Occupancy Concerns? Try Phased Approach to Relaunch Marketing Efforts in COVID-19 Era

Resident safety correctly took priority, but now occupancy concerns loom.

By Sharon Brooks

As the coronavirus pandemic reached the tipping point on the public’s radar, senior living was 100 percent focused on resident safety. Marketing questions loomed but weren’t high priority.

For those of us who were focused on marketing, we quickly recognized this as a black swan event. We are now able to formulate an approach to marketing toward the proverbial “new normal.”

Anticipating the course

We can separate the pandemic into four phases:

  • Crisis
  • Containment
  • Management
  • Normalization

Today we are in the second phase — containment. The best scientific thinking indicates that reaching normalization will take 18 to 24 months. The timing of phases is based on availability of supplies and tests, data on emerging outbreaks, treatments and ultimately a vaccine.

Our communities can’t wait 18 to 24 months to resume sales and move-ins. So what’s the path to supporting occupancy in senior living as we move through this unprecedented time?

The crisis phase was best described as a scramble. It was a 24/7, “all hands on deck” response that we can be proud of. Experts from public health to the investment community are recognizing the effectiveness of senior living communities in pivoting to ensure safety, provide services and support connection.

Early reports on private-pay occupancy were actually positive. Many reported an exceptionally strong first quarter. Sales in progress converted to move-ins. Thankfully, the majority of providers entered this crisis with occupancy and sales trending up.

The goal of containment was initially to “flatten the curve.” In all but a few hot spots the nation was able to buy time for production and testing to ramp up. Containment continues, and the discussion of when and how to re-open is highly controversial. A vaccine will take, in even a best-case scenario, a year and potentially two to four times that.

The current state of things

Over the past weeks the impact of COVID-19 on marketing and occupancy has become clearer.

Start-up communities seem to be continuing to perform at a near-normal level. There seems to be consumer confidence that by the time a new community opens there will be a vaccine. There’s also renewed recognition among prospects of the value of community.

For open communities, the impact on occupancy varies by geography and regional severity of COVID-19. For most, occupancy is unquestionably impacted.

The National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) has tracked trending occupancy weekly since mid-March. While glimmers of hope are emerging, 68 percent of independent living communities report a decelerated pace of move-ins and 54 percent reported lower occupancy, according to NIC’s May 10 data. For a substantial number of communities, depressed occupancy is a result of self-imposed move-in bans, but most also cited lower lead/sales conversion.

Concerns about family economic stability and home sales may emerge, as they did in 2008.

Five critical strategies will help consumers engage again:

  • Use this time to develop and nurture relationships with leads.
  • Introduce a technology tool-box allowing people to experience community life virtually.
  • Collect hero stories.
  • Document your COVID-19 response strategy.
  • Adjust marketing expectations and tactics.

Operators must carefully execute marketing tactics that consumers and their families will accept. Re-examine all marketing materials to see if messages are still appropriate. Tone-deaf marketing indicates a lack of empathy at a time when prospects are feeling significant stress.

Recognize that our “product” has changed. With residents self-isolating, families precluded from visiting and new residents having to meet testing requirements or self-quarantine, this is not a “carefree lifestyle” sell.

Communicate confidence, strength and consistency in your brand and core values. Share hero stories of how residents and staff showed their courage during this time. Help prospects and families begin to examine how much easier it might be to live in a community as we move through this next phase of the pandemic.

Managing the future

The management phase lies ahead as states and localities navigate the virus without a vaccine over the next six to 18 months. We will see vigilance, data-monitoring and an immediate return to containment if/when outbreaks occur.

Developing trust will be paramount. Communicate that you have systems strong enough to enable prospects to leave the single place they consider safe — their home. We’ve always done this, though. Clients have always felt safer at home and seen moving as a risk. Now that has intensified. There’s a new addition to our frequently asked qustions: “How can I be sure your community can handle the next pandemic?”

Moving from containment to management, two tasks require immediate focus:

  • Providing a safe and appealing experience for prospects considering residency.
  • Helping prospects envision your community as the safest place to live, moving forward.

We have some strong assets. We have early access to information. We have systems in place. We have the opportunity to implement design and operational changes that will position us better in a second wave. And we have the strength of community.

With families conducting more research online, the in-person component of sales is smaller, but it won’t disappear. Visits must be safe for both current and prospective residents. The visitor experience should show the care and thoughtfulness you’ve invested into safety. It should also evidence hospitality.

  1. Locate marketing and sales in its own space — not connected to resident or staff activity.
  2. Limit in-person meetings to warm and hot leads.
  3. Create a sales center that feels safe and is safe.
  4. Share your policy on testing.
  5. Talk about design, staffing and operational changes being implemented for long-term safety in the community.
  6. Continue using virtual tools for touring but make them more personal.
  7. Develop your process and protocols for new move-ins.

Once you believe you’ve prepared how you need to, it’s important to announce a safe “road-map to residency” to give consumers courage to move forward.

Adjusting to the new normal

Eventually there will be a vaccine or a testing/treatment protocol that restores social interaction. Anticipate this as a time to activate new research. Consumer perceptions of the world and senior living’s place in it will be changed. The buyer profile may shift. Customer expectations will be different.

The fundamentals of our industry are strong — high population growth and an increasing need for the products and services we offer remain. But how we do things has permanently changed. We’ll need to understand, adapt and adjust. My years in this amazing field give me the confidence that — once again — we will do so.


After nearly 40 years in senior living, Sharon Brooks will retire from her role as president, East Coast at GlynnDevins this summer to focus on market audits, development consulting and her passion for serving the middle market.

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