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Episode 67: Thomas Garvin

Waverly Heights recently received an award at the 2019 EFA Conference for their renovated dining area. Hear more about the renovation process in this week’s episode!

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. We are the senior living podcast and we are excited today. We’ve got an awesome topic and an awesome guest. So I want to help introduce Thomas Garvin. He is the president and CEO of Waverley Heights in Pennsylvania. Welcome, Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Lucas: Yes. Awesome. And Josh, yesterday, you had some phone calls but I went into one of the sessions where it was the remodel and renovation awards panel where they went through the anatomy and the backstory of how did they do these big renovation projects and Waverley heights got the gold medal award. How did that feel?

Thomas: It felt great. It was an incredible partnership with the architects, RLPS, and to be recognized for what we did and the changes that we made and the culture change and the shift in the services and amenities that we were able to bring to our residents was really a great feeling. And for EFA to recognize the architects and Waverley Heights for what we accomplished was really, was terrific.We’re very proud.

Josh: That is quite an accomplishment. Congratulations. Lucas and I were having a little bit of conversation just ahead of the show with you about it. Obviously, you know, Lucas and I are geeking out a little bit because it’s, it’s our business, it’s what we’re in. Lucas’s is in renovation. I’m in operations. So we have a special appreciation for what all it takes to take big idea in an existing community through culture change and buy in and the whole thing process to a successful project. (And) not only successful project by winning a national award. So, thank you for being on our show today and thank you for just allowing us to kind of pick your brain a little bit for our audience.

Thomas: Happy to share what we did.

Lucas:  Well. So Thomas, we’re going to dive into some of the weeds of those details here shortly. But for our audience, can you give us some of your background and what has led you to having a passion for caring for our older adults?

Thomas: Sure. My background is, it’s kind of interesting and ideally suited for what I do now. I have an undergraduate degree actually in hospitality management from Penn State. So I’m in an advanced degree, a masters degree in healthcare administration. I’ve spent years over the last about 25 years in the industry as a nursing home administrator. Then subsequently taking over as an executive director and finally the president and CEO here are Waverley Heights.

I think combining that hospitality background and focus and mentality really lends well to what we do today with today’s seniors and what their expectations are and what they, what they like to see out of their community. Residents are more and more engaged. They like to have new amenities, new services, stay current, stay active, stay involved, all in an environment that’s very hospitable and welcoming and transparent and it works very well.

So fortunately my background really blended well for what I do and we have a great culture and environment and I use the phrase a hospitality mentality. That’s what we have at Waverley heights and something we really strive to maintain. We’re very proud of that.

Lucas: Josh, you and I, of course, you as an operator, we have a huge respect for the people at the communities and part of us really the impetus of doing this show is we really want to give access to the hands and feet of this business to all of this great thought leadership at many of these conferences that they’re not actually able to come and attend cause they’ve got to work.

Josh: Yeah. And what a great episode to do that and what a huge achievement. You know, it’s one thing to do something that’s ground up new but to go in and do something in an existing community where there’s already residents, things are going smoothly already. Why do we need all this change? And to go in and culture change and get the buy in, that is, that is fascinating. And that requires a team, a team approach. So can you walk us through just a little bit from kind of where this project started and we understand kind of a little bit. Tell our audience, you know, this, what you won this award for was like, something like a $7 million, very specific dining culture change renovation, but it was really part of even a bigger kind of overlay of what was happening at the community, which was a robust renovation and addition plan. So kind of talk us through from where the beginning was to where you ended up.  

Lucas: And Josh maybe even tell us what kind of community this is.

Thomas:  Okay. Well the community is, we serve close to 400 residents. It’s about 300 people live in independent living and then we also have the full continuum of care that includes personal care, sometimes people refer to it as assisted living, and skilled nursing. So we have all three levels of care. It’s a 63-acre campus. I have been there about nine years now. And, you know, we started looking at strategic planning shortly after I arrived and the board of trustees had challenged me and the management team to really develop a plan for the future that would meet the needs of the seniors, not only those that we currently serve, because that was our number one focus, but what do we need to do to meet the ever changing needs? The future? What did the future look like for Waverly Heights? Where a single site, not-for-profit. We’re not part of a big corporation or what have you. So we really look to say, what do we need to do to be successful as a single site, not-for-profit. And so strategic planning was where it all started and that involved a committee of the board, the residents as well as number of members of our staff.

