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‘Solid Momentum’: Watermark, Heritage, Treplus Hone Sales Strategies for 2024

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Senior living operators made progress and notched plenty of wins in sales and marketing in 2023.

This year, sales leaders with operators including Heritage Senior Living, Watermark Retirement and Treplus Communities are building on that momentum. All the while, they are mulling transparency of resident rates, the integration of AI into marketing functions and new ways to further cut down on the use of third-party aggregators.

All in all, the previous year was one marked by steady improvement and occupancy gains. And this year is off to a strong start for companies like Watermark, which is seeing record-breaking levels of inquiries in the first quarter of this year.

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But these companies’ sales departments are not resting on their collective laurels, either, given the looming influx of the baby boomer generation, who are bringing new wants and needs into the senior living sales process.

“We just feel like there’s good, solid momentum,” Watermark Retirement Communities National Director of Marketing and Sales Troy Hollar said Wednesday during a panel in the virtual portion of the Senior Housing News Sales and Marketing Conference. “I think we’re finally feeling like we’ve emerged from the pandemic.”

Building on momentum, changing expectations

A good example of the kind of success senior living operators had in 2023 lies with Watermark Retirement. The company had a “surprising” number of move-ins in November and December of last year, and Hollar said the company has “solid momentum” this year as a result.

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Just under a third of all of the leads in Watermark’s sales funnel ended up taking a tour in 2023.

“One in five of our internet leads toured, which is up a lot from previous years,” Hollar said. “And we also saw a higher lead to move-in conversion from digital sources.”

On the whole, Watermark notched occupancy growth of 18% in 2023, and January is “looking good,” he added.

Similarly, Heritage Senior Living saw inquiry volumes in 2023 “much higher than in previous years,” though Vice President of Sales and Marketing Gretchen Vakiener said that dropped off somewhat in the fourth quarter of the year. On the whole, though, she is optimistic about the year ahead.

Julie Stein, vice president of marketing for Treplus, said the active adult operator saw “significantly more” website traffic in 2023 to the tune of about 25% higher than the same period in 2022.

“We saw a strong leasing season over the holiday period, and that’s carried forth into January for us,” Stein said during the webinar.

In some cases, inquiries are not actually translating into move-ins. For example, Heritage saw a higher number of inquiries than move-ins in 2023 versus 2022, which led to its inquiry-to-move-in ratio changing.

As such, the goal for Heritage’s sales staff is to “make sure that we’re being smart about the inquiries that we’re working with,” and use new strategies in an effort to decrease move-in costs, she said.

The pandemic caused disruptions to a number of long-held metrics in senior living, including the length of the sales cycle, average age and average length of stay of residents. That evolution is continuing in 2024, according to the webinar’s panelists.

Vakiener said that Heritage is continuing to see a higher-acuity resident in all of the company’s levels of care. Seniors are older, including in settings such as independent living. Assisted living and memory care residents often are arriving at the community with more care needs.

“We’re seeing inquiries converting into tours, converting into move-ins, quicker,” she said. “In order to meet those needs, we are going to need to be able to respond quickly.”

She added that residents often move in just seven to 10 days after initially starting to work with a member of the sales staff, given those needs.

“Because of the fact that … people are older and more frail when they are starting this process of looking for senior living, we’re seeing the actual lead cycle speed up,” she said.

Average age is still “pretty high” at Watermark. For one of Watermark’s independent living communities, Hollar said the average age for residents was around 81, much higher than the company previously saw in the product type.

Due to the shifting nature of marketing, all three panelists said there will be a continued focus on digital leads, along with pushing to get more reviews on their communities.

According to Hollar, that push has led to the number of online ratings tripling throughout 2023 and pushed up the average ratings for Watermark communities “pretty significantly.”

Price wars and AI

Senior living operators increased rental rates in 2023, partly as a way to help offset a higher cost of doing business than in prior years. Resident rates grew at a near-record pace last year.

In 2023, some operators got more wary of passing through big rent increases in 2024 and beyond, given that resident rent has grown quickly in the last three years. But operators including Heritage are also still wielding concessions selectively.

“Typically, what we’ll do is we’ll have a short term, free month that we’re offering to give away, and a lot of times, we can do that within a certain time period,” Vakiener said.

The operator offers discounts for a “specific purpose, for a specific amount of time, which creates a sense of “urgency” for families, she said.

Hollar added time-based concessions, such as a current “sweetheart’s deal” at several Watermark communities that ends on Valentine’s Day, has been impactful and effective for the company. Another concession type that is noted to be effective is waiving community fees or offering a payment plan on community fees.

Pricing transparency has also proved to be helpful for some senior housing providers, particularly in the active adult space.

Prices at the Treplus Communities are posted on their websites, and Stein said local multifamily pricing is around 20% less than what is offered at the communities. Active adult rental rates at Treplus are around 40% less than independent living in the markets where the company operates.

That level of transparency is also being used at Watermark and Heritage Senior Living. Hollar said pricing for levels of care is readily available on Watermark’s sites, and individual communities are allowing prospective residents to search for the prices of individual rooms as well. By doing so, he said it has improved lead quality and reduced the number of unqualified people who might have previously inquired.

“We believe in price transparency. My philosophy is that if we don’t provide it, they’re going to go somewhere else to get that information,” Vakiener said. “We want them on our website, we want them finding out the information that they want from us. We don’t want to send them somewhere else to have to go get that information.”

When it comes to pricing, Stein said there is a potential to utilize AI to help with a revenue management tool that is being rolled out in 2024 for Treplus. The idea, she said, is to allow the active adult communities to remain competitive and provide further pricing transparency in a time when there is housing scarcity, and the tool will allow for more real time transparency within the company’s channels.

“AI has really some positive impacts on marketing. that includes some of those better product recommendations on websites for the consumers,” she said. “It also is very valuable in helping to segment audiences and create some targeted campaigns for us, specifically because of that demographic that we serve, it’s really important.”

AI is also being used to reduce the amount of time needed for marketing campaigns by allowing teams to see what audiences both like and dislike, alongside with automating content creation. Predictive analytics are also being utilized to offer deep dives into patterns of consumer behavior.

“AI has really some positive impacts on marketing, that include some of those better product recommendations on websites for the consumers,” Stein said. “It also is very valuable in helping to segment audiences and create some targeted campaigns for us.”

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