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Making Connections for Senior Living: An Interview With Paul Ablack
Despite the tidal wave of Baby Boomers entering the 55+ age demographic, many aspects of senior living are still rooted in old models. This has attracted a new crop of innovators to enter the market. One such innovator is Paul Ablack, Founder and CEO of Cantissimo Senior Living. Experience Beyond Measure correspondent Mike Lawson recently sat down with Paul to discuss the current state of senior living and how Cantissimo Senior Living aims to make changes for the better.
The Current State of Senior Living
A successful technology start-up veteran, Paul Ablack has studied the senior living market for some time. Impressed with the growth of the 55+ demographic, he wondered if innovation was keeping pace with that growth. "This industry doesn't have a high level of sophistication, or let's say it hasn't evolved much. You've got some really large players, and then there's a cottage industry of owners that own several small franchise operations. (For these), there's nothing to force standardization or to improve. "
Ablack notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the industry. "If I look back, I think COVID is a great example of bringing out the state of the industry. You've seen a lot of cases where there has been a high rate of COVID incidences. Well, if you actually delve into those places, you'll find they're not very well run. Also, there's a whole genre of buildings that are circa nineteen seventies, eighties. It's the senior home; it's the old folks' home."
Ablack notes that as the Baby Boomers continue to swell the ranks of older adults, the antiquated industry practices won't be up to the challenge. "I think it's evolved now to where (the Baby Boomers) will want and expect more. They haven't grown up living in (traditional) communal facilities and don't expect that. They want to go to this new generation. That's the type of facilities that we want to connect people with."
In his research, Ablack first noticed a lack of sophisticated online interaction opportunities for seniors. "I looked around and tried to figure out what problems are not being solved, and I think one of them is just the idea of how do you connect and build communities online for this cohort?"
A second area Ablack identified was the challenges older adults and their families face in finding the right senior living setting. "How do you match them to the facilities that they would ideally like to be in? I haven't seen anything like that, and so the idea of Cantissimo came up where we build this community called Cantissimo Senior Living. It's about content. It's about connecting seniors and their families to information that can help guide them through that very difficult process."
Taking Inspiration from Successful Online Platforms
Fascinated by the success of major online travel platforms, Ablack started to think about how these concepts would play out in the senior living environment. "If you think about what TripAdvisor and what Airbnb do, they really bring the travel search and planning process to a whole new level. They enable the ability to match to what you want your travel experience to be."
The online community aspect of these travel platforms also intrigued Ablack. "You are able to go through and get reviews and to read other people's experiences about those destinations and then to finish the process off by actually making a booking in one of those destinations." This made him think of the ways this process could apply to seniors today. Ablack's Cantissimo Senior Living seeks ways to apply the techniques of travel websites to senior living. "We're looking at that and saying why can't we build something that allows you to go through that same process online to learn about these places and get informed about them and then create ratings and make reviews available. You don't tour an Airbnb before you go stay in it. You're looking at pictures, you're relying on reviews, and I think that same thing experience can happen to a large extent in this industry."
Yet, Ablack understands the differences between setting up a trip versus choosing a senior living arrangement. "It's actually much more involved because you're making a much longer-term commitment to live in someplace. You're not just traveling there for a week or two." Noting that onsite tours are necessary to make a final decision, Ablack is confident seniors and their families can narrow down the options by doing research online via websites like Cantissimo Senior Living.
The Value of Content
Ablack breaks down the Cantissimo Senior Living offering into three categories: content, connection, and comparison. The first, content, is embodied by an eclectic selection of curated information on the Cantissimo website. "The idea is to create a site that people want to go to every day because there are interesting things, and it's being refreshed every day with new and interesting content. For example, we had a blog on the COVID vaccines, and we have one about how to talk to your adult children about money. Another topic was about how to get prepared for moving someone into a facility. In that case, if you have a parent at that stage, what does that look like and what are some of the things you can do and what are some of the resources?"
He also notes the site doesn't limit itself to serious topics. "There's also fun stuff right now. It's not all that serious. We want to make this a place of interest. (A place where) it's fun to go and get great content."
The Value of Connection
Once people come to the Cantissimo website, there is the opportunity for making connections, according to Ablack. "The appeal of the site is to those 55 plus. So it could be just "I want to join a running group" or something. "I want to connect with some people or see something interesting and make some connections there". That's the idea, to just build this community where it could even be something where you go just to share experiences."
The other type of connection is to possible places to live. Various senior living facilities will soon be listed on the Cantissimo Senior Living site. Here, comparisons will be made between options. Says Ablack, "We want to make sure we're introducing, connecting people with facilities that allow them to live with the dignity that they've had in their past life. The majority of these facilities are places that we are helping to vet through the review process and create that transparency that I think a lot of the family members are looking for, as well as the potential residents themselves. So that's our role, to create those connections."
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The Value of Comparison
A crucial element in connecting people to potential new living arrangements comes from contributions from the community of the Cantissimo Senior Living website. People provide comments and feedback on their experience with a facility. This also adds engaging content to the website. Ablack noted, "We want contributors commenting on what they thought about any facility they visited, or maybe they've got somebody staying in this facility? That's the idea that you can build this content through this community. We'll have not only those curated pieces that we think would be interesting to a person, so they come there every day, but we also want to create this ability to contribute
Ablack says this is a significant improvement over how comparisons between residences are typically handled. "A lot of the comparisons right now are arbitrary. We see the scores are very generic. We'd like to get to a point, similar to Airbnb with their Super Host concept, that a facility is rated this because it meets these criteria. One of the criteria could be, 'Is there a place for the family to stay?' 'Does that facility have that capability to allow the family a place to go to visit with instead of just being in the room,' for example?"
Ablack thinks this type of community feedback will make comparisons more credible. With that credibility, he sees lower-performing residences leaving the market. "There will be the natural attrition. I think we've got a drive to that standard for the industry because if you were to really go in and take a hard look and rank the facilities in terms of what meets our vision, it falls off pretty quickly. There's definitely been new stock being built. We see it around, but it's not enough to replace a lot of the aging stock that's there right now."
Making a Difference
Paul Ablack sees Cantissimo Senior Living delivering something fresh and valuable to the senior living experience. "I'm very encouraged by what we're doing, and I do think that we can really make a difference in this marketplace."
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More About Paul Ablack
Paul was most recently the Founder and CEO of OnApproach. OnApproach developed and patented middleware that made it possible for credit unions to integrate data from disparate systems and then normalize that data to an industry-standard necessary for analytics, aggregation, and machine learning. OnApproach quickly emerged as the market leader for data integration middleware to the point that the company was acquired in February of 2019 by Trellance, Inc., based in Tampa, Florida.
Prior to starting OnApproach, Paul was Vice President/General Manager of energy information services for the Honeywell Automation & Control services business. His global responsibilities included overseeing all aspects of strategic planning, marketing, promotion, research and development, and general management of the energy information services business. Paul has also held a variety of key sales leadership and general management positions across the United States and Canada for both Honeywell and General Electric. Paul’s background includes experience in financial services, energy, and manufacturing, and technology.
The recipient of numerous sales and leadership awards, Paul has been an active member of several industry and business organizations, including The Authentic Leadership Project, The Data Warehouse Institute, and the Richard Ivey School of Business. He earned an honors business administration degree from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.