Aspire for More with Erin

He is the Master Connector and Sets Your Table for Success: A conversation with Aaron Fish

January 11, 2024 Erin Thompson
Aspire for More with Erin
He is the Master Connector and Sets Your Table for Success: A conversation with Aaron Fish
Show Notes Transcript

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So excited for you guys to listen to Aaron fish CEO, founder of trestle hospitality concepts, and my conversation in regards to all things, senior living, both mentorship, food service. Customer service and the differences between CCRC and. Senior living communities that are not continuous care. So great conversation between two people who have spent a lifetime in the industry and want to give back in. Amazing ways. Hope you enjoy it.

Erin:

Today I'm so excited because I have my colleague and friend and fellow Aaron, Aaron Fish from Trestle Hospitality Concepts. He is the founder and CEO. And, to me, a dear friend now, which I'm excited about. So Aaron, let me say this to you. If you can think back a year ago, maybe even this week, a year ago, I, you gave me the opportunity to be on your podcast. That was the first podcast I have ever been on. And we had. Technical difficulties and inside I was dying. but you worked with me and we really didn't even know each other. You gave me a shot through all of that.

Aaron:

Yeah. No. first thanks for having me on your podcast and second, it was. You know what you were talking about and what you were doing, I thought was really important for the listeners on my podcast to hear right because I think one of the things that I've tried to do is I feel like we, we need a different approach to how we do certain things in senior living, and. A lot of what you were saying made sense from where I started my journey like into supporting senior living with my own company versus working inside the industry because I just felt it could be done in a better way and could be done, for a bigger audience, right? You know, you can have, you only have so much impact when you're doing it for an operator than when you're on the outside, it can help all of the operators. And so it felt like it, it was a really great fit for everything and. Obviously it's, for you just grown and blossomed. And so I'm really excited to see how things have gone for you this year and how they'll go the next year as well.

Erin:

Yeah, it certainly gave us an opportunity to connect and meet and realize that we were ships passing in the shore back in 2012, which was really interesting when we worked for the same company, kind of not long story. But, anyways, it was just really cool how, when there's a plan and when there's a connection to be made. How you can build, relationships just based on facts and names and how you adding value to me and giving me an opportunity led to me doing the same thing for you and then us getting to meet at the Alabama association. Spring conference this year. That just seems so long ago, but it actually was March of this year.

Aaron:

Yeah, no, and I, for me, it's this philosophy of a, a rising tide raises all ships. And so how can we make the right connections? How can we build our network? In a way where they just help everybody grow. And, I look back at everything this year that I've done and that were there opportunities where maybe I could have, charged a little bit more, or maybe I did. I leave a little bit of revenue on the table for my business. that's. 100%, I'm sure the case, but at the same time, I know that in doing things the way I've done them and how I've tried to build what I'm building, the approach makes sense and it's, that reputation that comes with that, I think is probably more valuable, than just making that extra. 1, 000 on a job or whatever, because, you want people to take away that feeling of, they're supported, they're a part of the journey, they're a part of this industry. and they want to move it in the right direction. And so I think that, like minds come together. And I think that's, like you said, that's how we. I've connected and started working together on different projects.

Erin:

Absolutely. as I have grown in my business and speaking and meeting people, one thing in the different projects that we have working together, when Aaron Fish's name is brought up, there is one category that follows that he's a master connector and so many people value. The fact that you do that, that you connect them to people, that you add value by giving people a chance by seeing, the potential in people and bringing them into your network. And when somebody says they need something, you go through your. Rolodex in your mind and you say, Oh, I know somebody. And so I think that I will say thank you for all the people that have told me how you've connected them and helped them. Thank you. Because a lot of people appreciate that in you.

