Operators Reboot Their Message

Safety, luxury and socialization all take on new meanings as marketing and sales teams change their approaches from pre-pandemic times.

By Jeff Shaw

March 2020 represented an abrupt and dramatic shift in how seniors housing units were sold to prospective residents.

As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns across the country, suddenly operators had to shift from selling luxury and lifestyle to safety from a virus that was more likely to kill seniors than any other demographic. 

That is, if a community’s local governments allowed move-ins to happen at all during that time.

“Before the pandemic, it was all a dog and pony show,” says Jennifer Saxman, CEO of marketing firm Bild & Co. “Look at the lifestyle, all the bells and whistles we have.”

Saxman says that 2020 was a shock to the system, leaving seniors “grasping for safety and security.” Then as time wore on, potential residents were “living with the grief. It’s still painful, it’s still hard, but we’re coping and living life.”

Deborah Howard, CEO at marketing firm Senior Living SMART, says that when the pandemic hit, marketing and sales messages — which at that time were focused on amenities, services, socialization and choice — disappeared altogether. Instead, the firm focused on providing resources to help navigate the pandemic.

“We researched and published all the senior shopping hours for all major shopping chains in each client’s market, and provided links to grocery, pharmacy and meal delivery services. We sent out daily and weekly ‘boredom busters’ with at-home, senior-friendly exercise videos, online classes, crafts, museum tours, concerts and Broadway plays.”

Occupancy at senior living facilities bottomed in early 2021, but the consensus is that the nadir has passed now that the vaccines have rolled out to seniors and staff.

We can’t go back

Now that more than a year has passed since that vaccine rollout, how have sales messages changed from before the arrival of the pandemic?

For many, COVID doesn’t even get mentioned anymore. At The Palace Group, which operates nine communities in Florida, the pandemic is “old news,” according to Adam Rosenblum, vice president of sales and marketing.

“When we’re dealing with seniors, everybody knows we’re all vaccinated. It’s not special to say our employees are vaccinated. We don’t really focus on it so much. We have a new building and are running ads. There’s no mention of COVID,” says Rosenblum.

Bild & Co. is taking a similar approach. Traci Bild, chief visionary officer, says the focus is now on the fact that seniors “have been isolated for two years now. It’s time to move.”

Others still mention COVID, but in a positive sense — that seniors housing is the safest place for a senior, thanks to the high levels of vaccination and controlled environment.

“Overall, we have given more messaging space to safety, security, and caregiving to reassure that there is no better time to move into a senior living community than now,” says Howard. “Living with more support will create a better, healthier and happier life.”

At California-based operator Integral Senior Living, marketing is back to normal, with slight additions to the safety measures in place.

“Our goal is to show residents we can still provide a great lifestyle with care, within as safe of an environment as possible,” says Jeffery Smith, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We also began highlighting the safety measures put in place from new air systems to cleaning products being utilized.”

As messaging shifts away from COVID and occupancy slowly rebounds, Howard says website traffic and lead conversion has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

However, she is quick to add that the sales cycle is now longer. Citing an Enquire Solutions study, the assisted living sales cycle now takes 145 days, 19 percent longer than in 2019; independent living is 38 percent longer at 203 days; and continuing care retirement communities are 36 percent longer at 400 days. Only the memory care sales cycle stayed largely unchanged at 107 days.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, after a year or more of quarantine for many seniors, in-person events are offering some of the best return on investment.

Joe Roche, president and CEO of marketing firm The Roche Associates, notes that a November event for a client in O’Fallon, Illinois, drew nearly 150 attendees, of which 27 said they were interested in reserving rooms. Unfortunately, many potential residents stopped showing up for events in December and January as the Omicron variant surged.

“Two weeks later, we ran an event that typically drives 150 attendees, but we struggled to get 30,” says Roche. “We were hearing, ‘I don’t feel comfortable coming out, particularly in light of Christmas coming up. I’m concerned about giving my mom and dad COVID.’”

As Omicron now wanes, marketers are especially hoping that in-person events will return in full force.

“No one, unless it’s for skilled nursing, is going to move until they see the community,” says Bild. “We have to make a bigger effort to get people back onsite.”

Tech’s invaluable impact

In the early days of the pandemic, one of the dividing lines between the haves and have-nots in seniors housing was technology.

