By Steve Moran

I am writing this while still at the Chicago airport waiting for my flight home. 

This was maybe my 14th or 15th NIC. I still remember how intimidating the first few were. I was there by myself, didn’t know anyone. After the first day, the first time, I set a goal to meet 100 people. It was one of the hardest things I have ever pushed myself to do. Now, after more than a dozen conferences, I have dozens, maybe hundreds, of friends there.

This is a raw dump of my impressions from the conference, influenced by presentations, conversations, and observations:

  • My voice is raw.
  • My heart is warm, feeling tremendous passion and affection and gratitude for those who shared their precious time and energy with me.
  • I was powerfully reminded that at its core, this is a conference about money and senior living. The one session that was standing room only was the conversation between Bob Hillis, founder of Direct Supply, and Paul Ryan, former speaker of the house. 

    All of the sessions that were related to financing, valuation, and capital markets had big big audiences compared to those that talked about innovation, the future of senior living, and operations. 

    It was not surprising, exactly, but a sign that we don’t fully acknowledge that senior living is an operating business that is dependent on real estate to get the job done. If we don’t pay attention to operations and what the future holds, all that economic stuff will mean NOTHING.
  • We are an optimistic tribe. In truth, times are still pretty rough for operators: Occupancies are not high enough; staffing remains a persistent challenge (though it is clearly getting better); and the costs of everything are a real challenge. Yet there is great optimism — in part because the people at the conference are survivors, at least so far.

    The other optimism factor is the reality that the oldest boomers are starting to be senior living consumers (still a small percentage). We, the industry, know and assume that as we boomers age the demand is going to explode. (I have a more cautious view about this belief.)
  • There continues to be great hope that technology will make a real dent in the staffing challenge, though it is far from clear what this will look like.
  • There are some operators that are crushing it, with whole portfolios with an average occupancy that is near or above 90%
  • AI will transform our industry, and right now we mostly have no idea what that will look like. It will almost certainly be big and surprise us in ways that we can’t even imagine, but it will be wonderful.
  • I pine to have an opportunity to be on the NIC stage.
  • Not just at NIC but at all the conferences I have attended this year, I have been struck by the number of missing people — people who have become friends and are not there. Many because they have left the industry, some because they have changed roles, and others because they have retired.  

    I miss them, but I am encouraged to see a new, emerging group of young leaders who will take everything that we have learned and do an even better job of serving residents (maybe even me) and team members. 
  • As an industry, we continue to struggle with two fundamental questions:
    • Are we health care or a lifestyle product?
    • When capital invests in senior living, are they investing in real estate or a business op?
  • Finally, it was fascinating to talk to leaders about their impressions about the content. There were two areas that I saw very differently than others. Both caused me to rethink. In one case my thinking significantly changed, and on the other I am convinced I have it right. More on both of these. (You can subscribe here if you haven’t already.)

A number of deep-dive articles will follow, but I would love to hear your impressions.