Aaron:

it comes from a philosophy that I was taught to me from probably the first real mentor I had. I took a job. Oh, I can say it now over 20 years ago at, CCRC in Kansas city. And at the time the job was, I, the economy was bad. I, my goal was always to be the hotel general manager at this. High end, resort type of operation. And I just couldn't get a job at with my hospitality management degree. So I took a dining room manager job at the CCRC and a lot of dominoes fell. And within the first 18 months wound up being the director of dining services in this massive campus. And at the time thinking, Oh, I was a food and beverage manager at a hotel. This is going to be a cakewalk learned the hard way that it wasn't, but was really fortunate to have. a mentor who was willing to see potential and see the connections and see the opportunity to spend time developing me and working with me. and because of that, it set that mindset of when you see that potential, whether it's the potential connection to improve someone's business or the connection to improve someone's network, you've got to do that. Because it's that, That idea that you can give, you should give more than you take. And when you give the, it'll just come back to you. and I've experienced that, I've personally, with some connections and with people I've grown in my network with, they've done the same thing for me. And and obviously, the end game is to grow a business and be successful, operating in the industry. But you've got to, especially in senior living, you really got to have that network of people and you really got to be open to sharing and learning and growing because our industry is evolving. And that's, I think a key thing for everybody to take away. Absolutely.

Erin:

The idea of reciprocity. That's in leadership and that's in sales as well, for sure. You worked at a CCRC. I have not worked at a CCRC, but you've also worked at a non CCRC senior living community. My husband actually worked at a CCRC as an air conditioning maintenance, air conditioning guy. I'm sure there's a better term for that. He was very important. I spoke with somebody who was a leader and she had only worked with the CCRC and then she started working for a non CCRC assisted living community. And she was in culture shock. There is a complete difference. And since you have worked in both, I certainly let her know, I know what it's like to have only seven to eight managers and everything to fall on the managers without having those layers of CCRC has, when my husband worked there, there was like seven maintenance guys. And we struggled to have two, so what do you say to, or what would you say like the differences and what would you say to somebody based on your experience of the differences and the shock and what to prepare for somebody? Yeah,

Aaron:

it's interesting, right? Because not only is there a big difference in just the two styles and types of communities, but the CCRC I worked for was a not for profit. And when I started working in, management companies that were doing for, they were all for profit. And so there's completely different mindset. I will say that I was. There's a huge difference, right? Because in the not for profit world, they're charging the same rates as the market rates as everybody else's, but now they've got these funds and there are certain things they have to do to maintain their not for profit status. And so there was a lot of, flexibility. There was a lot of opportunity to come in with a business mindset, which I've always approached everything with is this. for profit, how can we generate revenue? How do we look at things a little different than maybe a lot of operators do when it comes to like food service, to take advantage of those resources. but I was fortunate in that, the big, the great recession in 2008, I was at the CCRC and so we had to do a mind shift. For all of the management. And it was instead of that kind of wealth of resources, not for profit approach, we started really thinking more like a for profit operator and how does that look and how do we do that? And so fortunately for me with my hotel background, I was able to quickly make that shift. And so the transition is easier when you're thinking in that profit mindset. That doesn't mean that you're. End game is we got to get every single penny every single dollar out of The resident and everybody who walks through, but it's understanding that things like how you do service and how your resident feedback is and how happy residents are and the quality of what you're putting out there. it's not just a resident satisfaction number, but it also contributes to that profitability, right? we're closing the back door. Less residents are moving out more residents, potential residents here about how great your community is. So they want to live there. And All of the things that you might think, we're not really worried about this because we're just worried about our census number and that profit. all of those other experiential things, which is the world that I work in and live in, those things drive profitability and revenue. And I think it's important for operators to really understand that, right? Because those are the things that are really going to make. An impact on the bottom line outside of just the straight ratios that you're looking at from a marketing perspective.

Erin:

Yeah. That's where CCRCs do get it right. People say that the soft skills are not important or as important as KPIs and all the other stuff, but really it's the soft skills that is the differentiator. Yeah.

Aaron:

Yeah. Those soft skills drive those KPIs, right? Because. Yeah, there's always a quantitative, piece of data that goes with that, but there's a lot of the qualitative stuff that you've really got to understand, right? if you don't understand that, okay, my low food scores are maybe what's driving move outs. you may see 10 move outs, right? And maybe four of them are say food is the number one thing, but then maybe there's three more that list food at three or four, right? But they've got a whole list of other things, right? And so one of the things that I think gets lost is like, what's that primary Move out reason, or what's that primary move in reason, right? And you can't really distill it down to that one thing. And that's where you talk about the soft skills, working towards training our staff to be better with the soft skills means you're going to build better relationships with other staff members, with residents, with families, and then through that, you gain the reputation and the reputability and the trust. That you can, and will be good at taking care of someone's loved one. And therefore it starts to drive those hard numbers on the front end. Absolutely.