So really one of the, one of the cool things that we did first was a couple of us went and traveled around the country to seek out really high end CCRC’ s those that were the known-to-be, just at the top of their game that (were) from different parts of the country. We didn’t just look in Philadelphia/ We traveled, got some ideas, came back, continued with our planning.

At that point, really our architects, RLPS, were instrumental because we had a relationship with them. They had done some work with us on a massive renovations of our healthcare center a few years before. And so they came in and we game-planned with them. What could we do to, we share with them our strategic ideas and the things we wanted to see incorporated into our community and things we wanted to change. And then they brought ideas to the table. They kind of took it next level. And then we worked with that same strategic planning committee to develop the final concept. Once we were where we wanted to be, you know, then obviously you bring onto the general contractors and get the ball rolling with the project, get the financing in order and what have you.

The big challenge, like you said, about renovating existing space, that was probably the number one thing. Our biggest concern was always how is this going to impact our current residents? The areas that we won the award for were really related to the dining area. And of course as we know dining and senior living, it affects everybody. I mean, all the independent living residents eat, you know, two, three meals a day in our, in our dining venues. So to pull that apart and do a complete once over in that space required a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility on the residents’ part and an awful lot of planning on the community’s part.

So the key to making that successful for us was really just a lot of communication with the residents. Making sure they understood, number one, why we were doing what we were doing; two, how it would impact their lives or maybe, you know, how it would improve things for them or bring added amenities and services to them; and then three, we really walk them through with the process, the phasing. Because we took dining rooms at us, we took the main cafe. The area that we won the gold award for was the coffee shop. The old coffee shop is what we used to call it. We call it a cafe now because it’s really calling it a coffee shop doesn’t really do it justice anymore. But when we took that out of service, that was one of the main dining venues. So we actually moved residence to another dining venue, temporarily set it up like a coffee shop or a cafe while we renovated the space. And that went on for probably longer than we wanted it to. But it did take about a year to finish that.

And when we turn that space over again, the space that won the gold award and the residents began using it, it was like, wow. They really started to see that the change in our services and the change in the quality that we were able to bring. You know, I can certainly talk more about the types of food that we have, that we serve now. It’s all really farm to table, fresh made to order. People love to eat in our cafe and this newly renovated space. It’s, it’s obviously gorgeous and has become one of the most popular areas in the community now.

Lucas: And we’re going to, we’re going to get in there, but I’m not going to let you get, get too ahead of yourself here because I don’t want to miss this piece about that resident buy in.

Josh: Well, yeah. And so I have to believe what I heard and you just kind of skipped over it, but, there was quite, it sounded like some intention on even the committee. I heard you had staff, you had management and you had residents. So, and then you talked about a lot, I heard the communication word multiple times and that you guys had to have some systems in place of how you were getting that buy in, how you were communicating what was happening going to happen. Give us a little bit of the nitty gritty detail because obviously you did some things there that worked and we all want to know about it.

Lucas: Did you do anything wrong? What didn’t work?

Josh:Yeah, that’s even juicier. Yeah, what didn’t work?

Thomas: You know, sometimes I wouldn’t normally say this, but sometimes I think we over-communicated cause we so focused on communication with our residents that, you know, they offer great ideas and suggestions, you know, every single, you know, at every meeting, every single day. But you really can’t over communicate, in my opinion. It’s, you know, again, I hate to overuse the term transparency, but we as an organization, and certainly my style is to be very open and transparent.

So some of the nitty gritty of how we made it work was I do conversations with Tom Meetings. That’s what it’s called. And so they’re open town hall meetings just open. They can ask any questions that they have of me about anything. And I still do them even than the post-construction phase. I think it’s important, but we really, we did the much more frequently. We did those about every three weeks during construction so that residents could air their concerns, ask questions, and just hear directly from me what was happening.

