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Just one more question

January 1, 2009
by Gary Tetz
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Like the great TV detective Columbo, Long-Term Living columnist Gary Tetz (Funny You Should Ask) always has one more question. In this bimonthly feature, he talks with long-term care leaders about anything that pops into his mind. He's as surprised as you are that they'll speak to him, and apologizes in advance for whatever inanity he might blurt out in the pressure of the moment.

Ian Cordes, aka “Mr. Florida Long-Term Care,” is a consultant specializing in healthcare communications. More importantly, he was born in Canada, which instantly created a bond of transcending brotherhood between us.

Besides running his own marketing company, he's executive director of the Florida Medical Directors Association, and the business manager for the Florida Association Directors of Nursing Administration/LTC and the Florida Health Care Social Workers Association.

Our conversation started poorly, with a malfunctioning tape recorder and an embarrased promise to call him back. Like any good Canadian would have done, he did his best to set me at ease with a story when I came crawling back an hour later.

Hello again, Ian. I think everything's working now.

I once interviewed someone in state government related to long-term care, only to realize later that instead of flipping over the tape, I had used the same side twice. So I lost half the interview.

I know the feeling. So you got through another election?

We sure did.

No hanging chads?

No. We came out of this one unscathed.

My editor refers to you as “Mr. Florida Long-Term Care.” I'm wondering what your duties are, and if you have to wear a sash.

(Laugh) Every time I hear that I cringe.

You've also been called a nice guy with a sense of humor.

(Nervous laughter) Hmmmmm.

You literally grew up in long-term care. Tell me about that.

I did. Back in the 1960s and 70s my dad ran a number of nursing homes in Montreal, Canada.

Montreal. Really? I'm Canadian also, but haven't seen that part of the country. I never made it past Moose Jaw.

(Laugh) We were all originally from Quebec. I literally voted ‘no’ to separation from Canada in May of 1980, and then later that week got into my car and drove straight to Florida. And I've never looked back.

So you're not a member of the FLQ? (A violent Marxist revolutionary group called the Front de libération du Québec that precipitated a national crisis in 1970.)

No, I don't think so. But I remember the soldiers on the streets in Montreal.

So you got started in a family business?

Basically, my dad's buildings were mansions with 10 or 12 bedrooms that had been turned into nursing homes. They were really gorgeous—three and four story, right downtown, with a home atmosphere. They even had dumbwaiters that sent the food up and down. On weekends when he was called in for emergencies, I would accompany him.

By the summer I turned 15, he had also started a 12-story assisted living apartment complex that was really quite unique and far ahead of the field back then. A dishwasher was going on vacation and he had no one to replace him, so I worked for two weeks straight washing dishes. That was my first job in long-term care.

Followed by many others, I take it.

I started off working in the maintenance department of a nursing home here in West Palm Beach. I've worked in housekeeping, I've been a bookkeeper, an assistant administrator, an administrator, and a regional marketing coordinator. I spent 10 years in operations doing just about everything you can do other than nursing, and I grew to really appreciate and have great admiration for the people who work in this industry.

Let's say I'm an assisted living operator on the brink of financial ruin—I realize that's hard to imagine. But assuming I'm doing everything right with the care and operation, what expert marketing advice could you give that might help turn things around?

There are some external factors that you simply cannot change. The current state of our economy is certainly a glaring example. There are people now in assisted living whose portfolios are in the tank, and that limits their ability to continue paying the fees they could afford when the market was better. So that's affecting everybody.

In dealing with that as an operator, one of the things you need to do is step back for a moment and look honestly at everything you're doing. You might even consider hiring somebody with an outside point of view, so that when you start looking at making proposals and changing programs, you don't have that infighting and predisposed bias to resist change.

You should start by reevaluating the marketplace, and finding out where your particular facility fits. You could do a standard SWOT analysis [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats], and if necessary, reposition your facility based on the outcome of that. Come up with some different programs to attract new residents and, hopefully, keep the ones you have. But unfortunately, you're still going to be dealing with folks who may still not be able to afford your services and have to leave no matter what.

What are some of the most effective marketing techniques you've seen used for assisted living?