Merrill Gardens has launched a new sub-brand tailored for the middle market after more than a year of internal planning and brainstorming with focus groups.
The Seattle-based operator is rolling out the brand, Truewood by Merrill, at 23 communities in 13 states across the U.S., almost all of which were included in the company’s joint-venture purchase with ReNew REIT in 2019. Merrill Gardens is undertaking the rollout slowly, and will reposition and rebrand the 23 communities over the coming months.
The brand is positioned to look and feel less like a five-star resort and function more like an upscale business hotel.
Though the operator will undertake some facelifts, most of the changes in the communities will be on the operations side. Merrill Gardens is currently seeking name changes and regulatory approval for all of the communities in the states where they are located, and expects the process to be done in the third or fourth quarter of this year. Of the 23 communities, 10 currently operate under the Truewood banner, and all have residents living in them.
The new brand is tailored for adults aged 75 or older who have annual incomes between $41,000 and $51,000 — nurses, schoolteachers, city employees — with monthly rates ranging from about $3,000 to $3,500. And that is not an arbitrary number, according to Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall.
“We talked to a lot of potential family members, and we talked to some seniors about what that number was,” Gall told Senior Housing News, referring to formulating the new middle-market brand’s rates. “Within that $3,000-to-$3,500-per-month range is what people are looking for, and so we’ve built the operational model around trying to get to that number and stay there.”
Focus on residents
To achieve middle-market rates for the new Truewood brand, Merrill Gardens reexamined and tweaked some of its service offerings, such as dining, transportation and staffing. In 2019, the company held focus groups — in Gall’s own home, no less — with senior living prospects and families of current senior living residents to get a better sense of the services and amenities that were most important to them.
“What I found interesting about that is they were living in the high-end, expensive senior living, but that’s not what they wanted,” Gall said. “They were saying, ‘My folks … would live a far more practical life than what they’re living now in this super fancy retirement community. They’re not comfortable there.”
Sometimes, the focus group attendees had surprising answers. For example, while many of the attendees said access to transportation was very important, they were also willing to forego the service to save money for other services and amenities.
“When we would say to them, “OK, well, it’s an expensive part of what we do … they would say, ‘Oh, no, it’s not as important,’” Gall said. “So it was really interesting to break down every single department with these family members, get their input and help us create what the program could look like.”
Some of the biggest changes from the standard Merrill Gardens operational model are to do with dining and staffing.
On the staffing side, Merrill Gardens has created a new spin on the universal worker concept called a resident experience partner, or a REP. The position is meant to serve as a “partner” to residents and their families, and thus wears many hats throughout the community.
“They may spend four hours of their shift in the dining program, and then they may go to activities for a couple hours, and they may end their day at the front desk,” Gall said. “It gives maybe a newer person in our industry a real flavor of the overall operation.”
Though it’s still a work in progress, the plan is for REPs to be able to earn more by getting accreditations in other parts of the community’s operations, such as dining, activities, front desk or business office functions. Gall believes that employees will naturally fall into two groups: those who want to work in active roles throughout the community, such as in dining or activities; and those who would rather help behind the scenes in back-of-the-house roles.
“It’s just going to be a great way for people to start their career with us and see a path that makes sense,” Gall added.
Truewood communities also carry a modified dining model centered around choice and flexibility. Instead of holding three meal services with made-to-order food, Truewood communities offer just one — either lunch or dinner; whatever the community chooses — with breakfast more akin to continental-style, and grab-and-go fare for the other meal. Merrill Gardens is also testing a program where residents can order food from the provider and get groceries delivered to their apartments so they can handle their own breakfasts.
The concept is aimed at giving residents the dining experience they want but without all of the costly bells and whistles.
“With Truewood, we’re going back to some of the basics,” Gall said. “We still are going to be very dedicated to a quality product, it just doesn’t have to be fancy.”
Merrill Gardens also may unbundle certain services for the new concept. For example, instead of ferrying around residents in a community bus, a Truewood community might instead use a ride-hailing service like Envoy or GoGo Grandparent. Or, the company might lean on resident or family volunteers to run some of the activities.
In coming up with the Truewood concept, Gall said she took inspiration from business hotels — including a Homewood Suites by Hilton location in Palo Alto, California, that Merrill Gardens’ parent company, R. D. Merrill Company, is a partner in.
“The business hotel [in Palo Alto] and their management team have been really helpful to us on creating how the dining part works,” Gall added.
Looking ahead, Merrill Gardens will continue to shape and grow its burgeoning middle-market portfolio, which currently represents about a third of the company’s communities. Though the concept began coming together in the months before the pandemic, Gall believes the past year has made offering a middle-market product even more important than before.
“A successful rollout of Truewood by the end of this year will mean that we have everybody understanding the concept. It sounds kind of small, but it’s big — new signage, new collateral, new messaging,” Gall said. “I think that will be our challenge, and what’s most exciting is teaching people that there is another product out there that looks different than traditional senior living.”