Residents of the Paul Spring Community in Northern Virginia gathered recently to enjoy the day’s lunch prepared by Executive Master Chef Norbert Roesch. Waiters in black bowties and crisp white shirts moved efficiently between the tables, expertly serving a creamy seafood soup, a choice of Cobb, Caesar, or Mediterranean salad, and entrées that included baked salmon, turmeric-spiced cauliflower, and BBQ chicken sandwiches.
For dinner, the residents could look forward to a selection of beef tenderloin, shrimp and clam sauté, and seared garlic lamb chops, among other delights. Those who preferred to make their own meals, meanwhile, could join a weekly outing to the nearby Wegmans grocery store, where staff drivers would carry their bags to the waiting club van and then back to the countertops of their trim apartment kitchens. First-rate hospitality? Yes! But gourmet dining and valet shopping excursions are not the only things that distinguish the Paul Spring Community, an independent living, assisted living, and memory care facility in Fairfax County, Va.
“What makes us different? It’s not necessarily a dining room, or the food on the table, or the bus that we take residents out on,” says Ray Tate, executive director of the 145-apartment facility that is part of Virginia-based Retirement Unlimited (RUI). Paul Spring is one of 62 other assisted living facilities registered in Fairfax County alone. “It’s us,” he answers. “We, the people, are the ones who make this community different. It has to start with us.”
In 2017, RUI renovated Paul Spring with the addition of a memory care wing and enhanced amenities such as a wellness program, concierge services, and an ambassador program to acclimate and introduce residents into the community. Tate emphasizes that all such amenities rest on a strong foundation of personal hospitality, such as courtesy, empathy, attentiveness, and friendliness.
“Our values are all centered around providing the best hospitality possible,” he says. “It’s how we treat the residents. It’s how we offer them the service they deserve.”

Hospitality: Service and Smiles

Communities across the country seek to balance the two concepts of hospitality—amenities and personal—as they aim to attract and serve a growing wave of seniors looking for the right facility. The sheer number of people entering the assisted living market in the coming years will require a variety of hospitality offerings to meet the demand, many say.
It’s clear which variety of hospitality is most important to Robert Van Dyk, president and chief executive officer of Van Dyk Health Care, which operates facilities throughout New Jersey. Gourmet dining, spa-like buildings, and limousine rides to doctors’ visits are elements of hospitality that fall more in the realm of marketing, he contends.
“Hospitality is not ribeye versus chopped meat, or whether you’re using limos or calling Uber. It’s not Egyptian cotton sheets versus plain. I consider all of those marketing,” Van Dyk says. 
“To me hospitality is the people that you employ. It really has more to do with being friendly, generous, and entertaining of residents, visitors, and strangers. The hospitality side is how welcoming do you make people feel? That’s what hospitality is.”
Staff at Van Dyk learn ways to treat and engage visitors, guests, and residents. “It’s always, ‘smile, good morning, how are you?’” Van Dyk notes of one key message imparted. “If someone looks a little lost, it’s, ‘Is there something I can do to help you? Are you looking for someone? Is there anything you need?’ It’s the front desk trying to be aware of where everyone is.”
Van Dyk acknowledges that knowing the whereabouts of 122 residents at any given moment can be a challenge. But the staff have a solution.
All wear earbuds that let the front desk reach out discretely with queries. This is particularly important when a family member comes for a visit: “‘We have Mr. Jones here. Could someone tell me where his mom is right now?’” Van Dyk says of a typical example. “Knowing someone’s name. We’re trying to create a very happy, warm, enjoyable experience in someone’s new home.”

Pledge to Hospitality

Others codify their commitment to personal service. At Vetter Senior Living, which operates facilities throughout Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, and Wyoming, all team members must sign the Vetter Way Hospitality Pledge (see sidebar). The pledge includes commitments to empathy, common courtesies, timeliness, eye contact, and always offering a can-do attitude.
Shari Owen, talent development coordinator at Vetter, says this pledge is infused throughout the company’s mission, vision, and values.
“We live it every day,” she says. “It’s in our general orientation. Our team members go through a three-day orientation prior to even stepping foot on the floor. We want to make sure the expectations are laid out very clearly. Because we know we retain our talent when expectations are laid out from the get-go. The first presentation they hear is our Vetter Way Pledge.”
Paul Spring’s Tate concurs. When hiring employees and during monthly staff meetings, Tate’s team continually reinforces the community’s core values around hospitality.
“We really do emphasize the need to treat someone the way you want to be treated,” he says of the training. “Sympathy, empathy, it all goes a long way. Our residents plan to age in place, and, therefore, over time they won’t be as strong as they once were. So being able to have that empathy and see them where they are in life is so important.”
Beth Kolnok, a spokesperson for RUI, a Fralin and Waldron family-owned senior living community management company, explains that hospitality traits in an individual can be expanded, but can’t necessarily be taught. Paul Spring looks for employees with the right motivation and right personality, including a willingness to take ownership of the facility.
“When you’re walking down the hallway and see a tissue on the ground, simply pick it up no matter what official title you hold,” Kolnok notes of the attitude that is shared across the team. “Having pride in ownership of your community, that’s what will lead to hospitality. Ensuring the right people are in the right places starts during the recruitment process. We want to make sure they’re the right fit with the right personality from the beginning.”