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'Luxury is a Feeling': How Sunrise, Galerie, Vi Take Senior Living Dining Beyond 'Excellence'

Jan 24, 2024

Photo for Senior Housing News by Robotoaster

Photo for Senior Housing News by Robotoaster

Luxury is a word often used to describe senior living communities, but it is not a word that always accurately describes them.

Some senior living operators aim to deliver top-flight dining and experiences one might enjoy in an elite country club, with monthly rates sometimes in excess of $10,000 — and luxury is a word they take very seriously.

Projects and commuities in this category include Sunrise Senior Living's East 56th and The Apsley highrises in Manhattan, Galerie Living's burgeoning Corso brand and Vi's portfolio of 11 upscale life plan communities.

To senior living leaders like Caitlin Rogers, vice president of dining and programming services at Sunrise Senior Living, there is a difference between true luxury dining and what one might otherwise refer to as "excellence."

And they shouldn't be confused.

"Excellence is something that all of our consumers demand, whether or not they’re paying a luxury price tag or not," she said during DISHED/WELLNESS, an event Senior Housing News hosted in Atlanta this week. "Luxury is the services, the amenities … that we can offer, and really anticipating [residents’] needs."

Sunrise is not the only senior living operator thinking this way. Chicago-based luxury life plan community operator Vi and Galerie Living are also taking the mindset that luxury is a true step above normal operations, and are operating accordingly through programming and food.

Taking luxury to a higher level in senior living dining is not easy and it requires careful planning and execution. For example, operators must be prepared not only to offer luxurious foods, but also to personalize those experiences for residents and truly make them special.

That starts with training to a higher standard and clear expectations about what that standard is, according to Lisa Swafford, Galerie's vice president of strategy and business development.

Galerie is among the few senior living companies that have undertaken Forbes Travel Guide training, which was originally developed for and employed at luxury hotels, restaurants and spas.

The Forbes trainers used a fruit plate as an example of what might set luxury apart from excellence in dining. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is that luxury is more than an item to be bought, sold or rented — it is a vibe unto itself.

In one instance used during the training, the fruit was vibrant and delicious but arranged haphazardly on a plate. In the other, the same fruit was arranged like a flower in a handcrafted arrangement. While they had the same fruit, the former was an example of excellence; and the latter was an example of luxury.

"Luxury is a feeling," Swafford said during the panel. "It's how you’re treated, it's how people are interacting with you."

Sunrise staff trained for luxury at its two New York City high-rises through the Ritz Carlton training program used by many other senior living operators, and now is moving those lessons "downstream" to the company's other communities.

"We really used it as a reset," Rogers said. "We … weaved it into more evergreen materials."

Vi has a similar arrangement with the Culinary Institute of America, which is where the company's executive chefs, sous chefs and pastry chefs train to become luxury-ready culinarians.

"We started saying at Vi, ‘What are the things that we can do differently?’" Vi Executive Chef Gregory Strickland said.

That need to go beyond excellence extends beyond just dining. For example, the Forbes training also included lessons for staff in housekeeping and caregiving.

Swafford pointed out that luxury isn't just for the dining room. To truly make a resident truly feel pampered, that feeling and experience must extend to the entire community.

"The goal is to bring everybody in with this new standard, and make that the new bar," she said.

One of the biggest reasons Sunrise, Vi and Galerie Living are raising the bar on luxury dining is because it's what their residents desire.

The baby boomers are already bringing an eclectic mix of wants and needs to the industry — and for those that operate in the luxury space, that is doubly true. Residents are often said to want the things they enjoyed in life before moving into a community — and that extends to the more affluent, too.

That is why Galerie modeled its Corso Atlanta community to resemble the quaint streets of Paris for its well-traveled clientele; and why Sunrise built its luxury highrises in Manhattan to have all the creature comforts a lifelong New Yorker could want, including food, culture and art.

Likewise, Vi — which has roots in hospitality with Hyatt — is offering luxury services like bespoke dinners, beekeeping and in-house brewing activities because of a "growing need" for curated senior living experiences, Strickland said.

Residents are also now moving into luxury communities with a long list of questions about the things they are eating and doing. For example, Strickland said a resident might ask where an ingredient was harvested or how it was produced.

"It's not enough that we put a plate in front of them anymore," he said. "They want to know where it came from, who created it, what the names of the kitchen staff are."

And Strickland added it's "not enough" for true luxury senior living operators to have good food — because "all the food is very good" in the senior living industry. Instead, they must try to go above and beyond in all they do.

"To just say, ‘We’re buying good ingredients, we have well-trained chefs, we’re luxury.’ — maybe you are, but … how are you elevating ingredients?" he said. "Breaking new boundaries, finding new ways to do things with the ingredients that you have, including your residents … to me, that would be the difference."

The bottom line is that senior living operators should first look to their own residents for guidance on where and how to instill a sense of luxury and purpose in their communities.

As for how to do that, Rogers used the example of a Sunrise resident who had spent 30 years running a catering business before moving into their community. Now, that resident "helping us create a catering menu in conjunction with our executive chef," she said.

"You can't have just a one-size-fits all approach, you really need to be able to accommodate and adapt," Rogers said.

Galerie Living, Sunrise Senior Living, Vi Living

Tim is a lover of bad jokes and board games. When he's not hunched over his work computer, Tim can usually be found hunched over his personal computer.