Merrill Gardens Finds ‘Equilibrium’ at 65 Communities, With Renewed Focus on Data in Operations

Merrill Gardens Finds ‘Equilibrium’ at 65 Communities, With Renewed Focus on Data in Operations

Merrill Gardens Finds

To Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall, senior living recruiting is a holistic effort that extends into everyday life.

After Bed Bath and Beyond announced brick-and-mortar store closings last year, Gall went into her favorite location with business cards in hand and talked to staff about coming to work at Merrill Gardens communities.

“We hire for heart and customer service matters and we can train people how we do things,” Gall said.

The effort exemplifies the kind of “grassroots” operations and processes that Gall and her team at Merrill Gardens are looking to execute on in 2024. The Seattle, Washington-based company, now at 65 communities, is “back to normal” this year having clawed back occupancy and weathered staffing challenges along the way.

Since launching its middle market brand Truewood in 2021, Merrill Gardens continues to grow its operating model. During a panel with other senior living leaders at the recent Argentum conference, Gall outlined how transparent Merrill communities within the Truewood brand are with residents in order to limit costs. That meant talking directly with families to explain to them why something like community-provided transportation couldn’t work out at the mid-price point.

“Tomorrow’s senior living customer doesn’t want to get on that bus,” Gall said during the panel, referencing how residents entering communities today expect a certain level of autonomy and independence in their daily lives.

Set against the backdrop of a slow development landscape for senior living, Merrill Gardens opened one new community last year, with a second community planned for Oregon in 2025. Merrill Gardens also completed an acquisition of a community in the Seattle area after selling two properties last year.

Looking ahead, Gall said the company’s current scale is suitable for the company’s current role as a mid-sized senior living operator.r.

“We’re keeping that equilibrium, that good number,” Gall said. “We can’t forget what happened during the pandemic, and now it’s really fun to focus on things that make us special.”

That includes devoting resources to piloting various technology systems across communities to diverting more resources to resident programming out of recovery mode during the pandemic. At present, Gall estimated up to nearly half of the communities in the Merrill Gardens portfolio had returned back to pre-pandemic operating margins, with recovery largely being market specific, she added.

Gall said the current challenge for operators, Merrill Gardens included, is to be transparent regarding rates, while also presenting the value of senior living.

“We have to think differently because we have new customers coming in and we have to be creative,” Gall noted of the industry’s slow recovery from the pandemic.

Having made strides in occupancy, something Gall said was “king” across the industry in the last four years, as tracked by 11 consecutive quarters of census growth across markets tracked by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC).

Gall said Merrill Gardens will continue to be “creative” and invest in internal systems and pilot technology to support resident health and wellbeing. She added that acquisitions are “still hard to get done” in 2024.

“We’re being pretty particular about what we want to take on and we’re not alone in that,” Gall said.

Using data to make better decisions

Senior living operators have spent the last four years piloting new technology, whether it be software to support operations to hardware in new developments that are aimed directly at improving resident care.

Gall was originally cautious of using artificial intelligence in supporting care staff during resident falls, but in the last few years she said she realized the impact data analysis could have on senior living operations.

“What’s happening now is that more of that is getting automated and the data is getting more sophisticated,” Gall said. “We have that data and now we’re laying that to have more of an impact on improving the residents’ daily life.”

But data and the hardware tethered to it must fit into Merrill Gardens’ business intelligence decision making process.

“It was like dipping my toe in the water to now I’m diving in,” Gall said of technology integration to support operations and care. “It has to be easy integrations and they need to be tangible.”

Current applications of AI include a fall detection system to improve response times that has led to increased resident care and training opportunities for new staff members at Merrill Gardens.

“I want to be transparent about what we’re doing because I want to show the families the solution to the care side of things which feeds directly into the business intelligence side of things,” Gall said.

Merrill Gardens teams are also able to use AI to make personalized plans for residents that cover lifestyle and activity requests, Gall said.

While challenges on staffing remain, Gall said those friction points, including managing overtime and staff burnout, were becoming market-specific rather than across the portfolio. That translates to more focus on department leaders in finding strong leaders that lead to strong performing communities.

‘Fine line’ in balancing lifestyle, revenue upside

Senior living operators have taken different approaches in recouping margins lost over the last four years, from adopting membership-based models for payment or revamping care revenue structures to capture more revenue.

Gall said operators must walk a “fine line” of presenting value when tweaking service offerings, especially if they include new fees or monetary opt-ins for residents.

“The perception of service and being nickel-and-dimed is razor thin,” Gall also noted how operators walk a “razor-thin line” when it comes to balancing the perception of service and being “nickel-and-dimed.”

Walking that line takes investment into communities that needed capital improvements from the strain of the last four years. Merrill Gardens community leaders are also finding efficiencies in ordering with reviewing purchasing agreements, Gall said.

“We’re looking at again how we carefully spend money to make the building still relevant and we’ve focused on that,” Gall added. “I can’t drive the rate if I am not doing something more to add value.”

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