Step One: Disrupt Marriott. Step Two: Disrupt Sun City.
I’m either an idiot or a visionary, depending on who you listen to. I’ve made my share of mistakes and some of them whoppers.
But, during the past 35 years, I’ve also had the opportunity to disrupt the hotel industry twice, first, as a pioneering founder of the boutique hotel movement and, secondly, as the "modern elder" at Airbnb (at a time when most of you had never heard of the company). The truth is, I’d barely heard of them myself and then, over the course of the last decade, they became a $100 billion company.
All of which brings us to today and a common question I hear: Which industries and companies are most at risk of disruption? The answer is easy. I believe it’s those companies that:
- Have grown complacent by past successes, lost track of their core customers’ needs, and haven’t evolved their product offering much
- Didn’t imagine a whole new set of customers, with different needs, entering the market
- Don’t take new competitors seriously, potentially because they feel competitively safe due to their historical regulatory environment
- Have no clue what the true essence of their product offering is
This was all true of the hotel industry in the 1980s as the Holiday Inns of the world believed that all the customer wanted was predictability. They didn’t see Bill Kimpton, Ian Schrager or me coming as they were more focused on “one size fits all” franchising than their customer.
Few entrepreneurs wake up in the morning and say, "Who can I disrupt today?" The innovator sees a missed opportunity, maybe because they're a customer (that's how Reed Hastings started Netflix as he hated Blockbuster's customer experience). As I've imagined where I want to live the final third of my life, and having spoken to many of our 1,500 MEA alums, I've heard over and over again just how limited their choices feel when it comes to senior living communities, especially since the average age for entry to these retirement meccas has grown to over 80 years old from being 65 just a few decades ago.
Sun City and other retirement communities are as wrong today as Marriott was when I started Joie de Vivre Hospitality in 1987. They still believe one size fits all. Don’t get me wrong. Communities dedicated to people 55+ are still growing. In fact, based upon the recent U.S. census, the fastest growing community is The Villages, a mega (and MAGA) retirement community in Florida dedicated to age segregation.
The larger any industry becomes, the more opportunities there are for niches—timeshares, boutique hotels, home-sharing. The big hotel chains were late to the party on each of these, and the world's largest senior living developers are about to see history replayed.
Age is not an affinity. Just because we're getting old together doesn't mean we feel connected. Tapping into shared values, interests, and mindsets is the way to create community. Just like yoga and meditation were perceived as hippie-dippy in the 70s, intentional communities have been perceived in the same way (think of a commune or kibbutz). That is, until now. The pandemic has accelerated our desire to commune and live with those with a shared ethos. We've seen this with MEA, and it's why we're opening our second regenerative community (the first, Baja Sage not far from the MEA Baja campus, was created by MEA co-founder Jeff Hamaoui and his co-developer and MEA alum Peter Arbuckle).
We'll tell you more about this over the next couple of years as nothing will be opening in Santa Fe before 2023, but suffice it to say, the retirement community industry is taking note. We've had them visit us in Baja and have also had groups of senior leaders taking our MEA Online course. I've also been invited to give a few keynote speeches in the next six months at various senior living conferences. In a world that seems to be racing toward degeneration, couldn’t we use a little more regeneration?
Belonging is a core need of humans, especially as we get older. It's time Sun City wakes up and realizes that connecting with people—of any age—who feel like long-lost friends is more nourishing than connecting with people purely because we're the same age.