Prospective Residents Can ‘Test Drive’ a Senior Living Community (Episode 19)

March 14, 2018

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello from SmartLinx Solutions! In today’s podcast, we’ll talk about short-term stays at senior living communities, really short-term stays. Our guest is Ray Costello, founder of boomer bnb. Yes, boomer bnb is sort of an Airbnb for baby boomers. Welcome, Ray.

Ray Costello:Hi Darcy. Thanks for having me on your podcast.

DG: Glad to have you. Ray, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how this unique concept came to be?

RC: Sure. So my background is ultimately in hospitality. I used to work for, started my career in, Relais & Château hotels in a service capacity and managerial capacity, moved into country club management for almost two years, that was in Charleston, South Carolina and Naples, Florida.

DG: We have offices in Charleston.

RC: Do you really? I lived there for almost 20 years, I lived in Charleston. And boy do I love that city.

DG: And I’m a native Floridian, so there you go.

RC: Wow, so we have more in common than I thought. So I miss both of those cities. Both were wonderful places to live. I currently reside in San Diego, California. Moved out here with my wife a little over five years ago, where I went to work in the senior living industry. So I went to work, I really was looking for a career change from country clubs and really felt like senior living was — and is — a growing industry. And I always had an interest in working with seniors. So we moved out here, and I took a job running a small independent living facility in the San Diego area with about 120 residents.

So during my career in senior living, I ran two different communities, one like I mentioned was about 120 residents, the second was really large, it was almost 500 residents. During that time, running these communities, coming from what I would say the outside hospitality world, I really didn’t take into account that the senior living industry hadn’t really adapted technology yet. And this was really surprising to me. And even when I was going through the interview process to go to work in the industry, it never even really occurred to me to ask about technology and what processes and systems they had in place. So it was surprising to me to go into an operations setting and not have a lot of the tools available that we would have in hotels or country clubs.

DG: We provide technology as well, but a little different.

RC: I’ve looked at your software suite and, yeah, I can see that you offer great solutions, not only for the healthcare industry but for government and hospitality. I’m really impressed by what your company offers. So getting back to boomer bnb, during my time in the industry, I kept sitting in meetings — and this would typically happen on a Monday or Tuesday — where the sales department would say to the operations team or the concierge team and housekeeping team: “Hey we had a guest come to stay with us, a potential resident that was coming to stay with us, and nobody knew they were coming, the room wasn’t properly prepared, she was really disappointed and I’m not sure if she’s going to move in.” So I’m not kidding, I sat through this meeting 35 or 40 times in two different communities, and I said, “There’s got to be a system out there that will really solve this problem.” And as it turns out, there wasn’t. So to talk about our software in its current state, what we’ve done is we’ve given — it’s not quite like Airbnb because what we’ve done is we’ve given the community the control to allow vetted guests to come and stay on property. And those vetted guests could be, you know, obviously a potential resident who’s going to come and stay free of charge, a recovery or respite stay that could be anywhere from two days to two weeks, paid residents’ friend and family member stays. And there are, I would say, some of the really smart companies out there are offering inter-community travel programs that fit for our software service.

DG: What do you mean by that?

RC: Well, they will have — you know, a typical size of a company these days, it’s regional, and they may have anywhere between 15 and 30 communities. So they’re offering their residents the opportunity to go and stay in between communities. If you live in Arizona, you may want to go and visit Bend, Oregon, for a week and not stay at a Holiday Inn, when you’re already an active member of this company in a community, and you also want to go and stay amongst other residents of that company.

DG: Sounds like a timeshare.

RC: It’s very similar, yes very similar. So there are some companies out there right now that are offering this, and once again it’s an amenity. So if you are selling your community in your company, you know, to be able to say we know that you still like to travel, here’s an option that you have, look at our entire portfolio of communities, any one of them that you want to stay at, you can go onto the booking portal and just book your stay there based on the availability.

DG: Even though they’re residents of one of the other facilities, they would still have to pay for the room, is that correct?

RC: Yes, so that depends on the company itself, what they’d like to do with it. If they want to use this as a revenue-generating opportunity, yes, they could charge and they can look at what a hotel in the area might be charging and go in 10-15-20 percent lower. Or they might just want to charge what the actual expense is that’s involved with that stay — housekeeping, amenities, food, that sort of thing. So maybe that’s $25 a day, maybe they’re not looking to make a profit, just looking to recoup the cost involved.

DG: Got it. So, like SmartLinx Solutions, as we said, you provide software for the senior care market. You refer to it on your website, I believe, as “hospitality software.” So I would compare it to the software that hotels use so guests can book rooms online, like a booking engine. Is that an accurate comparison? And why or why not?