“If you were in a company that wasn’t technology savvy, it was absolutely urgent to ramp up that technology,” says David Haack, chief marketing officer for Florida-based operator Cadence Living. Haack started his position in June 2020, meaning he was joining an operator already reeling from the March 2020 arrival of COVID-19.

Haack’s team implemented several new technology programs in those early days. The company incorporated OneDay to provide more visual, hands-on tours and follow-ups; Visiting Media for virtual 3D tours; and Talk Further for a virtual sales assistant on Cadence’s website.

“Technology really helped us out from a marketing standpoint,” says Haack. “We were able to keep connecting with residents and their loved ones.”

Another Florida-based operator, Watercrest Senior Living Group, created an online resource library for “valuable insights on a variety of topics noted to be top of mind with our customer base,” according to Marc Vorkapich, principal and CEO of Watercrest.

“Rather than driving traffic to communities unable to open the doors and welcome guests during the height of the pandemic, our advertising became a concerted effort to drive traffic to our digital platform where visitors could easily find support, connect with others and learn through our curated collection of educational resources.”

One side effect of the pandemic that Howard noticed is social media advertising began yielding more new leads than search engine advertising. Senior Living SMART switched its clients’ advertising budgets appropriately.

“We found a good response from not only Facebook, but also Pinterest and Instagram audiences,” says Howard. “When prospects could not visit the community in person, they leveraged social channels to get insights into community life.”

One client even saw contact generation increase nearly 500 percent during the pandemic, adds Howard, “because the content we created with them was more relevant and engaging.”

Web-based leads saw a noticeable increase, says Saxman. She notes clients saw an average increase of 30 to 100 percent in web leads over the last six months. However, that increase requires a change in mindset for sales teams. The old mentality of in-person leads being strong and web-based leads being weak is no longer accurate.

“Marketing teams are selling like it’s 2018 or 2019,” says Saxman. “But the messaging now and the way people find their information is based on digital means, and those digital leads now are the walk-in leads of the early 2000s. They’re as hot as ever.”

“Digital leads are knocking it out of the ballpark,” adds Bild. “Digital marketing is working, but consistently clients are not seeing the conversion rates they need to be. We need to get better at relationships, emotional connection, human connection. Whether it’s an email or a text, however the prospect engages, we have to get leads (prospective residents) into the community immediately while they’re in that buyer’s state of mind.” 

Bild also recommends every community include a bank of positive online reviews on its website.

“I don’t buy anything without looking at online reviews. We need to pivot faster. Operators are trying, but we’re leaving so much on the table still. The leads are there. We’re not creating the urgency to get through the sales cycle to the move-in faster.”

Look within the building

For approaches that don’t involve technology, Roche notes that referrals should be treated as gold, citing a recent ProMatura Group study that showed that 35 to 40 percent of move-ins came from referrals and 60 percent of residents knew someone at the community before moving in.

“We believe in giving clients tools to generate more referrals,” says Roche. “We’re talking about referrals from residents, family members, long-term care agents, wealth planners, elder law attorneys and more.”

Roche even recommends a cash reward for a resident or employee who refers a resident who moves in and stays for at least 90 days. Typically, those rewards are between $500 and $1,500.

“We recommended increasing those referral rewards, and many did,” says Bryan McKeever, vice president of marketing and sales at Roche Associates.

Saxman says she recommends clients approach sales as a team, with everyone from the executive director on down participating. “The culture at the community has to buy into supporting sales.”

For sales teams, some incentive programs at Integral were temporary and “burned off,” according to Smith. However, the company did introduce tiered commissions (higher rates for more move-ins) “to extra-incentivize our teams to change more lives and get more move-ins per month.” 

Smith reports 2021 was Integral’s “best year as a company ever” with 2,500 move-ins for a net positive (move-ins minus move-outs) of 880.

For its part, Cadence Living offers incentive rewards to every person involved in the move-in process. 

For example, the employee who answers the phone for a lead that eventually turns into a move-in gets $100.

“We have phone inquiry bonuses, referral bonuses, tour bonuses and move-in bonuses,” says Haack. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a dishwasher or an office manager, we want to reward them for being a part of the process. If you answer the phone the right way and that leads to a tour that leads to a move-in, we want to thank you for being a part of the process and recognize you.”

The company has largely moved away from the term “sales” itself, preferring to use “solutions” or “success.”

“Everyone is a solutions provider,” says Haack. n