Five Priorities When Preparing to Start a Master Plan

Guest article by Melissa Pritchard, Managing Principal, SFCS Architects

At SFCS, we are encouraged to see that many senior living communities are looking to the future again by beginning master planning. Master planning is more critical for our communities and our field than ever. The world has changed. We have changed. Society has changed. We’ve spent a year and a half in a rapid-response mindset: “What is the threat and how do we deal with it?” During this time, our vision necessarily became short term. Master planning is long-term thinking, and we must get back to that. Based on everything we’ve learned during the pandemic, we need to ask ourselves, “How can the senior living field better meet the needs and expectations of today’s and tomorrow’s prospects?”

I’m excited to share more thoughts about the importance of master planning in the upcoming webinar I’m doing with Tad Melton, managing director at Ziegler, and Rob Love, president of Love & Company. It’s called, “Why Master Planning May Be More Important Now Than Ever Before,” and I hope you will register to join us for it on Wednesday, May 26 at noon. In this article, I’d like to address five things I believe are important for you and your organization to think about in preparing to start the master planning process.

1) Update your strategic plan

As my co-presenter Tad Melton elaborated on in his recent article, “Why Master Planning Is More Important Now Than Ever Before,” the rapid changes in the senior living field have resulted in many organizations’ strategic plans being effectively out of date, even if they are just a few years old.

We are living in a time of instability. Things feel much more unstable, much more ungrounded than they did before COVID. The continuing high speed of change is something our organizations need to plan for, to be able to respond nimbly and quickly to additional changes in the future. Organizations need to ask themselves where they believe these many changes will land in their markets and what they need to do to respond. They can then formulate their strategy around it.

The challenges are many. Resident and prospect psychology have changed. There are dynamics with money and finance that are both positive and negative. Consumer expectations for technology have changed. Organizations with older inventory have occupancy challenges that need to be addressed through modifying their inventory, but lower census leads to financial challenges that make it difficult to address the inventory. Organizations should look at every element and ask themselves, “Where do we think this is going to go, and how do we prepare for it?”

2) Do your homework

A master planning team needs to address so many important questions. What growth opportunities does your market have? Is the growth potential consistent among all income levels or greater at specific levels? How is the competition positioned relative both to your community and to consumer expectations? What price levels can your market support, and how do they compare to your competition? The answers to all of these questions will provide critical insight and guidance to your master planning team.

My co-presenter on the upcoming webinar, Rob Love, shares more thoughts on this:

“We often approach market research for an expansion or start-up community in multiple steps. First, prior to beginning master planning, we do a basic market demand analysis to determine the potential for growth and to gain insights on the market depth at different levels of income and home values. Then, once the master planning team has been formed and potential directions for the project have begun to be explored, we conduct a comprehensive competitive pricing and positioning analysis of the market. This provides detailed insights on the viability of potential directions, as well as providing clear insights on the specific positioning our client community will need to adopt to be successful in the future.”

3) Assemble the right team

I’ve referred to the master planning “team” several times already in this article. But what exactly is that team, and who should be on it?

Although many roles and functions need to be filled, I believe the most important (in addition to the client, of course!) are marketing, financial analysis and design. These three disciplines should be “at the table” through all facets of planning, as they need to work together to ensure a balance between design, marketability and financial viability.

Most Life Plan Communities have limited resources. Master planning is a big investment, in time, resources and dollars. It’s critical that when an organization undertakes something this big that the decisions made be grounded in the best thinking from the best minds in the senior living field. We serve an absolutely precious segment of society. It’s important that we put the best solutions out there to enable seniors in our markets to live the best lives they can live.

My co-presenter, Rob Love, adds, “For many projects, one of the most important roles is project management. Especially for single-site communities, community leaders have full-time ‘day jobs,’ and it’s difficult for them to devote the time needed to keep a project moving forward smoothly. As we all know, one of the costliest components of planning is time: The more time that elapses during the planning process, the more costs build up, especially in terms of construction inflation and project carrying costs. The investment in a strong project manager can pay for itself many times over.”

4) Identify your niche

This is another point Tad explored in detail in his article, “Why Master Planning Is More Important Now Than Ever Before.” Our communities are no longer competing just with other Life Plan Communities. Today, there are many different residential living opportunities available to seniors, plus even more services and technology designed to enable people to age in place in their current homes. How is your community going to differentiate itself in such a way that it will be more desirable to prospects—and worth the investment—than staying in the home in which someone has lived for the past 30 years?

Rob Love has some interesting thoughts to share on this as well. “A friend and former colleague of mine, Tom Mann, has said that for Life Plan Communities to be successful in the future, we need to become the fountain of youth. I think he is right. Our communities need to be places not where people come to be sure they have appropriate care when they age, but to be places where they come to delay the effects of aging as long as possible. This is truly a market position for which there would be strong demand and perceived value, and a topic Love & Company hopes to explore in another webinar in the near future.”

I agree with this positioning strategy, though I also need to add a caveat: This can’t just be something we say, it needs to be something we can prove. If we want to be the fountain of youth, we have to back it up with data—broad data. We need to track specific data related to our specific communities, so that we can back up our claims with evidence.

5) Be curious

This last point may seem out of place, given the other topics we’ve discussed, but in my view the way an organization comes into master planning—its mindset—is incredibly important. In my experience, the organizations that experience the greatest success from a master planning effort approach it with an open heart, an open mind, a true sense of curiosity, and a willingness both to learn from and to teach the team they put together.

Think big. Bring in experts who challenge you, and don’t be afraid to challenge the experts. Although the national perspective the experts bring can help you and your team understand the potential of what you could achieve in the future, your knowledge of your local market can help them understand the unique challenges you may be facing. The dynamics of a strong give-and-take process truly lead to more innovative and dynamic outcomes.

My co-presenter, Tad Melton, agrees: “Getting all of your team identified and around the table at the beginning of the process creates strong feedback loops. I’ve never seen a better way to generate great thinking and build consensus. That group interaction and feedback loop builds consensus.”

While these are my top five suggestions for preparing for master planning, the ideas Tad, Rob and I have shared in this article are just a few of many factors to be considered in starting to develop a master plan. I hope you will register to join us for additional exploration of master planning in our May 26 webinar, “Why Master Planning May Be More Important Now Than Ever Before.”

For more articles in this series, click here.

For more insightful articles from Love & Company covering the entire spectrum of senior living topics, click here.

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