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‘Flipping the Paradigm’: How McNair Is Reinventing University-Based Senior Living

Senior living operators have long answered older adults’ thirst for lifelong learning and belonging with university-based senior living communities — but like some collegiate institutions, the model is in need of reinventing.

Or at least, that is the thesis of Ryan Haller and Les Strech, who are leading the senior living strategy of developer-owner McNair Living, primarily through a new brand called Varcity. The company’s senior living strategy, officially announced and launched earlier in January, centers on developing intergenerational residential communities on or very near university campuses and securing logo and naming rights from big schools.

But this is not just a real estate play. With the Varcity brand, Haller and Strech have a goal of building on the university-based senior living concept with a new spin.

They are driven by a belief that the university-based senior living model of today is not necessarily broken, but that it is in need of a refresh as the baby boomers enter the senior living market en masse in the coming years.

Specifically, they are aiming to create truly organic intergenerational communities that are not built solely with senior living residents in mind. Instead, they envision Varcity communities as places that students and faculty want to use — and may not even consider senior housing.

McNair Living is spearheading its burgeoning brand from a new headquarters on the campus of the University of Kentucky. And the Varcity model may be one arriving at a college campus near you in the not-too-distant future.

The company has a soon-to-be-announced agreement with a Big Ten school that Haller teased as one with a storied history and a history of innovation; and at least one other nearly ready for prime time. And that is not the only senior living brand McNair has in the works.

“Beyond that, the pipeline is full,” Haller added.

University-based senior living 2.0

Although Strech and Haller believe the university-based senior living is in need of reinvention, that is not a knock on the “UBRC” model first spearheaded by industry veteran Andrew Carle in the early 2000s.

In Haller’s eyes, the model has fallen short over the years due to the erosion of what it means to be university-affiliated. Since 2020 he has visited more than 60 of the 75 or so university-linked or based communities in the U.S., and found that many of them are agreements in name only. In many cases, the senior living communities weren’t in close proximity to the universities they said they collaborated with.

“We’ve talked to many of the universities that have said ‘Oh, I I think that agreement lapsed 10 years ago,’ but they’re still stating that they’re affiliated with them,” Haller said. “The definition of affiliation is nebulous. Les and I are coming in … and defining that affiliation.”

To Haller and Strech, it is that unclear definition that can turn even ambitious university-backed projects into middling ones with weak ties to academia. So, central to the Varcity strategy is the fact that senior living communities must walk the walk when it comes to university partnerships.

For any deal it strikes with a university, McNair is negotiating name and logo rights for the senior living community — two pricey but crucial pieces of the puzzle that are often left out, Haller said. Cross-programming with many different avenues of engagement between the university and senior living community is also important.

“We’ll walk away from a relationship if we don’t have a documented affiliation with the school, including logo rights in the building,” Strech told SHN.

The company is also only planning communities on or very close to university campuses. That is to do with the fact that university-based senior living communities do not often share foot traffic with the schools they are supposedly tied to.

McNair is building retail into the ground floor of its Varcity communities, with senior housing units on the second floor and above. The company is building an array of amenities based on feedback they get from students and faculty. For example, if students say they want more electric chargers on campus, that is what McNair will try to build into its design.

“We’re building it for the general public and allowing the residents to participate,” Strech said. “We’re flipping the paradigm around who this is built for and who’s encouraged to participate in it.”

While some university leaders are at first hesitant to forge such deep partnerships with an outside company, Haller said that changes when they realize the benefits in diversity, equity and inclusion a senior living community can bring.

“I’ve never done a student focus group about senior living before — they talk about diversity, equity inclusion on every college campus, you’ll hear it 10 times before you get on 100 feet from campus,” Haller said.

While private-pay senior living is relatively expensive for the average consumer any way you slice it, Haller also noted that the university-based senior living model can be especially expensive for residents if it includes large entrance fees. That is a big turn-off for schools focused on equity and inclusion, and part of the reason why Varcity is focusing on rental.

“There are optics that only the rich people can live there, but our brand is more inclusive,” Haller said. “We’re not going to give you three different options to pay $900,000.”

Haller compared the current landscape for university-backed senior living to the photography industry at the dawn of digital cameras. And if UBRCs are film cameras, Varcity is a camera phone.

“There have been numerous phone calls from universities where we have said, ‘We’d love to do business with you, but … we’ve been able to be disciplined to our brand standards and turn out some great universities.”

Another mold-breaking brand on the way

While Varcity represents McNair’s lead brand, Haller and Strech are also working on another to-be-named intergenerational senior living brand.

Though still coming together, Strech said that like Varcity, the brand would aim to rethink senior housing in a way that brings multiple generations together. The concept centers on building unlicensed senior housing and layering it with local healthcare services delivered on demand.

Haller added that most senior living companies are building communities today using yesterday’s operational and design models. Though that worked for the Silent Generation, the boomers are a different story. Simply put, it is Strech and Haller’s belief that no boomer will want to live in something called “senior housing.”

“You can’t develop and not address the stigma that’s around senior living, which is a place where [people think they] go to fade away,” Strech said. “Learning how to explain something that already has a name is difficult — that is what we’re trying to do with the second brand.”

The post ‘Flipping the Paradigm’: How McNair Is Reinventing University-Based Senior Living appeared first on Senior Housing News.

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