Dan Hermann, Lisa McCracken, Kat Dymond and everyone at Ziegler did it again. As always, the September 2023 Senior Living Finance and Strategy Conference was an exceptional mix of formal and informal learning, connections and camaraderie.
Most senior living “lifers” who’ve been attending various conferences for decades remember stretches of years where information seemed stale and unprogressive, leaving us to ask, “What, this again?” Not so in 2023—I left this conference thinking this is an exciting time to be in senior living. The cross section between demographics, technology and necessity (that greatest of motivators) leaves the field wide open for creative minds to step forward to craft new answers and new directions.
Here are some key takeaways from the conference I think are important to share with others in senior living.
1. THE PANDEMIC’S SILVER LINING
While marketing was not front and center in this year’s discussions, my attention naturally gravitates to all topics around occupancy. Ziegler’s Lisa McCracken shared in the opening session that occupancy trends continue to recover year over year from the pandemic’s hit. We, as a field, now realize the changes forced on us when our communities closed to visitors led to powerful new sales and marketing ideas, and caused seniors to explore their options and make decisions in new ways that represent great opportunity.
From a bigger picture, we learned that although occupancy hasn’t regained full pre-pandemic levels at all individual communities, taken as a whole, more seniors live in a Life Plan Community right now (2Q 2023) than at any point in history. I’ve always felt that, as corny as it sounds, we as a field absolutely make the world a better place. Learning that we’re reaching new heights of impact helped start the conference off on a high point for me, even if it’s balanced by the long-known fact that our not-for-profit growth is not nearly keeping pace with the opportunities.
2. COURAGE IS KEY FOR MULTI- AND SINGLE-SITES ALIKE
So much of this conference dealt with strategies to allow single-sites and smaller multi-site providers to remain viable and thriving amidst myriad economic and workforce pressures and challenges. For many, these strategies may be through acquisitions and mergers and for others, through creativity as a single site.
- Stuart Hartman, CEO of the multi-site Retirement Housing Foundation based in California, made a strong business case that organizations must not delay considering affiliation when they first see signs of needs. Affiliation may not be the answer, but waiting too long to act can cost an organization millions of dollars or its very existence. On the other hand, making hard decisions to divest of one property or portfolio may allow the remaining properties or portfolios to thrive. Joel Anderson, CEO of multi-site Lifestar based in Florida, gave more examples of how one must put emotion to the side when making decisions to acquire or divest, lest you put your ministry at risk.
- On the single-site side, commitment to re-invention and re-investment was the common theme. David Shenk, CEO of Tel Hai Community in Pennsylvania, used the engaging analogy of a financially strong community “petting your money;” he helped his board recognize they must expand because assuming the market will continue to love what you offer on reputation alone is not a tenable strategic plan. Anita Holt, CEO of The Forest at Duke in North Carolina, and William Wlodarczyk, CEO of Fox Run at Orchard Park in New York, also shared re-invention stories that ultimately hinged on these leaders keeping their organizations committed to a clear set of values and behaviors through challenges and hard times.
3. “PREVENT BEING A DINOSAUR”
Still, I found it instructive that even the largest of the large feel their own set of challenges in the future. An organization like Acts Retirement-Life Communities (26 communities, three alliances and growing) may have scale on its side, but still must adapt to survive. CEO Jerry Grant shared how Acts is committed to staying both viable and relevant by approaching strategic planning as futurists. Jerry used the powerful illustration of not allowing Acts to become a dinosaur, despite its history and its prominence. Among its many strategies, it recognized it has many different types of communities and will now allow itself to segment its brand accordingly. Like major hotel brands, using this brand strategy gives such a large multi-site greater flexibility to serve different groups of seniors in different ways.
4. DO WELL BY DOING RIGHT
I mentioned earlier what an exciting time this is to be in senior living. So much necessity driving so much invention, with so much more innovation still needed. Hearing speakers like Lynn Katzmann, CEO of Juniper Communities, tell the story of how she used the value inherent in our senior living provider model to develop a way to serve those with greater acuity through prevention and chronic care management is nothing short of inspiring. At least ten large multi-site organizations are serving this niche across many states through an operator-owned Medicare Advantage program. Juniper modelled doing well by doing good. I love that the solution involved bringing together resources that already existed and thinking of them in a new way.
I heard so many panelists and so many informal conversations use the term “partnership” and “strategic partnership” throughout the conference. Hence my optimism for the future.
I end with this case in point: Tom Mann, Chief Marketing Officer of Moorings Park in Florida, had fun with the audience as he described how he markets to the “1%-ers.” (I’m sure he suspected many of us in the audience could not quite afford to live at his community!) But he ended with an inspiring and powerful statement: These $4- to $9-million-dollar entrance fees allow Moorings Park to fund 50 other not-for-profit organizations that serve a much wider group of people, and to fund innovations that will ultimately serve our entire field. They are doing well by doing good.
Stories like these are why I am confident that our not-for-profit senior living field is uniquely positioned to make the world a better place by meeting, sharing and collaborating at conferences like this.