RC: I would say yes and yes. You know, I’m probably going to butcher this, but the definition of hospitality is, roughly, “a generous reception of guests or visitors or strangers.” And that crosses over, obviously, from the hotel hospitality sector into senior living and healthcare. You know, our real belief is that senior living communities and healthcare facilities, whether they believe it or not, are in the hospitality business.

DG: Sure.

RC: You know, and I think that some don’t always realize that. They think they’re in the healthcare business, but the resident and the patient of the future — and the present — are really expecting these types of services that they get outside of healthcare and senior living environments inside of healthcare and senior living environments. So we feel our software is a hospitality tool. And that tool is a communications tool that really ties together line-level staff members, community finance teams, and management of those communities and facilities, with the emphasis being on a tool for the line-level staff member to use to manage that program.

DG: Ray, your program is designed for short-term stays at senior care facilities. So what exactly is considered “short-term”? Are we talking a weekend, a few days, a week, more?

RC: That’s a great question. And I’m glad you use the word “designed,” because as you and I’m sure your listeners understand, trying to adapt technology — we use the analogy of a hotel — trying to adapt technology that’s used in the outside world in a hotel into a senior living or a healthcare facility is extremely difficult, and it typically is going to need a lot of modification. So when we initially came up with a product concept and the business model, we looked at all sorts of outside software products for booking and scheduling, because there are dozens of them out there in hotel or hospitality or home sharing network type of thing. And none of them would adapt over to the senior living world.

So that’s where we decided we’re going to need to design this from scratch and design it from the ground up, which is exactly what we did. And you know, we designed it as former operators, for operators. So that’s kind of a long answer to your short question. So the short answer is, the platform we designed is a scheduling, booking, and alert system. It can be modified to schedule or book a reservation that’s an hour long or a month long, or anywhere in between.

DG: Got it. So are participating facilities in your program expected to keep a certain number of rooms available as guest rooms? I mean, they may not want to do that. What if the facility is full? Do they have an option to turn on or off your software? How does that work?

RC: Sure, so if they’re full, what a fantastic problem to have, you know. So short-term stays, at least from a sales standpoint, have been part of the senior living business model for years, I would say probably decades. Most people want to kind of dip their toe into the water before they jump in. So offering a short-term stay to a potential resident is something that most of them want anyway. They want to come in, they want to enjoy the amenities of the community, meet the staff, really get a feeling of the place they’re going to move into and live.

So we put control into the community’s hands, and they want — right now, most communities will have anywhere between one and three units on property that they’re using. Now a new build might have six or seven trying to generate activity on property and get as many people in to experience the community as they can. So when you think about that, if you’ve got a busy short-term stay program, you might be doing 20-plus check-ins and checkouts per month. That is a lot, and in both of the communities that I operated, that was typically on the low end, 20 people coming in, 20 different rooms being rented out a month. They were very busy programs. So that’s a lot to put in front of your line-level staff.

Typically your concierge or your front desk staff is managing this program, and not having that real centralized communication piece — I’ve seen it — is frustrating for those staff members. So our tool allows, yes, the community to turn it on or turn it off as they’d like. When somebody searches for a room, it’s going to show, we’ve got all the rooms there identified, it’s going to show the availability of those rooms. So if there is no availability, either the sales department member who is booking that stay is going to see that right away, or the potential resident who is trying to book from their home from their own computer is going to realize the dates that they want to come are not available.

DG: So I’m thinking more in terms of healthcare facilities than senior living per se, but are the guests’ rooms typically located in a quieter area of the facility or the community, you know, to create more like a hotel-like experience? Or is the idea to give them a real experience with all the hustle and bustle going on?

RC: Well I would say smart operators would do their best to frame their first impression of their community in the best possible light, you know. So to answer that question, we’ve seen it in both scenarios, where the location of the guest suites is in a desirable location and other times where it, maybe by necessity, is not in a desirable location.

DG: So would you say that your program is mainly being used to give potential residents a taste of what living in a senior community would be like? I know you mentioned for respite care and also for friends and relatives. So part two of my question is regarding friends or relatives visiting, do certain facilities have age or other restrictions? So like, if someone wanted their grandchildren or great-grandchildren to stay, is that allowable? I guess it depends on the facility. I assume pets are a no-no, and obviously no smoking. So how does that work?

RC: The way we designed the — we call it a microsite, it’s a booking porta l— and the way we’ve designed this booking portal is to put control of all the amenities and all the rules that are on a property in the hands of the community provider itself. So we will design it for them, but through a series of communications and forms that they fill out, they let us know the amenities that are available at each particular property. So one property might say it’s OK for them to have a small pet with them, you know, under 20 pounds; another property might say that’s not OK. It depends on the individual property, and we let that community set those guidelines themselves.