And then the other, the formal thing that we did is every month we do what we called a construction update. And our vice president of building services, Mark Heil really did a nice job putting together presentations that walk them through, walk the residents through step by step what we were doing and we would get the attendance at these meetings was, it was phenomenal. I mean, our residents are very engaged, were very interested in what was happening. And we’d probably get 130 residents come and attend those meetings. So we staggered them. So the construction update meetings would happen, the conversations with Tom Meetings would happen. And then there’s the written communication. Anytime something significant was going to happen, we put out memos or updates from that standpoint.

Lucas: So, not emails? Memos?

Thomas: Yeah, memos. And we also, we have an amazing publication at Waverly Heights put on by the residents, called the Waverley Window and to Waverley Window is a monthly, this monthly publication. And so I write an article for that. And then they also have a sort of like reporters that they have that are residents of the community that go and they ask questions that totally apart from management and then they report on it and they would put articles into Waverley Window, which was, which kept everybody informed, not only in the community, but it goes to our list of more than 400 people on our priority deposit lists. So that’s how we were able to spread the word even outside the community, what we’re doing.

Josh: Love it.

Thomas: So, um, yeah. And then we have weekly update letters that we put out that are, that come from, from our residence services department that would have little updates. So you just, you just inundate them with, with communication, but you know, with that, you’re going to get questions. And you, again, like I said, daily feedback was, was to be expected. And there were so many great suggestions from our residents that came out of it because you have to involve residents in the process. I mean, in this day and age, it can’t be management and the board making all the decisions for things that are gonna affect resident life. Residents have to be involved in it.

And, so we, we do that in a, in a whole lot of different ways. In addition to the, to the methods I’m talking about, we also have advisory committees of residents. So we have advisory committees on marketing. We have advisory committees on building services, food and beverage. We have my favorite one is the wine and spirits committee. So yeah, we have a landscaping advisory committee. And so residents give input in all those different ways and they gave us some of the best input along the way and we change things in the design and we changed things in the amenity packages based on their feedback and it was really, it worked very, very well. It, you know, it’s a challenge when you’re trying to make 400 people happy and meet 400 different needs and wants and expectations.

Lucas: It’s impossible.

Thomas: It’s impossible. So eventually, you know, you have to make a decision but you make it an educated decision based on the feedback you’re getting from all the constituents that are involved.

Josh: Yeah.

Thomas: And Waverley Heights is a special place and our residents, certainly, they’re very well educated, they’re very sophisticated and they don’t hesitate to give you good feedback when asked for it.

Josh: So, you know, that’s fascinating. And thank you for sharing, being very open with those communication forums that you have and the different groups. You know, another big part of this is just executing the plan. So, you know, there’s obviously a lot of thought and vision and you’ve had great designers on board. You’ve had great feedback from all the different groups, but then you start executing the plan and we all know, sometimes it’s kind of difficult finding that group, the general contractor that understands how to operate, how to have the right team and the right people working in an occupied space that’s kind of this quasi-healthcare environment and is able to also be a little bit hospitable.

And so talk us through like what was that process like in selecting general contractor and then keeping a communication stream open with them daily? What were the good, good and bad of that?

Thomas: Yeah. You know, selecting the general contractor is, you know, that, that was a tough decision. We interviewed quite a few different outfits and at the end of the day, you know, settled on a company called WS Cumby and the quality of their work is, has been outstanding. How we communicated with them? We did a couple of things. Number one, as I mentioned earlier, we have a gentleman, Mark Heil, who’s in charge who kind of did, was a project manager. He’s our vice president of building services. So he had frequent daily communication and he was really charged with coordinating between the general contractor, the architect, all the engineers and the trades and what have you.

