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256: Suzanne Allen

Personalization and customization for resident’s apartments impacts residents plus sales and marketing efforts by leveraging technology to design a senior’s home. Suzanne Allen, Managing Partner of Blue Fingerprint, shares how the power to personalize benefits community teams through unit flips and new move-ins.

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Welcome to season six of Bridge the Gap, a podcast dedicated to informing, educating, and influencing the future of housing and services for seniors. Powered by sponsors, Accushield, Connected Living, Hamilton CapTel, Referah, the Bridge Group Construction, and Solinity. The contributors are brought to you by Peak Senior Living and produced by Solinity Marketing.


Welcome to Bridge to Gap podcast, the Senior Living podcast with Josh and Lucas. A great topic on today. We wanna welcome Suzanne Allen. She’s a managing partner at Blue Fingerprint. Welcome to the show.


Hey, thank you so much for having me today. I’m excited to be here.

Lucas 00:50

We’re excited to have you. And this is a topic that is actually very close to my heart and to our listeners that are frequent followers of the program. They know that typically I don’t really talk about my day job, but my day job is centered around construction projects in seniors housing, and oftentimes they’re very complicated. And I was really excited to dive in to more of the details around what Blue Fingerprint actually is, and we’re gonna go into a number of those things, but it seems to be really centered around solutions regarding unit upgrades. And oh my gosh, I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count with so many different operators around the country. And I’ll tell you, this is a big problem area for a number of different reasons. And it has caused the industry, in my opinion, to kind of slide into bare minimums, standard, kind of like no frills, just keep it basic, keep it simple. But the challenge there is that the demographics are changing. Suzanne, help finish this or help continue this conversation with me. Am I speaking the language of what problems you’re trying to solve?

Suzanne 2:08

Well, yeah. Lucas, I mean, historically speaking, when we looked at traditional senior living communities, it was really just those high end communities that were gonna allow future residents to come in and, you know, make choices on cabinetry or countertops or flooring. The mid to lower end market, we’re really just buying as is. This is what you get accepted or not. But you’re right, the landscape is changing and the seniors that are moving into communities today don’t fit that same mold that they did 15, 20 years ago. Today’s baby boomer generation is really looking at, how do I make, not just this community personalized to my style and taste, but my home or my future residence personalized to my style and taste? And that flows through in, you know, what we see on HGTV today, even with cabinets, countertops, renovations, all of that.

Josh 3:09

Well you guys, so I gotta interrupt here for just a minute cuz I know y’all are about to geek out on all this customization, but, you know, sitting here with my operator hat on, I want customization for the residents, right? You want to be able to make them super happy. But when I start thinking about customization for all these residents and all these communities, I mean, it seems like that becomes potentially my worst nightmare. So I, you know, what I really am wanting to know is answers for how we gonna work together to make this happen when I’m just trying to staff my community? So what kind of answers do you have for me, Suzanne?

Suzanne 3:50

Yeah, I think part of it, Josh, comes down the language, right? When we use the term customization, it sounds like we’re taking down walls, we’re putting in, you know, second stories, things like that. We like to use the term personalizations, right? So when we can define a personalized process, and we can define a menu that still allows for choice, right? So to chunk it up basically is first we define a menu of, of how you can personalize. It might be flooring and paint for some communities, right? So we’ll keep it tight and we’ll just offer flooring and paint. But for some communities, that menu expands to offer a set of standard choices and upgrades. When we talk about the term customizing, really that goes kind of the next layer above and beyond. And those things can still be managed effectively if they’re discussed and identified upfront on what’s gonna be allowed and what cannot be allowed.

Josh 4:52

Well, that makes a lot of sense. And I think one of the things that you touched on is times are changing. The demographic is changing. I think we’ve been able to get away with for years not having to personalize, which I love that term a lot better than customized, but to personalize not only the services, but the environments that our residents, our clients, our members are going to be living. But I do think I believe you, that that is already starting to change and to have a system and a team in place to personalize the environments and the care for our residents is super important. So talk to me about how, how a community, we’ve got a huge diverse audience with every kind of community out there, you can imagine in senior living, but it seems like it’s more about strategy and team composition to figure out how to put this in place in someone’s community. How do you go about that?

Suzanne 6:01

Yeah, really to get started is we, we travel down to the core, and it’s about the resident, and it’s about their experience in this journey as they make a huge decision even just to move into the community, right? So they may be coming from a home that they have lived in for 25 years, have built on their own, recently renovated. So number one, it’s that experience. So how do we start with that journey that they travel on? They spend a lot of time with engagement. In meeting sales and marketing and attending these events. So we take a look at that engagement, and how can we continue that momentum and excitement. So it’s important for the community to really develop an approach on how they can carry that through all the way to move in. 

So even if we’re just talking unit turns or a brand new construction of an independent living home or unit, how do we define that menu upfront? And oftentimes it’s working with a team of professionals who work in the space to say, here’s the look and feel brand that your community wants to carry into the residences. Really then, the next step is how do you communicate with all parties and the team, right? So developing an effective communication plan and how do we document and capture that information so we build it right the first time. 