DG: Got it. So, in your experience, have you found that facilities are pricing their accommodations competitively? I mean, that is, say, maybe compared with traditional B&Bs? And I’m curious if you know of any instances of someone who booked a room just because it was so reasonable. And because your site is boomer bnb, do the stays include meals or breakfast only? So how does that work? I would assume if the guests wouldn’t be interested in the facility it still brings in revenue, right?

RC: It does. And you know, once again, we try and put all of these scenarios, you know, we guide the community, but we really let them each — every community or facility is different in their own way. There could be a company of 30 communities, and every single one of them is different in its own way. And we understand that about the industry itself, and that’s why we designed this product to be really customizable for it, and simply customizable for it. So if a community — I guess I would say it depends on the location.

If you are using it as a revenue generator, and you’ve got a facility in New York City, charging $200 a night for a resident’s family member to stay on property might be considered very reasonable, as opposed to getting a hotel in town. But if you’re in the Midwest somewhere, it might be more reasonable to charge $35 or $40 or $50 a night. You know, it really depends on location I would say.

And what we also see — and I think as far as meals go, this is something that the communities want their potential residents and their family members, anybody that’s coming to stay on property, to experience. Because you know, there is nothing more important than what you’re going to eat on a daily basis. So giving them the opportunity to really experience that, we feel is smart for providers.

DG: Right, sure. Ray, I know you wrote an article about how senior living communities can cater to “snowbirds and sunbirds.” Now I think most of us are familiar with snowbirds, but that was the first time I heard sunbirds. Can you tell me what that is, and how senior living communities can capitalize on this?

RC: Sure, so like we talked about in the beginning of the podcast, you used to live in Florida and your company has an operation in Charleston, South Carolina, two places I’ve lived. And I can speak from experience, from over 25 years of experience, that in August, September, and October, it can be in some cases unbearable, you know, 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity on a daily basis. So if you’ve got a community in Florida, and then you’ve also got communities in Michigan or Colorado or California, it might seem like a pretty good idea if I live in Florida, to make a month if there’s availability at one of the other communities and move to Colorado or Michigan or Kansas, you know, someplace that’s much more comfortable to spend those months.

DG: Is that what a sunbird is?

RC: That’s exactly what a sunbird is, yes, they go from a lower latitude to a higher latitude to escape it.

DG: So I have you ask you, have you heard of the term halfback?

RC: I have not, no.

DG: Well I’ll share it with you. Instead of someone moving from the north all the way to the south, like in Florida, they move halfway, say around North Carolina or perhaps even South Carolina, and I’ve heard them referred to as halfbacks.

RC: That actually makes me a halfback, because I grew up in Rhode Island and I moved from Rhode Island to Charleston, South Carolina to go to school. So I did not know that. I’ll make sure to add that to my resume.

DG: Could you share with us, if you have one, a success story about how a short-term stay at a facility facilitated through boomer bnb led to a guest becoming a resident?

RC: Well we’re still relatively new, so we’re still collecting that data and the statistics in the communities that we’re working with. I can share a statistic with you, though. Upwards of 72 percent of potential residents who have had a positive experience visiting a community have moved into that community. So we’re simply providing the tools that assist communities in making that a positive experience. That’s kind of our goal.

DG: That’s a good statistic, that’s a strong number. Ray, what do you see as the future for senior living communities, particularly in terms of occupancy. That is, after boomer bnb what’s next on the horizon?

RC: As far as occupancy goes, I go to a lot of seminars and I listen to and talk to a lot of industry experts. I’ve been doing that for a couple years now. I think we’re going to see a downward turn in occupancy rates in the next two to five years. The market right now is being flooded with new communities. Technology that allows people to age at home is really growing at a rapid pace. If you follow the trends, particularly with NIC [National Investment Center], you’ll see that over the past three years, there’s been a 1 percent downturn per year. So three years ago, you might have seen national occupancy rates at 91 percent. I just saw for fourth quarter of last year that they’re hovering around 88 percent. So I think providers with older communities that are technology averse should be a little bit concerned.

For boomer bnb, we feel like the future is really bright for us. You know, the resident patient of the future, they’re demanding hospitality experiences that are similar to what they experience in everyday lives. So you know, we’ve created this product right now and we are creating products that solve these problems for this industry, so we’re really excited about the future.

DG: Well thank you, Ray, so much for sharing your innovative concept with us today. And to all our listeners, thank you for tuning in. For more information on boomer bnb, visit bmrbnb.com. And if you’d like to learn more about SmartLinx and our fully integrated suite of workforce management solutions, visit us online at SmartLinxSolutions.com.

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