Design for the Many or the Few? Formality vs. Informality

Independent and Assisted Living Marketing. Will families looking for Independent or Assisted Living buy high-end design?  The Balfour in downtown Denver is betting on it. Elegant design is The Balfour’s calling card for both Independent Living and Assisted Living marketing to Colorado seniors and their families.   

Narrow niche

The Balfour at Riverfront is a tour de force in design. Inside and out, the Balfour has the formality of a British colonial office building.  It’s a building that calls to mind London no matter how many thousands of miles away you are from the scepter’d isle. The formality echoes an earlier age. But how many top of the market Assisted Living rental customers in Denver have a hankering for Edwardian elegance?

Taste is very individual. Okay, here’s the problem. We love, what we love. And any two people often have different tastes. It’s what makes marriage interesting. And marketing challenging. Just like a spouse, what your customer likes isn’t always what you like. There are competing methods of dealing with the diversity of tastes and preferences. Research proves senior living residents want to feel “comfortable” and seek that “like home” look. But what does that mean? Our homes don’t all look alike. You can design to the lowest common denominator with often bland or generic results. You can design with passion, knowing that you’ll alienate the majority.  But address the passionate few directly with unalloyed clarity. The Balfour chooses to stand out with an exceptionally cohesive but formal design. Is the Balfour what wealthy consumers want? 

How to “Make Senior Living Homelike”

Research conducted by ProMatura in 2013 conclude 49% of respondents were more likely to select a community that felt “like home.”

“Feeling at home in a community is the most important element of the customer experience to seniors, according experts Liz Bush, senior vice president and director of senior living marketing and sales at senior living marketing, development and management firm Life Care Services (LCS), and Kelley Hoffman, vice president of senior living at interior planning firm Spellman Brady & Company.”

Assisted Living Marketing

Will formal sell in Independent and Assisted Living Marketing?

5 Factors and the Balfour

The Spellman study of “home-like” characteristics boils down to five factors.  Let’s see how The Balfour performs.

1. Big Windows with Outdoor Views and Natural Daylight:

Seniors love big windows with a view and natural light. Getting the windows right trumps other design elements or errors. Those through-the-wall heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units in so many developments? Big mistake. They obstruct furniture placement near the window. Definitely institutional and not “home-like.” By contrast, Robert A.M. Stern’s modern traditionalist design shines at The Balfour. The Balfour features big windows let natural light penetrate deep into both public and private rooms. The Balfour further offers views of the Platte Riverfront Park or the shining towers of downtown Denver. Score one.

2. Natural Materials

Seniors want natural materials, including real plants. However, too many materials become confused clutter, no matter how natural. The Balfour’s consistent use of white marble and large dimension wood trim works. The repeating theme features high-end natural materials in a unified design. We may have liked to see more live plants, indoors and out. The orange trees in the Moffat Station orangery are fake though many smaller potted plants are real. But The Balfour also prominently features several unique, large scale aquariums.  Seniors similarly love fireplaces. The Balfour scatters grand hearths throughout the public spaces as focal points for design and centers for activity.  The Balfour gets this right. Score two.

3. Safety and Security

Family members and senior residents first and foremost must feel safe and secure. The perception of safety is a must-have design element. That may be easier to provide in suburban settings but The Balfour’s well-staffed front desk and active street level public areas provide the necessary order and security. Safety includes protection from the outside world, but it also includes frequent opportunities to sit and rest in hallways and a preference for bright lighting and strong contrast for easy vision. Safe navigation of daily life is required. Again, The Balfour’s interior with the bright and bold colors of India offers strong contrast with the trim and flooring. So far, it’s like they read the study. Score three.

4. Appropriate Furnishings and Accessories

Seniors want flexible spaces and appropriate details. They want plenty of uncrowded seating clusters with a wide choice of chair heights. The accessories should feel both personal and functional in nature and home appropriate. The Balfour gets the multiple seating clusters right and the proferred chairs are finished in residential appropriate fabrics.  However, the accessories often feel less personal and more institutional, even museum-like. We’ll give a half point here.