Erin:

Absolutely. Couldn't say it any better. So let's talk about trustable hospitality concepts. You are a fractional VP. For operators who do not have, a culinary vice president, correct? You do design and development of new builds and rebuilds, right? Redesigns and you have a focus in training and development of culinary teams. So before we dive into all of that, I've often wondered, where did Trestle Hospitality Concepts come from? Because at the beginning, I was like, oh, his last name is Trestle, but it's not, it's Fish. Yeah. So where did Trestle Hospitality Concepts come from?

Aaron:

Yeah, no, it's funny that you relate the name thing, right? Because when I was working on building the, buying the LLC and building out the company, I didn't have a name. So my LLC for my company has a completely different name. And it was just something I did to button that up. But I wanted a name that I would grab attention. And I thought would set it apart and everybody was like, Oh, just use your last name, just call it fish hospitality or whatever. And I was like, but I don't want it to just be about me, right? Because every entrepreneur wants to grow something into something bigger. and so I kept struggling like the hospitality concepts, the last two words in the company name, those were there, right? Those kind of came that it made a lot of sense. It was like, I can do anything with those. If I decided to even get out of the senior living space and grow outside of that, there's other opportunities, but I kept struggling and struggling. And so finally. One evening before bed, I just I went to my wife, Emily, and was like, look, we got to come up with a name for this. And I tend to work best in groups of people. I'm a little more on the extroverted side. And so I'm like, the brainstorming and the back and forth, all of that really. It's how I'm wired, right? that's where I feel like I can get the most bang for my buck. And so I was like, I'm stuck by myself doing this. I need help. And so we sat down and we have this huge mirror, in our bathroom. And I just started, cause I didn't have a whiteboard at the time. So we started writing things on the mirror and she stumbled across. Trestle as an option, right? And we had all these other names that were fine. but Trestle is actually, it's from, I think it's maybe it was derivative from the, from Latin, but Trestle is the supports of a table, right? So if you go and get into all the technicalities of what a table consists of, the supports, the legs and everything underneath the tabletop is the trestle of a table. And so that. hit, right? We're like, we're, we do food and hospitality and senior living. A lot of the times that's the focus of the dining room. What happens at the table, that's where the, where all that happens. And so when you look at our logo and trustful hospitality concepts, our tagline, setting your table for success, all of that developed from this idea. And so that's what we do, right? That's. Our goal with the things you mentioned, we want to support the industry and make a better focus on the food and the hospitality and the overall community experience because health, the healthcare piece is important and having good sales and marketing messaging and processes is good, but like I said, the soft skills or the soft services that we provide, those are what's going to make or break you and. We, we knew going into this that we had to have, there's a number of operators that need this kind of support, they're trying to be competitive in the market with the big guys that have the full time dining support teams and the full time resident engagement teams. And so what we wanted to do was we focus on supporting operators that are, I would say. 15 locations or less. because they're, at that size, if they never, just if they decide never grow past that size, they're never going to have the resources to hire someone with my background and my expertise full time. But we've developed a kind of a process where we can do immersive fractional support. We can do a maintenance fractional support. And we've had a lot of success with our clients with helping them get buildings open with getting communities, more streamlined in their operations. and so it's been really good to, to support these smaller operators because they're the ones that more than likely understand how important it is. Like what's my value proposition in the market. I'll have to be better at these soft things because I don't necessarily have a big marketing budget and I don't necessarily have all these other things if I'm good. As an operator overall, then I can be successful. And so that's where we come in is to be that additional support piece when it comes to food and hospitality and that community experience. Yeah.

