New Housing Options Abound

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Marketers shaping brands for senior citizen housing options are struggling to keep up with roller-coaster changes in attitudes and preferences about where people want to live when they retire.

Moving to the Sunbelt for retirement is falling out of fashion as retirees sour on the high cost of living and crowding in such areas.

In a major demographic shift, many are now opting to stay near their children in the Midwest and Northeast.

The 50-plus market, many of which are retiring before their parents' generation are looking for a diverse and expanding menu of housing choices, ranging from independently owned homes within a retirement community to assisted living facilities where meals, activities and transportation.

Marketers are scrambling to meet these needs, and many are struggling with the challenge of communicating complex messages in simple ads about a topic people don't necessarily want discuss.

"No one wants to think about where they're going to retire until it happens, but as the baby boom generation ages, it's going to become a very hot topic," says Dan Wallery, a partner with healthcare consultantNelson & Wallery, which also operates ad-supported Web site

"Marketers are starting to realize the importance of developing brand concepts to push the education curve along in what's out there for senior housing," he adds.

Launched last year, the site gets 30,000 hits per month, Mr. Wallery says.

"Seniors looking for new housing options have a new attitude these days. They have high expectations and they want a lot of very specific choices," says Mike Baumayr, a partner and senior account director with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Lavidge & Baumayr, a roster agency for Phoenix-based Del Webb Communities, the nation's leading developer of retirement communities. (Publicis Hal Riney, Chicago, is Del Webb's main advertising agency.)

For Del Webb's Sun City Grand facility, Lavidge & Baumayr recently created print ads showing playful images of seniors swimming, driving sportscars and partying together.

All of Del Webb's homes are designed for independent, active seniors who want to own their own home, but live among peers in a community with shared activity areas, pools, tennis courts, classes and transportation options. Del Webb's homes sell for as low as $90,000 each; prices vary in each market.

When research revealed to Del Webb a few years ago that people were less inclined to retire to the Southwest, where the majority of its 17 communities are based, the company shifted gears.

Last year Del Webb opened a community in Huntley, Ill., and plans are in motion now to build more facilities in the Midwest and Northeast, says Gary Newman, Del Webb's VP-marketing.

"We used to be a regional concept, but in the last 18 months we've really begun to establish a national brand and we're finding that people who know our original Sun City brand are happy to consider that kind of lifestyle east of the Rockies," he says.

For seniors who are still active but need more convenience in their lives, assisted living facilities are starting to sprout across the nation, offering rental apartments where meals are provided in a restaurant setting with community activities and transportation provided as part of the package. Cost averages $2,000 a month.

Major marketers such as Alterra, Marriott Senior Living Services and Sunrise Assisted Living are rapidly expanding their assisted living offerings. Classic Residence by Hyatt also is growing at the high end, with Hyatt Hotels-style concierge level service.

So far there is little national advertising for these facilities other than the Internet, which is becoming a hot marketing channel as more seniors flock to the Web. (See story on Page S-XX).

Locally, print ads, outdoor and referrals are the most common vehicles for advertising senior housing, says Mr. Wallery.

But developing nationally recognized brands is becoming increasingly important to these marketers, he says.

Alterra developed its brand name last year to create a nationally recognized concept for its 469 assisted living facilities in 28 states. Previously, they were marketed under 30 different names, says Paul Pebley, Alterra's senior VP-sales and marketing.

"We've reached a critical mass where having a recognizable brand name will help us, especially in our direct marketing and Internet marketing arenas, which are becoming very important," Mr. Pebley says. Alterra's advertising is handled in-house.

Sunrise's advertising for its 152 facilities in 23 states is almost exclusively local, and the theme of its ads, created in-house, tells a story: "An affordable quality care alternative for seniors -- even frail seniors and those with memory impairment."

"We have to talk about our positioning in our theme line, because it's really a complex message we're conveying," says Brian Swinton, Sunrise's exec VP-marketing and sales.

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