5. Flexible Dining Spaces

Above all, senior living residents expect control and choice (nee variety) in dining options. Places for solo or couple meals are especially important. The Balfour offers formal dining, the club room, take out and even room service for Independent Living. Assisted Living doesn’t offer the same range or the home-like settings of the best neighborhood or pod designs. (Think the Green House Project model.)  Notably absent at The Balfour are any casual dining booths that many seniors favor for their social intimacy. Another half-point category.

Summary. That gives The Balfour a total score of four out of five on the home-like scale. In fairness, residents have the option of decorating and furnishing their individual apartment to their personal taste. Here the big windows of the overall design are the perfect backdrop for whatever means home to you.

Personal reaction

We come from flyover country. The formal design in The Balfour’s Assisted and Independent Living wings is picture perfect, even museum quality, but not “home-like,” at least not our home. The orangery reception sitting room in the restored Moffat Station illustrates the point. Each of the overstuffed chairs has a perfectly matched pillow perched on the seat. The pillow’s bright accents make for wonderful photographs. However, he pillow doesn’t say, “You’re welcome to sit down here.” It’s too showy. It is not psychically comfortable. Isn’t that where someone is supposed to sit? Do you sit on the edge of the chair? Do you move the pillow? Can you move the pillow? You get the picture. It made us wonder how this formality will sell to both Independent and Assisted Living prospects.  The Balfour’s Assisted Living wing is also filled with white marble and square-cornered formality.

Assisted Living marketing is, if anything, trickier than Independent Living. How many prospects or their families looking for Assisted Living think this formal style “feels like home?” Occupancy rates, at least in the Assisted Living units, give one pause and reason to suspect not enough within the local market. We think the Balfour may need to cast a wider net as a national, destination property.

Or perhaps the concept is intentionally exclusive. Perhaps, pursuing the seven and eight digit wealthy and excluding by design those with a mere six digits of wealth.

We wonder if there isn’t an aspirational aspect to defining “home-like.” It may not be what the prior home looked like, but maybe it’s what I always wanted. Home-like may mean dream home. And, “Hey, it’s now or never.” There’s some evidence of that since new construction sells at a premium.

Baby boomer taste

Dan’s maternal grandfather was a British Army Officer who served in India in the twilight of the Raj between the wars. Dan is a confessed Anglophile and likes his tea and London better than most Americans. Perhaps grandfather Alfred would have loved The Balfour. But the American baby boomer in us wonders at the appetite for formality of our peers or even our parents. The senior living market is on the cusp of the tidal wave of baby boomers. Those born immediately post-WWII are now turning 70. New senior living communities frequently have an average entry age in the mid-70s, skewing younger than established communities. We’re not sure how well the Balfour addresses the studied informality of baby boomers. Yet, the Balfour’s policies specifically acknowledge modern trends. Many CCRCs expect formal dress in white tablecloth dining. The Balfour, by contrast, encourages informal dress, albeit still in a pristine white tablecloth setting with elegant china. Mixed messages or eclectic? Only you can answer that for yourself.

Independent and Assisted Living Marketing: Formal Appeal

We want to see great design rewarded, so we hope for The Balfour at Riverfront Park’s success in Senior Living, including Assisted Living marketing. We’re most curious to see what other people think of this high Empire, formal, sharp-angled effort. The design is a, “Wow!” But how comfortably home-like is this setting?  By the factors of one study, The Balfour does well. Our own reaction was, it’s a bit over the top. How will the market respond to it?  And, it begs the question, “How many target customers are there with this specific taste?” Will this design get and keep satisfied senior residents? Keeping formal design looking ship-shape will be challenging. Perhaps high-end hospitality is the final answer. Attention to detail in design does suggest detailed excellence in hospitality. What do you think? Design hit? Market miss?

For another view of the arms race in high-end CCRCs see the following great commentary by Tim Mullaney, at Senior Housing News. What Senior Living Can Learn from Top Airlines