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Willow Valley Has Hospitality in its ‘DNA’ as Senior Living Operator Primes for Growth

By Austin Montgomery | Senior Housing News

A forward-thinking life plan community in the senior living hotbed of Lancaster, Pennsylvania,is gearing up for future growth, both at its existing campus and new locations.

The sweeping life plan community, Willow Valley Communities, is among the largest LPCs in the U.S., according to the 2022 LeadingAge Ziegler 200 report. All told, Willow Valley Communities serves 2,600 residents from 40 states with its 210-acre campus.

The organization recently overhauled its leadership, and in 2023 Willow Valley Communities is ready to push for higher occupancy and margins, plus growth in the form of renovations and new development.

Craig Thompson was promoted to president, a role he will have along with his COO title. Jodie Reinhart joined the organization as chief financial officer (CFO), and Patrick Picciocchi was named chief hospitality officer. Other recent promotions included: Glennda Hart, who was promoted to vice president of resident services, James Tracy as vice president of property management and services and Cori Steiner to director of resident services. 

Thompson said the leadership changes would give Willow Valley Communities a strong leadership backbone with which to pivot away from the challenges of the pandemic, with an eye toward elevating services for residents.

“We had the proper succession planning in place and we know what we wanted to do,” Thompson told Senior Housing News.

He said Willow Valley Communities was a “hospitality-driven” organization, with “growth being a big piece” of that puzzle.

“We want to continue to promote that and make sure that it’s part of our DNA going forward,” Thompson added.

One of the community’s big goals for the year has been reopening and getting back to a sense of normal life after the pandemic, across the sprawling campus. In 2023 the organization’s mantra was “let’s open everything up,” Thompson said.

From existing renovations and upgrades to its current campus, Willow Valley Communities also has plans for an urban 55+ active adult community in downtown Lancaster, a place that’s become a hub for senior living in recent years.

“We want to get back to doing what we do best and that’s providing all those amenities to our residents that they’re accustomed to,” Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Brian Rutter told Senior Housing News.

Footprint improves, new growth on tap

One big priority for the community for this year is updating, renovating and revitalizing the current campus. Work undertaken included adding dining venues and updating the community’s Manor building. Upgrades were made to a high acuity skilled nursing unit, along with renovations of a health care facility also underway. 

Willow Valley’s SouthPointe Village luxury 55+ active adult apartments came online in 2020, and Thompson said lease-up is continuing into 2023 as the organization builds back occupancy lost during the last three years.

Census is rebounding “beautifully,” with occupancy pushing the 90th percentile and new inquiries up nearly 50% since 2021, Thompson said. That’s compounded by a growing waitlist for various unit layouts showing that demand remains strong.

“We’re very optimistic about the return to pre-Covid levels and having everything being just as strong,” Thompson said.

Rutter added, “Our tagline is life lived forward and we’re doing that.”

The expansion also will include a new memory care center that will provide unique approaches to dementia care developed and practiced in the Netherlands, Thompson noted–something other operators are also looking into. The new memory care facility is currently in design.

“There’s a lot of energy and excitement around this project from both our residents who are really looking forward to this brand new opportunity, as well as some in the broader community,” Thompson said.

Building off of the renovation of the Southern Market, from the 1880s into a food hall plus office space, Willow Valley is gearing up for the luxe active adult Mosaic project in downtown Lancaster.

Just across the street from the food market will stand the “tallest building in Lancaster County,” Rutter said, the 20-story apartment building as part of Willow Valley’s Lifecare enterprise. The project as it stands is planned to open in 2026.

“We’re a destination community and people choose to move here from across the U.S.,” Rutter added. “We’re seeing lots of interest in our Mosaic project and the pattern continues of being able to attract residents from around the nation.”

While staffing remains a challenge, Thompson said pressures have eased from the height of the pandemic. But those trying times came with a silver lining with being able to innovate to find new ways to provide services to residents while keeping them safe and healthy.

By implementing new technology for onboarding and other hiring processes, Willow Valley has been able to quell some of its staffing heartburn.

“We started with rethinking the fundamental approach to recruiting,” Rutter said. “We’re bringing that same marketing capability and partnering with our human resources and recruiting team.”

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