Niki Leondakis is looking for ways to leverage her extensive experience in hospitality to fuel the growth in Wolff’s Revel brand, and improve the overall resident experience.
A former president and chief operating officer of boutique hotel pioneer Kimpton Hotels, she is also a former CEO of Equinox Fitness Clubs and CEO of Two Roads Hospitality, a hotel company founded by Hyatt Hotels scion John Pritzker. She joined real estate development company Wolff last January to lead the new “resident experience company” managing its Revel independent living communities.
Leondakis is looking for ways to bring current hospitality trends to Revel’s existing portfolio of four communities, with another 16 under development. But there is one trait that senior living consistently has that hospitality lacks, she said May 8 during Senior Housing News’ BUILD event in Chicago: a sense of purpose among workers.
“That is a little bit different from hospitality, where there are a lot of people with passion but some sort of land in it,” she said. “That was a pretty exciting discovery and something that we could work with.”
Her one-on-one conversation on the BUILD stage centered on brand awareness, adding a wellness component to Revel, and how her own frustrating experiences navigating senior living are influencing strategic decisions.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
You’ve had some recent personal experiences in navigating senior living. How did that experience influence your decision to join Wolff, and what were the things you came out wanting to change?
[My mother] had early onset Alzheimer’s, and we realized she could not live alone and needed a progressive type of care.
She was living in south Florida and I volunteered to go down for a week and visit facilities to see what was out there. I had 14 different appointments in the community she lived in and the surrounding communities. I went down there thinking I was going to have this difficult time choosing a community but it was not a difficult decision.
Truth be told, I went to 13 of those places — half of them that I visited I walked out and didn’t keep the appointment. I couldn’t imagine my mom staying in a place like that. The other half, I kept the appointment but I was so disconcerted by just feeling sold, not feeling like I was being listened to or my mother’s needs were being heard. When I looked more closely at the operation … I was so discouraged by what I saw.
Between the physical plants I saw and the level of personal care I didn’t see, I was pretty discouraged.
So it’s clear you think there are some missing pieces in senior living?
It certainly propelled me to think there is a better way. Coming from a hospitality background, my view is that the real estate is the backbone that fuels the business. It reminds me of a time in hospitality when all the big hotel brands wanted to move into boutique and lifestyle hotels. They all decided to design and operate differently.
It makes me feel like there is an opportunity to look at these communities and house seniors differently, with the wave of boomers about to hit us. Thinking more about that lifestyle-driven hospitality approach is something I think we can benefit from in the industry.
Is there anything else from your hospitality background that could translate to senior living?
When the big hotel brands moved into the boutique space, they hired cutting edge interior designers to replicate design that was a little more cutting edge and interesting, and represent [brand] consistency.
That’s something that can be worked with: the interior and resident design, the concept of restaurant and dining programming. From more of a consumer standpoint, thinking about those as a representation of consumers’ sense of self and approaching it through the consumer experience standpoint. I think there’s room to push the envelope.
Can you elaborate?
When you think of restaurants at hotels 20 years ago, you didn’t go down to have a meal. You went to the local restaurant, the smaller place or the cool place, not a hotel dining room. Those were created from the standpoint of “we want every traveler to enjoy this.” It was trying to be all things to all people, and stood for very little. It’s about having the courage to say, “This is who we are. This is what we’re going to be.”
One of the ways to differentiate is to create more pointed identities in our communities.
How do you envision the dining experience at Revel?
Bringing what I learned in hospitality, it comes back to putting a stake in the ground in who you are and what you want that experience to feel like. It’s a tricky solution threading the needle between seniors for whom food itself is an important part of their experience, and keeping it exciting.
There’s an opportunity to create more personality, identity and exciting dining experiences. If you look at restaurants, it’s the chef and bartenders and the design, coming together with what the restaurant is trying to achieve and make great food.
At the end of the day, it’s about having a singularity of vision that conveys to the resident how that experience is going to feel.
Kimpton and Equinox had a wellness component built in. How are you thinking about translating that to senior living?
Revel is independent living. I see it as similar to a membership model. There can be a monthly fee they pay with their rent that’s all-inclusive, but they can choose to leave at any time.
From a consumer standpoint, we need to look at personalizing that experience specific to their needs. We can engage [residents] by asking them the right questions to dig out different information.
And we can use technology to understand who’s coming to us and who’s living with us. If you can track their patterns of behavior and use that to personalize and customize the experience.
There are so many dimensions to wellness. What makes me happy may not be what makes you happy. What I’ve found with consumer research is they had difficulty articulating their what their drivers were.
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Source: Senior Housing News