Hospitality giant Marriott International entered the senior living market in 1984, quickly establishing itself as a major player. But less than 20 years later, the company decided to return to its core hotel businesses, selling all 126 senior communities to Sunrise Senior Living. 

The move didn’t surprise some assisted living (AL) veterans.

While AL facilities and hotels share common traits—both feature housekeeping, maintenance, and food services, for instance—the two models are not the same.

“There’s a big difference between the frequent traveler who might stay 20 nights out of the year, versus someone who will stay 365 days and wants to know where their dentures are or where their hearing aid went to,” says Robert Van Dyk, president and chief executive officer of Van Dyk Health Care. “They realized it’s a different world.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of cross-fertilization to be had. Van Dyk sees the potential for hotels and restaurants to offer consulting and training services. And hotel professionals often eye ALs as a job opportunity.

“Two of my top people, I hired from Marriott,” Van Dyk says of the employees who understand the value of providing good hospitality. “I’ve always looked for people who understand the importance of how to solve problems, and please your customer.”

Other AL executives find hospitality lessons from outside the traditional hospitality sectors of travel, lodging, and food service.

Such was the case at Vetter Health Services, which reached out recently to Zappos.com, an online shoe and clothing retailer. Vetter executives wanted to understand how Zappos trained its employees to provide such top-notch customer service and hospitality, explains Shari Owen, Vetter’s talent development coordinator. 

The retailer impressed with its ability to listen to its customers, provide them with options, and deliver solutions in a timely manner, she notes. Vetter’s leadership thought these traits could be applied to the experience of residents entering the community. “We looked at how to streamline and make the application and intake process easier for residents and family members,” Owen says.

Hospitality Industry Still Caters to Senior Market

While hotels may not be eager to enter the AL market, traditional hospitality companies still see market potential in the increasing number of seniors in the United States.

Denver Severt, PhD, associate professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, University of Central Florida, points out the country’s percentage of older, independent seniors is large and growing.
“It’s a giant thing to go after, from air trips to cruises,” he says. “As with everything, consumer centricity is here to stay. The senior consumer has choices, and so there will be a number of businesses vying for those markets.”