Hospitality Innovations Cross Over to Senior Living at Cornell

Innovative providers increasingly are bridging the worlds of senior housing and hospitality, whether it’s a Ritz-Carlton approach to employee engagement or Four Seasons-style services.

The recently inaugurated Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures (CIHF) is yet another sign that the worlds of hospitality and senior living are melding, and the Institute stands to make the campus in Ithaca, New York, even more of an innovation hotbed.

Cornell has long been famous for its School of Hotel Administration, which is collaborating with the College of Human Ecology on the Institute. Its mission is to “explore innovations across hospitality, health, and design,” as its website puts it.

Senior Housing News spoke with a member of the Institute’s leadership team as well as one of its faculty fellows about how the CIHF came about, how it could produce top new talent for the senior living industry, and how it is promoting and producing the kind of evidence-based innovations that senior care providers are seeking.

Educating Future Leaders

The Institute officially was inaugurated in November, in an event that included representatives from firms such as Tulsa, Oklahoma-based provider Senior Star, architecture and design firm Perkins Eastman, and the nation’s largest operator, Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD).

Brooke Hollis, the Institute’s associate director, himself has the cross-disciplinary expertise that the Institute is promoting. In addition to an M.B.A from Cornell’s Johnson School of Management, he holds a master of architecture and urban design degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and a certificate in planning and design from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. After working as an assistant hospital administrator, he moved into merger and acquisition consulting services for clients that included senior care related providers, and he says he almost opened an assisted living facility himself in Connecticut.

The Institute is “just getting off the ground” and is scheduled to have its first advisory board meeting in May, Hollis says. It is still looking for additional advisory board members to join with current members, including leaders with the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC, and health and wellness firm Delos.

One name currently on the advisory board might jump out to senior living professionals: John Rijos. The former Brookdale COO now is an operating partner at private equity fund Chicago Pacific Founders, and he is serving on the advisory board as a representative of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA).

Rijos not only is a strong industry voice on the advisory board, but his years-long collaboration with Hollis and the hotel school helped lay the groundwork for the Institute.

In particular, Rijos’ career trajectory from being a graduate of Cornell’s hotel school to senior living leader served as “inspiration,” Hollis says. Nearly a decade ago, he and Rijos developed a joint class between the schools of Hotel Administration and Policy Analysis & Management: “Planning and Operations of Senior Living and Related Facilities.”

“I’m on a personal mission to convince hospitality students that senior housing and care is a career option,” he says. “In many ways, the senior housing and care business is more hospitality than health care, at least on the lower end of the continuum.”

Now, instead of pitching students on a single class via fliers—as he has been doing—there will be an entire cross-disciplinary Institute to steer them toward. But Hollis’ message has been refined over many years of recruiting students to the Planning and Operations course.

“I tell people: This is an incredible opportunity to do well by doing good,” he says. “There are all kinds of different ways of entering the field depending on what your interests are.”

There are entrepreneurial opportunities, operational-minded students might become executive directors, there’s the capital markets side, or roles in corporate offices, he says. The general strategy is to make a broad pitch and then bring students together with people who inhabit different niches, whether it’s with large public companies, start-ups, developers or others.

The Institute already has continued this approach of connecting students with a variety of professionals, in the Spring 2016 Hospitality, Health, and Design Immersion Seminar. The one credit-hour speaker series includes architects, hospital executives, real estate professionals and others. Hollis also is working on putting together a concentration so hospitality students can get more exposure to senior living and the health care system, and this type of planning could ultimately result in some dual degrees.

The educational component is one important function of the Institute, and should build on what already has been a successful pipeline of top talent into the industry. Hotel students who have gone on to do internships with providers have proven especially energized and likely to go on in the industry, but there have also been students who have entered the real estate side and embarked on various other senior living career paths, Hollis says. These students gathered a cocktail reception earlier this year, and as the Institute gains steam, gatherings of this sort should only grow larger in the years ahead.

Beyond Buzzwords

In addition to educating students, the Institute is meant to be a home for researchers who are working on this intersection of design, hospitality, and health. One such researcher is Karl Andrew Pillemer, Ph.D., a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and of Gerontology in Medicine at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, and one of 37 CIHF faculty fellows. These are faculty members at various Cornell colleges and departments involved in the Institute.

“I think what’s extraordinary, what’s really cool about the center, is that it makes explicit the interconnection of three different fields, which people have talked about interconnecting but never merged in this explicit way,” he tells SHN. “One thing we know is that it’s not good enough to give lip service to these connections, you really have to create a structure where people can work together.”

Pillemer has been on the leading edge in “translational research”—that is, translating ideas and concepts from the hospitality world into the senior living and care realm.

Take the work he’s done in bringing a customer service approach to the senior living industry. This involved creating and testing a retention specialist program, in which senior living providers created a special position on staff to improve workers’ wellbeing and reduce turnover. The retention specialists’ role included providing support for staff members facing challenges in their personal lives, as many of them encounter challenges related to issues such as child care and transportation, Pillemer notes. The retention specialist could help arrange rides or child care, therefore taking pressure off the workers, enabling them to perform better on the job and be less likely to leave it.

“Obviously, in assisted living, always the emphasis is rightly on the resident’s quality of life, what’s happening to the resident, a resident’s options, and so forth,” Pillemer says. “However, what a customer service approach tells us is that people were talking about resident quality of life without seeing staff as the main vehicle for how this occurs. That’s an insight that for us really came from hospitality. That’s been key to the hospitality industry probably for forty years.”

Developing a set of evidence-based programs to improve communication among residents, staff, and family members is another of Pillemer’s projects. Currently, a yearlong study is underway to test the program in senior living settings.

Pillemer has worked with senior living providers such as Brookdale on research projects in the past, and is impressed with the industry’s receptiveness compared with acute care and other types of providers.

“I’ve never found a more hospitable environment for folks who want to try new things and are interested in using research,” he says. “I think we’ll be able to pioneer some things in the Institute that others will be able to learn from. I hope senior living can lead the way and offer guidance to others who are just starting out.”

Still, throughout the planning process for the Institute, researchers expressed an avid desire and need to be connected to industry players, Pillemer says. While many providers are admirably open to participating in research projects, the industry can still do even better, and the Institute should help in that effort.

“There are endless buzzwords, trends, fads … personality testing for employees, organizational systems, all come and go and they’re rarely informed by rigorous research,” Pillemer says. “In this Institute top quality researchers from six or seven different fields are applying evidence-based approaches to better senior living. That’s really unusual.”

An Eager Industry

Threaded through the Institute’s education and research components is its commitment to connecting the academic realm with senior housing businesses. It likely will do so in numerous ways.

Over the years, the campus already has played host to leaders from a variety of companies, including Benchmark Senior Living, Brandywine Senior Living, Senior Lifestyle Corporation, Senior Star, NIC, and Welltower (NYSE: HCN). Patricia Will, co-founder and president of Belmont Village, has been a distinguished lecturer.

Special events will provide another way for industry leaders to participate in the Institute. Planning currently is underway for an April roundtable, “Exploring Ideas from Hospitality, Health Management, and Design for Senior Housing and Care.” The Institute also is seeking a conference manager for an October 2016 symposium.

However the Institute goes about connecting senior living companies with students and researchers, Hollis shares Pillemer’s confidence that the industry is eager to embrace evidence-based innovations.

“I personally think that the senior living industry understands the value of hospitality a lot more than acute care has, historically,” Hollis says. “There seems to be a good deal of interest in what they can do to take it to the next level. The industry has already done a lot of neat things, and the industry also recognizes there are many more opportunities to improve.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

Photo Credit: Harald