Tony Watts OBE interviews marketers from four leading retirement providers on the challenges… and the solutions being applied.
- Paul Teverson, Director of Communications & Marketing, McCarthy Stone;
- Mario Ambrosi, Director of Communications & Marketing, Anchor;
- James Cobb, Chief Customer Officer, Inspired Villages;
- Emma Webster, ESG & Corporate Affairs Director, Lifestory Group
Globally, retirement property sales are booming. But not here. For instance, less than 1% of British over-65s live in retirement villages, compared to over 6% in the USA and 5% in Australia.
Annually, just five to seven thousand new properties are sold here, against the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 units required to meet the needs of our ageing population. What’s more, three million older people actively want to “rightsize” to a more manageable property.
So, what’s going wrong?
Planning is certainly a challenge. And image: not everyone wants to live exclusively with other older people. But there’s consensus too that many potential customers are simply unpersuaded by the benefits extolled by providers.
The biggest player is McCarthy Stone, typically building around 2,000 new units each year. According to Director of Communications and Marketing Paul Teverson, “Our competition is market inertia. Some 90% of the customers who don’t buy from us just don’t move. We need to work hard to ensure we’ve enticed them sufficiently, or they haven’t reached the point where they feel they have to move.”
So what more could operators do?
“We’re not necessarily communicating a joined-up vision of the services and benefits,” argues Mario Ambrosi of Anchor, England’s largest not-for-profit housing provider for older people. “Not just to older people themselves but to society more broadly.
“Even its generic name can present an issue. Different providers use different terminology. What’s more, there are so many subtexts to whatever phrases you use. The word ‘retirement’ itself is not always used as a positive.”
Targeting the market
Then there’s the question of how you deliver targeted messages to a disparate audience. James Cobb, Chief Customer Officer of Inspired Villages, contends that, “Society puts older people over 65 into an amorphous mass. And they’re really not. You have singles, couples, people with aspirational ideas, those with care needs, people with different attitudes… and every single person is an individual anyway.”
The challenge, then, is to persuade a varied range of people that what’s on offer is right for them. Make it look too young/active/vibrant and you’ll put off those with care needs. Portray your offer as a place with care and support on tap, and the “younger old” will dismiss it as God’s Waiting Room.
“But,” argues James, “ask anyone of any age: do you want more years of healthy living and they’ll all say ‘yes’. Do people want a sense of belonging, yes they do. So, when you are doing national, generic advertising, you have to focus on universal truths.”
According to Paul, “We need to put across the message that it’s an aspirational place to live, but when you need it we’ve got care and support available too. It’s a fine line.”
The Visual Element
“That’s where using the visual element works,” adds Emma Webster, ESG and Corporate Affairs Director of the Lifestory Group. “Showing people the environment and the spaces, which will mean very different things for different people in how they’d use that space. We focus on enabling people to think about what their lived experiences would be, and helping them make an informed choice.”
Endorsements also work well. Adds Mario, “If you show people having a great time, they’re speaking for you.”
“We utilise a lot of the typical marketing approaches of a housebuilder,” Paul says. “We have our own website. We’re on the property portals. Over half of the people who buy from us will be living within a five-mile radius, so we do door drops, place ads with local magazines and radio. You can’t always be certain which channels work each time, but probably the most impactful are site hoardings.”
And don’t believe rumours of the imminent demise of traditional media. “Agencies will tell you everyone is using Facebook,” says James. “It’s just not true. Although the influencers probably are. Digital and traditional spends are still around 50/50.”
On one point all operators agree: key to selling or renting a retirement property is the visit. “When people come into one of our villages,” says James, “one in four buys something – because you’re sitting in front of a person and listening. Then you explain the benefits to them, knowing who they are and what they are looking for.”
Is there scope for cross-industry collaboration to shift attitudes? “Yes, in principle,” says Emma. “The challenge is that there are different elements within the sector that need to work together.”
The fact that some operators talk about “integrated retirement communities” rather than “retirement housing”, shows that you can’t aways group all of this under one descriptor.
Meanwhile, hope is on the horizon sector as the Government’s Older People’s Housing Taskforce researches what is needed to help retirement housing, in all its forms, fulfil its potential. Paul Teverson believes that a doubling of the numbers of new units in the next five years would represent success. To James Cobb, success would be its “normalisation and a genuine understanding of what it offers”.
Emma Webster agrees, “Our residents talk about wishing they’d made the move earlier. Because what we offer is not just about living longer, but about living well.”
And for Mario Ambrosi? “I watched the very first episode of Frasier recently,” he reflects, “where he doesn’t want to put his dad into a retirement home. That’s the language they use in the show. Success would be Frasier living in a retirement community and having a positive experience.”
A point in time where marketers would have a lot of their work done for them by popular culture…
Author: Tony Watts, OBE