But, from, from our standpoint, what we did every two weeks, we would have a construction meeting, basically the design team meeting where the architects, the mechanical engineers, the, the builder, you know, management, we would all sit down and go through piece by piece on the project and talk about, you know, time frames and challenges and how we were going to move from, we did the, the dining portion of this in the occupied space in three different phases. And so how we were going to move through phases and just the logistics.

Those communication meetings with the design team, that group were absolutely critical. And it was critical, you know, I think that, you know, I was involved in all of those. Our CFO was involved in all those meetings and certainly Mark was involved as well. So there was always the expectations that we had as an organization because our number one objective is the protection of our residents. You know, their safety, their security and their comfort. And so that, that’s what we brought to the table. And then, you know, the contractor and the architects and everybody else worked with us on, you know, on that piece. So we had really good communication all the way through with the, with with the builder and everybody involved.

Josh: Yeah. Well it’s so, so fascinating. And if I’m not mistaken, correct me if I’m wrong, but another fascinating thing and just kind of goes to the planning process and the vision of this. You know, one of the things that we always get pushed back on anytime we want to do an improvement or a renovation is, oh gosh, what’s it going to cost me? Or you know, in my monthly fee or my rent. And if it, if I understood you correctly, you guys had a kind of a formula to where you basically did this unbelievable renovation, improved your quality outcome and product service delivery and you are able to do that in a way that it didn’t really negatively impact those monthly fees, right?

Thomas: Yeah, that was one of the key things for us because obviously whenever there’s a project of this magnitude- and the magnitude of this project was much more than just the dining. We redid all of our health and wellness areas. We changed our whole entry experience and equally as large a project at the same time is we built an independent living apartment building of what we call deluxe apartments, that are, that are 10 apartments. It’s a two story building with two levels of underground parking as well. So the number one question residents did come up with was how will this impact our monthly fees? Are they going to go up by some crazy amount to pay for this project?

Because whenever you’re renovating non-revenue producing space, like the dining venues, the health and wellness, the fitness areas, the beauty shop, computer labs and all that, that’s non-revenue producing. So how, how are we going to pay for that without raising resident fees?

So we strategically had looked at this project and said, we knew we wanted to expand independent living because we have the ability to expand our capacity by basically building on some open land that we had. One of these new, they’re called, the architects call it hybrid homes. And it’s basically a combination of the best of an apartment living with the best in villa or cottage living. And so RLPS brought this concept to us that we could build this hybrid home, which we call a deluxe apartment building. And then we looked at it and said, you know, it makes sense that we do that at the same time as the renovations, in essence, the monthly fees that are generated from that apartment building will pay any debt service that’s incurred as a result of borrowing money to do the renovation work.

And we’ve lived true, we have, you know, proven to our residents over time that when we say this will not impact your monthly fees, we mean it and we’ve stuck to that. And we’ve been very, you know, our monthly fee increases, our residents have actually been less than the national averages for as long as I’ve been there, you know, for nine years now. So I think the residents appreciate that and they will certainly, the current residents certainly are reaping the benefit of the changes that we’ve made and the new amenities that we’ve brought to the table and basically being paid for by the revenues generated from the new apartment building.

So it really was kind of, strategically, it made a lot of sense to do together. This was a major, major project. The total project was about $23 million. So you can imagine between the apartment building and all the renovated spaces, just how significant this was for, you know, for our campus.

Lucas: A lot of impact.

Josh: Yeah. So you, you touched on something that I think was really relevant. Obviously you’re an existing community, caring for an existing generation, but you were very forward thinking. Did you, I mean, what does the demographic you were looking at? Were you guys focused on the boomer generation? Is that who you are designing toward in this renovation?

Thomas:  You know, I will always say, first and foremost, we were designing for our current residents. That’s, they’re our number one focus without a doubt. However, you know, part of my role and the role of our board and what have you is to say, what is Waverley Heights look like five years from now? 10 years? 15, 20? And so yes. We want to be, we want our, our vision and our mission is to be at the forefront of the senior living industry, to set the standard to meet the needs of the next generation. It was interesting when I got there, we always put together a list of competitive analysis and we look at, alright, what things can we do better? What, what amenities or services don’t we have that, that next generation, the baby boomers, if you will, will want?

