vice president of sales, marketing and communications, said the company created a vaccine tracker on its website. It was intended for existing customers but wound up becoming a resource for prospective residents.

“It became the most pressing question,” Graziose said, adding that Atria’s more than 160 U.S. communities have seen a pickup in inquiries since the vaccines launched. “We pivoted our existing marketing to really just include those terms and conditions and whether you still could be eligible to be part of a clinic as a new resident.”

Atria also launched a “Sleeve Up Atria” campaign to educate residents, family members and employees about the vaccines and to combat misinformation. The campaign included community launch events, a website, a video, posters and social media posts. Graziose said Atria has vaccinated more than 7,000 residents in 71 clinics so far.

The final piece

Vancouver, WA-based JEA Senior Living promoted free vaccinations to new residents who moved into a community before Dec. 31, 2020. Chris Jones, an administrator at the organization’s Cinco Ranch, in Katy, TX, said his stand-alone memory care community saw a record eight move-ins in December thanks to the campaign.

“One couple was living at home — they live in another city, but their family lived here. Their family wanted them closer by,” Jones said of a recent move-in. “Their daughter-in-law kept mentioning they were concerned about COVID, living at home, and caregivers who were coming and going.”

Jones said the family was sold on the prospect of having access to the vaccine rather than having to “stand in a line somewhere with thousands of other seniors and risk running out of the vaccine.”

The community just had its second vaccination clinic through the federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care, with a third clinic scheduled for mid-February. Jones and Patty Cresap, community resource director, said they continue to promote the availability of vaccines as a marketing tool

With the lifting of restrictions on family visitation, Cresap said, the community has seen a spike in interest. When she mentions the availability of vaccination, it can be the final piece that motivates someone to become a resident.

Informative advertising

Oakmont Senior Living started seeing an increasing number of move-ins after running television ads touting vaccine access. Crystal Robinson, chief marketing officer, said the Irvine, CA-based senior living company has received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback about the campaign.

“The pandemic is top-of-mind for everyone, especially seniors, and we wanted to inform the community that vaccination of senior housing residents is a priority,” Robinson told McKnight’s Senior Living.

But she said “word of mouth” advertising about the company’s COVID-19 safety practices also has factored into increased interest.

“Oakmont raced to gain knowledge, implement best practices and expand the team to meet residents’ needs,” Robinson said.

Eclipse Senior Living, a Lake Oswego, OR-based manager of independent living, assisted living and memory care communities under the Elmcroft, Embark and Evoke brands, similarly launched an advertising campaign promising early vaccines “before millions of others” for new residents. 

‘A little dangerous’

Derek Dunham, vice president of client services for Varsity, a Pennsylvania-based senior living marketing and sales agency, said that enticing new residents with the promise of a vaccine by a specific date could be “a little dangerous,” however. Some vaccine clinics are being moved, and some clinics have run out of the vaccines needed to complete a clinic, according to anecdotal reports, he said.

“I’m hearing through discussions there are a lot of moving parts,” Dunham said. “If they can confidently do it and they can legitimately do it, then I think it could be a great hook for people to try to bring them in, but there are other ways to do it.”

At its weekly Varsity Roundtable Project, which brings together sales and marketing professionals to talk about marketing during a pandemic, Dunham said discussion has indicated that some senior living clients are partnering with local pharmacies to provide COVID-19 vaccination clinics on site for the general public. 

And although the topic of marketing access to vaccines has come up in the discussions, Varsity has not worked directly with a community that has taken such a bold approach, he said.

Transparency around infection control and safety protocols is the top interest of prospective residents — now more than ever, Dunham said.

“Questions are going to come up for quite some time, if not years, about, ‘What are you doing to keep residents safe?’ ” he said. “That will forever be a talking point — perhaps a section on the website, perhaps a paragraph in a brochure. Infection control and prevention and protection will always be something that will be on peoples’ minds for the next generation or two, given what we’ve been through.”

Informing decisions

In the meantime, to try to combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living’s #GetVaccinated campaign encourages residents, families and staff members to get vaccinated. The campaign also provides information to help people make informed decisions about vaccination.

“This national effort also helps facilities celebrate when vaccines are administered to residents and caregivers, which providers may use to demonstrate to potential customers,” a spokesperson for the organizations told McKnight’s Senior Living.

Additionally, LeadingAge and Argentum have created COVID-10 vaccine information and resource web pages. And the CDC has created a long-term care facility toolkit to help providers prepare for their COVID-19 vaccination clinics.