How a careful review of market and consumer information led to exceptional presales success for an expansion at Westminster Canterbury in Richmond, Virginia
By Russell Gardner, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, and Stacey Nannery, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Westminster Canterbury Richmond
As leadership at Westminster Canterbury Richmond prepared for strategic planning in 2016, one need was clear: For a market leader, Westminster Canterbury was not fully meeting resident expectations for fitness and wellness spaces and programming. The community leadership also believed there was an opportunity to grow in the Richmond market but was uncertain whether the best place to grow was on its existing campus or in one of several rapidly growing parts of the city.
To help answer these and other questions, in 2016 Westminster Canterbury engaged Love & Company to study the market in detail. Our work began with a market demand analysis and was then followed by a series of consumer research events with the community’s wait list and lead base, as well as with qualified prospects from various parts of the Richmond market.
Grow where the market wants to live
The research process started in the fall of 2016 with the market demand analysis. This analysis showed that, while existing penetration rates were high compared to many markets, census at all communities was solid, and the projected growth in the Richmond area was quite strong and would support significant growth in the coming years.
Consumer research was then started in early 2017 by conducting five large consumer research events in three different parts of the city. These events explored prospects’ interest in several potential locations for a new or satellite community, as well as continued growth on Westminster Canterbury’s existing campus. With more than 1,000 members on its Canterbury Club wait list, learning their preferences was a critical goal of the research effort.
Although the findings from these events shed important insights on consumer needs and desires for many different facets of the community, the most important finding was the location preference. Canterbury Club members clearly wanted to be part of the main campus rather than a nearby satellite campus, and other research groups also preferred the existing site. This led leadership at Westminster Canterbury to buy land adjacent to the community on which it could grow.
“We recognized we had a high amount of resident satisfaction, and with our forecasting, it was the right time to move forward with growth,” Russell Gardner, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, said.
With the decision to grow on its existing campus, Westminster Canterbury began assembling a team to plan the development. In addition to Love & Company, it engaged SFCS to be the architect, CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP) to do financial analysis, JLL to manage the project, and a team of Gilbane Building Company and Henderson Construction to plan and manage the construction.
Westminster Canterbury is one of the most recognizable names in Richmond for senior living, but that’s not to say the community doesn’t have fierce competition. When the time came to plan the expansion, leadership knew they had to get it right. And while the consumer research was important, leadership didn’t rely solely on those findings. To help develop a vision for the expansion, the development team made site visits to contemporaries in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
“We know that for wellness, it wasn’t just competition from other senior living communities. Several residents come to us from community fitness centers and country clubs, and they want the same kinds of things in a retirement community as they can get at any of those types of places,” Russell explained.
The team-based planning process resulted in a dynamic concept for the expansion, which the community branded Vibrancy! The focal point of the Vibrancy! expansion was the community’s new Vital Living Center, which includes state-of-the-art Fitness and Aquatic Centers, as well as a new salon and spa. The overall expansion also included major renovations to dining, a spiritual center and a new parking deck.
Stacey Nannery, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, elaborated on the plans. “At our soon-to-be demolished existing Aquatic Center, the pool wasn’t the right length for lap swimming. It was clear that we needed a bigger pool with a cooler temperature. What we’re building will have three different areas: a therapeutic side for classes, a lap pool and a hot tub area.”
Driving presales virtually
To help fund the major renovations and expanded amenities, Westminster Canterbury also committed to a significant increase in independent living residences. The initial plans included 42 Vitality Apartments to be built over the Vital Living Center, plus 56 Village Apartments to be built in three villa buildings on the additional land the community purchased, for a total of 98 new residences.
“Like many older communities, we realized years ago that we had too many studio apartments,” Russell explained. “Under marketing’s leadership, we began to phase out studio apartments, and we took out approximately 70 residences through combinations. That was significant for us, but it gave us confidence that our ancillary services, like the restaurants and the theater, could provide quality service for more than 900 residents. In many ways, our business metrics told us we were moving in the right direction.”
Marketing of the expansion residences began in the fall of 2019. However, in March 2020, things paused until the end of that summer due to COVID. When marketing restarted, the Westminster Canterbury team didn’t let a lack of in-person events stop them from meeting their sales goals. From more than 30 web-based events, 300 households made priority deposits, triple the number of 10 percent depositors that would be needed, which gave the team great confidence.
“I think one of our strongest resources is a tenured marketing department. It’s still a relationship business. We know from a marketing standpoint that it starts with trust. We’ve had a good partnership with Love & Company through the years, and they always bring valuable new ideas and data points to help us reach our goals,” Stacey explained.
In addition to the tenure of the staff, another strength was Westminster Canterbury’s commitment to the technology needed to succeed in the COVID marketing environment. The community invested significantly in technology—including YourTour—and the sales team invested significantly in the time needed to fully understand and use the new tools, ensuring they would be comfortable with the new sales process.
Once 10 percent presales started in August of 2021, sales went much faster than anticipated—so fast, in fact, that Westminster Canterbury added a fourth Village Apartment building, increasing the total number of expansion residences to 118. Despite the additional residences, Westminster Canterbury hit its 70percent presales goal in February 2022, many months earlier than expected. And, as of August 2022, the expansion was 100 percent sold.
“Love & Company walked this journey with us, guided us along the way and helped contribute to our success,” Stacey said. “The insights they were able to share with us at the beginning led to a highly successful project in the end.”