I know Lucas can probably talk to this as well about how, you know, if we don’t put in Mrs. Johnson’s flooring that she requested and we get it wrong, that takes time and money to fix. So how can we build it right the first time, so that when they walk in the door on that move-in day, it’s exactly what they expected and they’re excited about moving in. So I think to answer that really, Josh, it’s about the resident experience and journey number one.

Josh 7:52

So Lucas this is something you deal with every day. I would imagine these personalizations from a general contractor standpoint can be potentially as much of a logistics nightmare as it is for the potential operator.

Lucas 8:11

It really is. You know, most of my year is spent on planned CapEx commonary renovations, but what most people in the industry don’t understand is that unit upgrades, unit turns happen all year long and it is a big part of the operations of a senior living operator. This is something they have to deal with on a constant basis, not just, oh, we have a renovation project we’re going to do this year and it’s gonna take three, four months and we can plan for it and we’re gonna do it and we’re gonna be done and we’re good for a long time. These unit renovations are ongoing and it’s a consistent thing that always comes up. 

I think that this is an area and a great example where technology is able to come in and be kind of a game changer for this area in seniors housing where Suzanne, I’m sure you’ve seen it, it’s on the main instructor’s notepad somewhere. It’s in somebody’s Excel sheet somewhere and it’s inconsistent. Unit 238 doesn’t look like unit 328 and the flooring that they use there is now long, now it’s discontinued. And you know, there’s just a bunch of different things that can come up and how is that tracked and is it up to date, and how do we solve these problems? And these are the conversations that I see happening. Susanna, are these problems that you have seen and that you guys are trying to solve as well?

Suzanne 9:37

Well, yes, certainly we’re trying to help teams develop the single source of truth as it relates to a unit renovation or the official place of record where everybody can go in and view that same information. When we look at the process on a unit turn, there’s some communities that it can go on for several months. So every month that unit is not occupied, costs the operator dollars, right? So how can we decrease the number of days it sits vacant and accelerate that move-in date? And that’s clearly done by having a defined process that the team operates on. 

I think we’re gonna see in the industry kind of changes in who that plan operations person is. So if it’s historically been someone who captures it on paper or in a notebook or in a file, that’s gonna shift and change where the next generation of plan operators who are overseeing these renovations are gonna be used to using more tablet-based technology, type of an electronic solution to communicate information with their, their vendors and their subcontractors.

Josh 11:06

So I’m curious, are you seeing as really, I guess this is a question for you Suzanne, and maybe even you Lucas, are you seeing that this is already happening in one sector of senior living and acuity type? Or is this already starting to be a demand across the country where people are coming in and wanting to be able to personalize their living spaces?

Suzanne 11:33

Yeah, I mean, I, I think it’s been there for a long time and, and people are now starting to explore how do I gain a competitive advantage to other communities in their market space. It’s not just always about incentives anymore., it’s like what can set me apart from the community down the road or, you know, a few miles outside of my area. So I do see a curiosity uptick on how can we do this, and how can we do it good? I don’t know Lucas, if you have anything else to add with that?

Lucas 12:10

Yeah, well, this is really exciting to me and I’m excited to see that actually a lot of operators I’m familiar with are using this particularly like you said, in these larger high entry fee CRCs, this is a big deal. It’s open and available for many of these residents to come in and customize. And to Josh’s earlier point, that can just get really chaotic. You know, sometimes it needs to be fenced in somewhat. So that, like you said, this isn’t a customize, like, you know, we’re not gonna add a balcony. Even though you may want it, we can’t add a balcony to the side of the building. 

But to be able to track that and then manage that, I think that this is a complicated area in the industry that really does need a technology solution similar, you know, like what you guys are offering because there’s so many different people that are influencing this decision. 

This also involves sales and marketing. Which, my typical common area, common space renovation, it does not involve sales and marketing. Cuz like you said, that unit, that unit being offline is gonna impact occupancy, bottom line, and a whole bunch of other things. And so when we’re trying to coordinate conversations around a construction project involving unit upgrades or unit turns, it really does take a technology like this to come in and bring everybody together and be that single source solution. It’s fascinating. 

Suzanne 13:39

I think too, from an operator’s standpoint, really having collaboration in this process, so I’m glad you brought up sales and marketing because they are a critical piece of this because they’re really that relationship built with the resident to date. You know, the residents typically don’t have relationships with the general contractor building out their renovated home. So it creates an opportunity for collaboration amongst various pieces of the team. If you look at a plan ops director, they’re overseeing the entire community and campus usually, right? So when you have to deal with 4, 5, 10 unit turns a month, it doesn’t always make the top priority in their day-to-day checklist. But when we look at the overall budget for the entire campus, it’s like number three line item on most expensive spends, that they’re spending. So I think there is a heightened awareness from leadership to say, how can we do this better with a more streamlined approach? You know, we’ve gotten to this point, but how do we move forward in the future?