Thomas: And so one by one with everything we’ve done over the years, we’ve addressed each of those. And that list now I’m proud to say is very, very small. I mean, as evidence, the most recent thing that we did in the post construction phase, campus wide Wifi. That’s a big undertaking is a very expensive and large project to take on. But, you know, we want that. We know we need it. We know that, you know, our current and future residents, when their kids come and their grandkids come, they want to be able to play on their Xbox and they want to be able to get the Wifi password the minute they walk on campus. And so we’re always trying to think ahead about what that next generation will want and need

Some of the other things that we did, health and wellness has become huge. I mean I’ve seen it in my time in senior living where when a lot of these communities first opened, the fitness center was, it was a small room with a couple of pieces of equipment so they could say they had a fitness center. Now, you know, there are, there are residents, you know, in there all day long. And so we expanded our fitness center and we expanded our swimming pool and an indoor swimming pool that we expanded; we made it into a lap pool. It was an incredible undertaking to do that in a covered space. We hit rock and had to go through 20 feet of rock. All right underneath the dining room. So there were all these great challenges, but we’ve really done a lot to meet, meet the changing needs of the next generation and, and we’re really, really proud of it.

The other thing: salon services. We took what was a traditional hair salon and now have added amenities like massage therapy and  manicures and pedicures and have a salon that’s, that really would rival any salon that you would see out in the greater community. So we did a lot of things to address the baby boomer generation and the needs and wants of the people that will be coming. And again, the current residents are benefiting from it as well.

Josh: So now did you say that these talks, you had talks with Tom? Tom Talks?

Thomas: Conversations with Tom.  

Josh: Conversations with Tom.

Thomas: Well it’s very entertaining if you ever want a copy. You’re welcome.

Josh: Well here’s my big idea for you Tom. So I know with where our industry is kind of headed, there’s so many existing communities out there that are kind of going through the exercises right now and the thought processes of how can we retool? How can we remain relevant? How can we be cutting edge? And the process that you’ve kind of taken our audience through, taken Lucas and I through today, is such a great process. I’m thinking you need a podcast. I’m thinking you, need to have the Conversations with Tom from a right there at your community where you’re telling the industry how to do this. So it’s been fascinating to listen to you. This is awesome.

Lucas: It’s so good. And so I think a great way to round up the show is before we set you off to go finish up your meetings, let’s dive into the details of that dining room because I’ve seen the photos and I’ve had the benefit of an understanding that, and we’ll try our best to, our listeners will get those photos out, too, on our social media pages and maybe even try to figure out a way to interweave it into our videos. But at a bare minimum we’ll get them on our social.

Talk to us about some of the details of how you guys are preparing the food. What type of choices you picked for appliances all the way through the whole design.

Thomas: Okay. Well, it, I’m excited to hear that you’ll share some of the photos with people because it really is a spectacular. Every, everybody absolutely loves and I have to give some credit to Lifestyles by Unidine is the contract food service company that we use and then a ScopeHost is a contractor that does food service design that really were instrumental in putting the programming in. So some of the cool things that we have is, is now very much, it’s a cafe like I mentioned. And so there are various food stations. So as you come in, we have a pastry chef. So there’s a case of fresh pastries there every day. And then there’s an area where there’s several different menu items that are hot items of each day, but then they can order anything from a grill and, again, everything is made to order. So if you order something from the grill, they make it right there. There’s a sandwich station, there’s a pizza station where we make our own dough and we have all the different toppings. And you can select that.

Josh: I’m getting hungry right now.

Thomas: Yeah, no, it really is spectacular. And then the, you know, there’s a salad bar that rivals anything that you can imagine that. And then there’s pretty much we’ll make anything any of our residents want. And again, the key is it’s all made fresh to order. And one of the exciting things that we were talking about before the show is we have this Italian cooking suite that’s unlike anything you’ve ever probably seen in any senior living community. And it is a, it’s a large cooking suite that’s one big piece. It’s, it was, I believe it was made in Italy and brought over on a boat.

