Collaboration Enhances Quality Of Service

July 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — In an unusual move for people charged with driving revenue for their organizations, marketing professionals representing senior living communities across West Michigan joined together in February 2004 for the mutual benefit of sharing common experiences and best practices.

The Senior Living Marketers of West Michigan, as they are now known, essentially put their competitive interests aside to talk about where the business is headed and how they can collectively contribute to the quality of the service they provide their residents, said Brian Mack, director of marketing for Covenant Village of the Great Lakes.

One of the group's primary goals is to raise the profile of residential retirement living as a viable and positive option within the spectrum of senior service alternatives in West Michigan, he said. The greater Grand Rapids market for residential senior living, he noted, reflects the national average of about 3 percent to 4 percent penetration, meaning that 3 percent to 4 percent of the people who qualify according to age and income will opt for a residential retirement lifestyle.

Mack was the catalyst behind the first meeting. He had transferred to this market from the Chicago area just a few months earlier and wanted to get up to speed on the region's competitive landscape. The group's first few meetings attracted representatives from Porter Hills Retirement and Services, Holland Home, Clark Retirement, Sunset Association, FreedomVillage, Lutheran Home and Services, and Walden Woods Retirement, in addition to CovenantVillage of the Great Lakes.

Since then, Mack said, word has traveled, and the group has expanded to include more than 30 senior living, assisted living and continuing care providers throughout the region who meet on a quarterly basis to share information and update each other on what's new on their campuses. He said participants in those early meetings discovered they had a common challenge — primarily that the vast majority of people knows there are options for residential retirement living available in the West Michigan market, but doesn't necessarily know the extent of the options available.

Mention "retirement community" and most folks think "nursing home"; they automatically conjure up the image of someone in a 24-hour-a-day care environment. They have this mental image of Whistler's mother sitting in a rocking chair, whiling away the hours, Mack explained.

"That creates a lot of resistance to discovering what the options are. People's natural propensity is to say, 'I'm going to stay at home' — regardless of whether that's the most prudent course or whether their quality of life would be maintained in the same way it would be if they were exploring some of these other alternatives."

People in retirement living communities today are active and engaged, and they're looking for an environment that's going to facilitate active engagement, he said, and that's what present-day retirement communities provide. The current generation of seniors being served today — the parents of the baby boomers — and their baby-boomer offspring who are coming up behind them simply won't settle for less, he said.

"These folks are used to asking for what they want and used to getting it. They have the majority of the economic muscle to be able to make those things happen. By and large, the bottom line goal among all of the providers in Michigan is essentially the same: to serve our residents.

"The value that we as a business segment provide to the community is that we can target an option for just about everybody — regardless of what their socioeconomic or geographic situation is — because of the number of different organizations present in West Michigan."

Stephanie Erickson, a community outreach representative for Holland Home, has been involved in Senior Living Marketers for about 18 months.

"Interestingly, some of us are actually providing services to each other," Erickson noted. "Holland Home not only has retirement communities, but also home care hospice and rehabilitation services that we can actually come and provide to other senior living communities."

Erickson said participation in the group has helped her build relationships with others in her field of senior living marketing, which is a unique kind of marketing, she said.

"It's not really sales; it doesn't compare to selling a tangible product. It's different, so it's nice to be able to get together with the other senior communities and talk about the services we provide. I think it's really beneficial in helping you grow in your abilities and build relationships through the network. It helps keep you aware of what's going on."

Mark McCulloch, vice president of marketing for Porter Hills Retirement Communities and Services, said PorterHills has participated in the organization since its beginning. Members share public information, not strategic information on their individual organizations, he pointed out. Since members take turns hosting quarterly meetings at their own retirement communities, everybody gets to see each other's facilities, and McCulloch thinks the exposure works in everybody's favor. As he sees it, the organization helps members be better service providers to the consumer base.

"It's a good group," McCulloch added. "I think it's very helpful in terms of professional development."

The communities of several Senior Living Marketing group members will participate in the first-ever Parade of Senior Living, which runs July 12-15. The event is intended to give seniors and caregivers the opportunity to visit nine independent-living retirement communities during set hours, including Covenant Village of the Great Lakes, Pilgrim Manor, Waterford Place, Walden Woods, Whispering Woods, Holland Home Breton Woods, Cook Valley Estates, Sentinel Pointe and the Cottages of Crystal Manor.

"What we're hoping is that by working together, we'll be exposing a wider audience to the concept of independent living than we would if we were holding an event like that just by ourselves," said Peg Cochran, marketing and communications coordinator for Holland Home. She has been a member of Senior Living Marketers since she joined Holland Home seven months ago.

"It makes a lot of sense; working together we can sort of enhance the industry as a whole," Cochran said. "We each offer something a little different, so even though we are technically competing, I think there's a lot of complementary overlap in what we're doing."    

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