Josh 14:53

So a question, I can certainly see that this is an amazing opportunity to build a team for solutions for customization and personalization to use your term, which I really like, of the environments for a new community or perhaps a community that’s doing an entire new wing or something like that. Is it a viable position for the operator out there that’s like, Hey, you know, I’ve got a, a 10 year old our 15 year old community, we just did a massive CapEx spend and upgraded everything, but I would like to begin to really position myself and my community as being able to personalize to a residence preferences. And as those units, as those rooms just naturally turn over, is it something that this, on just the average length of stay turnovers, that it’s viable to personalize? Or is it not economical yet enough of a solution to be able to implement that in an existing community?

Suzanne 16:07

Oh, yeah. I mean, I certainly think we’re talking an inclusion of the existing campuses because those units often can be sold as is. But I think if we can develop a menu and a process to allow that flexibility to have them personalize, it sets it apart just a little bit. And you know, it might not be your personal taste, Josh. You might look at a unit and they’ve got, you know, cherry cabinets, but that’s not your flavor. You like white cabinetry. And so if you are going to be willing to pay for Lucas to come in and renovate that unit, so you can have white and Carrera marble and you know, pretty LVP flooring, then I as an operator or community wanna allow that because what you’re doing is you’re upgrading a unit within my campus. So I think certainly yes regardless of age there’s an opportunity for providers to allow for personalizations

Lucas 17:13

And Josh, well, I’m Josh, I’m gonna charge you an arm and a leg when you want me to do that. Trust me, buddy.

Josh 17:18

Well, I know I get no discounts with you. I get it. 

Lucas 17:23

Yeah, well, hey, let me interrupt, just a second. I mean, just look at th this is a great point, Suzanne, because just look at the world and how things have changed. Look at what people today are just spending to have burritos delivered to their house. It’s convenience, it’s choice, it’s options. I mean, maybe not everybody is going to go ahead and pull out of their pocket for that upgrade, but having that as an option and talking to that adult daughter and saying, mom can make these changes if she wants. And compared to the three other communities that you went in, and there are no options, no change options, no personalizations, that might be a game changer, just even if she doesn’t end up spending it. Just knowing that she has the option if she wants to, can be a big game changer in an environment that’s very competitive. And occupancy right now is a key, key focus point for people.

Suzanne 18:21

Yeah. Earlier, I wanna go back to something we talked about earlier and it’s in relationship to how what operators can do to benefit. I’m going back to inventory. Josh, you had brought up, a kind of a newer campus that recently went through an expansion or a renovation. So we don’t necessarily see a lot of turn yet happening. I think by having a platform or a process in place, if we can start to build an inventory of what’s in all of those units, oftentimes what we have found over the years is that sales and marketing is unsure of what they’re selling until that unit is vacated and they walk through the door. What if there was an opportunity to have a place where you could look in and see that, you know, Josh had already upgraded this unit. So when you go to remarket, that type of unit, then it’s set up already to be positioned at a specific price point. Again, it’s like, how do you start to build that library of all things within each unit that can be accessed throughout the entire team from sales and marketing all the way to plan ops?

Josh 19:34

Well, it seems like this really plays well into where the industry has been moving over the last several years with this whole personalized care approach. And programming’s being personalized, wellness programs are being personalized. So it just makes sense that one of our most important spaces, if not the most important spaces, is where the resident will be spending a good percentage of their time, and their home. And so I love this. I know it’s already becoming a demand and the, and the fact that now this software and technology, we can use that as a tool. We saw through Covid, even the sales process and the marketing process had to completely, almost overnight, tours go online. So what better way than to leverage technology to be able to personalize your environment for you or your loved one in a senior living community? It seems like Lucas, this is just making us better as an industry.

Lucas 20:44

I totally agree. I think it’s time for the industry to put a big, big focus back on these units and in the units, in the buildings and the communities that I spend most of my time in, they’re all built in the 1990s and there’s been very little done to the apartments, to the units. And I will say coming off that comment this year, 2022, I have personally had exponentially more conversations with operators about unit upgrades than I have in my entire career. So I think that there is a shift, there is something taking place. I don’t think that that’s just because they’re only having the conversation with me, I think that there is a bigger conversation going on right now. It’s time to do something in these apartments. And I think part of the problem and the challenge over the years, yes, cost has been a key, but it’s just been organizing, getting processes, workflows. There’s just so many challenges and barriers when it comes to upgrading units. And I think that that’s been part of the reason that a lot of these units may still remain antiquated and out of date while their lobbies may be updated. Then you walk into these units and they’re super, super old. So, Suzanne, great conversation. And I think that this won’t be the only time that you’ll be on the program. We want to stay connected with you around this conversation. Thank you so much for your time today.

Suzanne 22:10

Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Lucas 22:13

And to all of our listeners, you can go to, continue the conversation with us on social media. Go head over to LinkedIn and like and comment on these posts, and this topic. We wanna hear from you. And thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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256: Suzanne Allen