It took it months to get here. But, it’s one big suite that has everything from a pasta station, a pasta dipping station where they make all their fresh pastas. It’s got the frying station right in it. It’s got a flat grill, it’s got an open, you know, open flame grill. And then on the front of it sits a rotisserie where we display, you know, rotisserie items that are made fresh everyday: chickens and roast beefs and you know, all different kinds of foods like that carved right there. There’s a carving station. So they take it right out of the rotisserie, carve it serve it. And the staff are incredible. I mean, we, it did, you know, we did add some staffing because when you have all those different stations, there’s a lot of service that needs to happen there. So that was, that was, you know, one of the challenges.

But again, I go back to the income from the apartment building help cover the cost of some of the added staff, but it’s really a lot of personal interaction, very fresh food, great menu items. And it’s just been spectacular.

One of the side benefits that I don’t think we even really realize was we do an incredible Sunday brunch once a month- the first Sunday of every month. And we set that whole sort of line up and we convert it to basically a buffet for our residents and their guests. And it, it rivals any fine, you know, fine dining Sunday brunch that you’ll find out there.

So, and then it’s all, it is a self service, but we also, you know, our staff will deliver food to residents who need assistance. And so that’s key. And then we, we bus the tables so that as they sit, we make sure and clear and provide a higher level of service. And that’s just in the cafe.

We also have, we renovated our formal dining room and casually serve dining room as well. But again, I’m focusing on the cafe area because that’s really what won the, won the award and we’re very proud of it. It’s been very well received. You know, it certainly wasn’t without its challenges and bumps in the road as we went through the construction process and then to operationalize it was no easy feat.

Josh: I’m sure.

Thomas: But once the residents settled in and we got the pattern down and everything rocking and rolling, it really has been an absolute home run and it’s evidenced by we every guest and every person that comes through just absolutely can’t believe they’re in a senior living community. I mean it very much has that, the feel of a high-end resort and we, I’m proud to say the one thing I will say is we just did our resident satisfaction survey through Holleran, which is a big national company and we scored well above the 92nd percentile in almost all areas of satisfaction and dining scored off the charts as well. So it’s really been well received from our residents.

Lucas: What an incredible thing. I think our listeners, they’re either intrigued or just straight up jealous right now.

Josh: A little of both.

Lucas: Yeah, probably a little of both. It’s, it’s such a great story to tell. And what is shaping and changing in the environments that are seniors and older adults are living in it. It’s a great example.

Thomas: I would say it takes a lot of determination and focus on everyone’s part. Our staff, our senior leadership team and all of our employees played a critical role in making this, this project a success because they were equally as kind of asked to do a lot of things outside the scope of their normal job and their input and their dedication and commitment help make this a great success.

But at the end of the day,  it took everybody’s determination to know where we want it to be and where we would be. And you have to have that vision at the very beginning. You have to know the challenges you’re gonna face because you will face challenges. But if you have the vision to say what it’ll be like when it’s over, which is where we are now, fortunately, it’s really, we are well positioned far as well.

Lucas: This conference is very much coming to life. As our listeners can hear in the background. There’s a lot going on, but we are committed also to showing people the details of this project. Thomas, thank you so much for sitting down with us. This is a great practical, tactical, deep dive into a very complicated project and a complicated environment that was a huge success. So thank you so much for your time today.

Thomas: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Lucas: We’ll connect to you in the show notes. We’ll put the photos and the pictures on social and we appreciate everybody listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Thank you to our supporting partners NHI, RCare, NRC Health, TSOLife, ERDMAN and Sherpa.

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  1. […] Lucas: From the beach, to the mountains, to Salt Lake City and we had some really great interactions there. There was actually a beautiful weather while we were in town. We talked to Thomas Garvin of Waverly Heights. They were the gold medal winners of the renovation award while we were there. It was a really great interview and here’s a clip from that conversation.  […]

Episode 67: Thomas Garvin