With the entire senior living industry effectively in lease-up mode, operators are wielding some creative new sales strategies to attract new residents. But many are also sitting on a powerful and sometimes underutilized tool: their own dining programs.
By investing in their dining programs and wowing residents and their families during the sales process, senior living providers can convert more of their leads into move-ins. And that is a strategy employed by operators Harbor Retirement Associates (HRA) and LivGenerations; and Cura Hospitality, which manages dining for three continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) as part of hospitality company Elior North America.
From creativity with meal kits and “dining concierges,” to a focus on scratch cooking and more unique menus, to close collaboration with sales and marketing teams, these providers are demonstrating how a strong culinary program remains a competitive differentiator for providers.
Dining back in focus
While dining was thought to be among the top selling points of a senior living community before the pandemic, it took a backseat to health care, safety and security last year as Covid-19 case counts climbed and operators transitioned to in-room or non-communal dining programs.
But now that many communities are easing back on some of those restrictions, dining is again becoming more of a point of interest among prospective residents, according to Chris Thompson, vice president of hospitality at HRA.
“From a prospect standpoint, I think that there is a little more focus on it these days,” Thompson said during a recent Senior Housing News webinar.
Although their appetites for communal meals are returning, senior living residents are now less concerned with bells and whistles, and more concerned with other aspects of dining programs, such as sanitization or order, according to Cara Baldwin, vice president of hospitality at LivGenerations.
“They really seem to be focused more now on what they can expect in the community on a day -in and day-out basis than they were before Covid,” Baldwin said during the webinar. “We also have seen more focus on cleanliness … and we do have people asking more questions about how many of our staff are vaccinated.”
Cura Hospitality General Manager Barbara Ferguson agreed, and added that “safety and connection, I think, are the top things that people are looking for in dining, and they’re asking very pointed questions.”
The bottom line for operators is that senior living residents are still interested in dining, and figuring out what they and their loved ones value in the age of the pandemic can help convince them to move in and boost occupancy during a crucial time of recovery.
Leveraging dining for occupancy
As restrictions were eased in states across the U.S. earlier this year, many senior living providers were able to effectively roll back restrictions around communal dining. That was the case with HRA, LivGenerations and Cura Hospitality, which are back to normal or very nearly back to normal with regard to dining restrictions.
All three companies also implemented some new strategies for using their dining programs to build census. At LivGenerations, guests who live outside the community still aren’t allowed in the operator’s dining rooms — but Baldwin has tried to give prospects a taste of what the community has to offer in other ways.
For example, residents on a tour can enjoy a meal inside of one of the community’s model apartments, and then leave with a to-go meal to enjoy at home later. LivGenerations also has a community in Phoenix, Arizona — LivGenerations Ahwatukee — with a full attached restaurant that is open to the public. The operator reopened the restaurant on April 1, and has used it as a way to let residents dine with outside guests.
“That particular location has been a boon for business,” Baldwin said.
Cura Hospitality did something similar for the CCRCs it works with when it began assembling meal kits for residents to cook in their rooms during the pandemic. The meal kits were a hit with residents, and eventually that popularity led the company to film a meal kit cooking demonstration starring the community’s head chef in a model apartment.
“Our marketing director took the meal kit and the video to some prospects and was able to secure contracts for that particular apartment that we showcased,” Ferguson said.
HRA took a similar approach, and began showcasing its culinary program through video cooking demonstrations broadcast over Facebook Live last April. The company also gives prospective residents a three-course meal to take home with them. And when a new prospect tours the community, HRA will arrange a meeting in the “chef studio” with the community’s head or sous chef.
The end goal is to show residents that senior living communities are active places, which is doubly important amid the pandemic.
“We’re always making sure that when we’re touring, we’re not just talking about it with them, but we’re trying to get them to physically interact with it,” Thompson said.
Looking ahead, Baldwin said LivGenerations is seeking to “flip to a hospitality model” of senior living dining. But given all of the new restrictions and infection control procedures providers must follow, doing so is harder now than in the pre-Covid world.
That’s why the operator is forming new “dining services concierge desks,” where residents can reserve tables in the dining room or make special requests for their meals.
“They want more on-demand dining, and we’re going to try to address that with this concierge,” Baldwin explained.
Integrating with sales and marketing
All three companies are collaborating with communities’ sales and marketing teams in order to get the most out of their dining programs.
LivGenerations, for example, built a “little cafe” into the sales center of its LivGenerations Mayo Blvd community slated to open in Phoenix, Arizona, with the intention of letting prospects sample the community’s fare in a replica dining room.
“We’re ahead of the game on people that have signed up to move into Mayo, and I think that that has a lot to do with how we set up this sales center to really focus on dining,” Baldwin said.
HRA fine-tunes its menus to people who live in different markets across the country, and that is a big selling point when prospects tour the community, according to Thompson. For instance, the company has two communities in Texas that lie about 20 minutes from one another. But “the difference between the demographics at those two buildings are night and day.”
For example, at one community full of “old residents and farmhands,” residents wanted all-day breakfast. At the community 20 minutes down the road, dining is geared to a more affluent demographic that “wants nicer things,” Thompson said.
“What I’ve found is that prospects and referrals are much more attracted to a concept that says these menus were built and designed for this community, for this particular demographic,” he added.
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