The senior housing industry has lived through some anxious moments since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Occupancy levels dropped to a historic low of 80.7 percent during the fourth quarter of 2020, a 6.8 percent decrease from the first quarter, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.
The unfavorable links created between senior living communities and the transmission of COVID-19 have hit the industry hard. Initially, occupancy levels slid due to moratoriums and government-mandated restrictions. Then, the sector maintained a slow pace in move-ins because residents and family members were concerned that these communities were acting as super-spreaders. “The stories on COVID-19 and senior living have greatly impacted the industry,” Nicole Moberg, chief operating officer at Thrive Senior Living, told Multi-Housing News.
So what can operators do now to deconstruct the negative image COVID-19 has imposed on senior living communities? Moberg reveals the most successful marketing strategies organizations might implement to make their communities attractive to residents.
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How is the sector currently holding up?
Moberg: We’ve seen an uptick in activity, especially since the vaccine rollout. Leads are steadily increasing back to pre-COVID-19 levels. Our move-ins are still slightly down, but are still trending upwards from what we’ve seen over the past couple of months.
How has the outbreak impacted Thrive Senior Living communities? How have you responded to the pandemic?
Moberg: Thrive had to quickly pivot based on what was happening due to the pandemic. We have still maintained lead volume and interest from pent-up demand. From very early on, we were one of the first senior living communities to prioritize testing—backing our belief that every resident and team member should be tested as often as possible for the safety of the residents, as well as our community.
Through this program, we were able to quickly isolate COVID-19-positive residents and develop the appropriate protocol. This included a responsive and thoughtful COVID-19 team and playbook, including a communication plan with families, team members and residents. We also developed the “Take Off to Thrive” marketing concept, with a 30-day new resident communication checklist that heavily involved community involvement from Thrive leadership. This served to minimize resident isolation and loneliness and even included an adapted red carpet “landing day/move-in” experience.
How have your marketing strategies changed since the onset of the pandemic?
Moberg: Since March 2020, we have pivoted with urgency by creating COVID-19 sales strategies including altering our messaging to focus more on care and safety, and how we can help people during challenging times. We prioritized our continued sales success by adapting to what was most important to our prospects.
We saw increased sales activity throughout the pandemic with safely executed event activity drastically improving as our team worked to offer educational opportunities. These included leadership sessions, online open house events, entertainment events like Bingo, trivia, coffee and conversations, as well as weekly “Each One Teach One” meetings—all to target professional referral sources and prospects.
Internally, our sales team participated in daily calls to address any concerns and keep the team connected and motivated. We also offered phone skills, virtual tour skills, and “selling in a crisis” trainings which helped tremendously to keep morale high and sales up. Digitally, we worked to bring on a chief storyteller who showed a behind-the-scenes look at Thrive culture to tell the stories of our communities, created a YouTube channel to share online content to increase awareness when families could not visit and increased online presence as we allocated more towards digital spend to drive more traffic to our website.
What role does technology play in your marketing process?
Moberg: Since the pandemic, Thrive Senior Living has brought on new tools to help enhance our existing processes. We sourced a new video app that allows us to send videos to prospects as a follow-up; a platform to enhance virtual tours; a “thank you” app for sending gifts; a website chat feature—virtual sales assistant— and a DocuSign program to implement lease signings.
What do you consider to be the main marketing trends for senior living communities?
Moberg: There is an absolute need to be creative and to continue to have multiple touchpoints with prospects! The sales cycle is longer, so we need to ensure that we continue to engage prospects every step along their journey. Also, focusing more on care and safety is critical as the market is still very sensitive due to COVID-19.
We also just introduced a coffee food truck concept where Thrive will come directly to you to serve warm coffee, espressos and lattes. Additionally, we are focusing more on how to utilize online spending and having strategies in place to share key messaging through digital storytelling.
Are there any marketing strategies that are being used today but aren’t effective anymore? What would you replace these outdated strategies with?
Moberg: We are still using some traditional methods of marketing including print ads in newspapers and magazines, billboards and direct mail—all of which still have their place in certain markets. However, overall, the emphasis has shifted to spending much more on our digital presence and ensuring that we have multiple channels in place to reach our prospects.
What are the top three challenges when it comes to marketing senior housing communities in a pandemic-driven economy?
Moberg: It is harder to make the same impact on prospects through virtual tours when you aren’t able to have an in-person human connection within our communities. There is no handshaking or hugs, and prospects can’t see team member interactions with residents as easily. There is something very special in seeing a team member’s genuine happiness and love for our residents.
Although digital marketing is the way to go, it can also be very cluttered. The key lies in where you’re spending your dollars, how much you are spending and how your message is delivered so that you can show your differentiators.
The stories on COVID-19 and senior living have greatly impacted the industry. We have been lumped together with nursing homes and it has created a major challenge for prospects to have trust in how we can help them through these challenging times. We’ve had to work harder than ever to build that trust and let them know we are a safe choice.
What can industry providers do to deconstruct these negative affiliations with senior living communities?
Moberg: We view our communities as the safest place to be. Other communities can deconstruct negative affiliations by prioritizing proper training and education, personal protective equipment, disinfection procedures and aggressive COVID-19 testing programs such as the one Thrive has implemented. Through our efforts around our residents’ well-being, we offer the safer alternative to an older adult living at home and getting necessities needed in public.
What is your advice for senior living providers struggling to overcome the negative impacts of the pandemic?
Moberg: Start internally by working closely with your teams. Scheduling weekly one-on-one calls will always be the secret sauce. Start by looking at sales basics to adapt as needed. Digital spend should always increase when more people are making their decisions through online research. Prospects are more than 65 percent through the decision-making process before they even get to your sales team, so your digital presence is critical. This includes PPC, social ads, banners, website chat features, virtual tours and online reviews which play a critical role in the decision-making process.
What are your expectations for the senior housing industry going forward?
Moberg: Our expectations are that we become even stronger teams, individual and leaders in this industry, given the challenges we have faced over the past year. This has proven to all of us our ability to continually and quickly adapt and pivot based on circumstances.