Erin:

And it works and you're successful and people need it, which is great. and you're like the face, I think that activities certainly is the personality of the community and sales is the oxygen of the community. But culinary piece is what sustains the community, it's the one that gets beat up the most because it's where they can exert control and Aaron fish and trestle hospitality concepts is like that space. Of culinary and you shine the light on one specific department that is very important. And there's not anyone else out there that's doing that. So that's amazing. Yeah.

Aaron:

I will often tell people that, the reason you should put a focus on food and why should you invest in it in this support is because you may have 80 residents, but there's 90 different like opinions about the food. Every single meal, because like you said, when you move into a community that resident loses control, they get a little bit more scheduled and regimented and they have less control over a lot of the aspects of their life, but when they get in that dining room, they get to choose what goes on the plate in front of them, they get to choose what they eat. And so it's like you said that last bastion of control for resident. And if it's not good, it's an easy target. And so it just goes back to what kind of experience do you want your residents to have? If you can get that piece right, then it just the overall vibe of the community is just enhanced, right? Because then you don't have upset residents going to. the yoga class or to the card games or to the social hour, right? Social hour doesn't become complaining about lunch today, right? It becomes one of the other things that are important that we want to talk about and that we want to do. And so there's a lot of value in that and understand. And that's where I talk about community experiences. do I have a lot of experience with resident engagement? No. And I will say that it's just, it's part of that hospitality experience. If you're not looking at the holistic aspect of it, Then you're really missing the boat. And so that's where we want to make sure that people understand that it's all encompassing for how your community is perceived by a resident or a prospect. It really

Erin:

is. It really is one funny story. I worked inside of a community and our home office decluttered, no crackers, no condiments on the table. Fresh flowers, white tablecloths, and I knew that there would be some upset people, but I did not, I just didn't think it was that big of a deal. The first meal came where we did that and the firing squad that was in front of me for taking away crackers off the table was intense and scary. And it made me realize. And made me use in my sales. The cruise ship mentality, because crackers shouldn't be this big of a deal, but it is that big of a deal and it just goes to show you it is control. They don't want to have to ask somebody for crackers. They want their crackers. And it goes back to the experience. Does your servers know to bring the crackers out automatically to avoid. Angry residents, is it worth keeping the crackers on the table because that's what the residents want versus the first impression when somebody looks at the dining room, these are the things to balance. What is the experience that your customers want? Yeah,

Aaron:

it, that story for me exemplifies one of the things that I really talk about, and I've said this with on other podcasts and I talk about it in other, when I speak at conferences, is that, I, the industry talks about restaurant style dining, which, I hate the restaurant style verbiage. You're either running a restaurant or you're running a food service operation. And we, there's no in between. but the other pieces, everybody, I think has gotten into this work. We want to create a five star experience, right? And so everybody immediately thinks what you just described, like fresh flowers on the table, white tablecloths and all of that, like this kind of this, I don't want to call it a monotone idea, but it's just this one, this is it, this is all five star can be, and really what. When I say a five star experience, what I'm referring to is understanding the residents and understanding the market you're in and creating experience that matches those expectations and knocking the those expectations out of the park, right? That's where I think about a community in East Texas, right? It's Rule, maybe a little low income as far as resources. And so that is very different than something that's in the heart of the DFW Metroplex, right? The two very different markets, two very different residents, two very different sets of expectations. You can create five star experience for those residents if you understand that. it's a team effort, but if you try to do a one size fits all approach, you're not going to be successful if you're managing across that kind of broad spectrum. And so that's when I say that five star experience has to match your resident expectation. And the residents you're recruiting to your community, you've got a general profile of what they are, they look like and what they fit. And so your community experience needs to match that. So it's not always. white tablecloths and, cheese and crackers and charcuterie social hours, right? Like social hour, maybe like a tub of Miller Lite cans and, somebody playing the banjo, right? I know that sounds off, but there are going to be places where that more casual kind of, unbuttoned approach is going to be a knock it out of the park experience. And so you have to be mindful of that. And I think that's where some, maybe even these smaller operators can have a ton of successes, working with us, working with Trestle, we understand that, and so we're going to get to understand who you're looking at, and we're going to help you craft that, that perfect experience around your residence profile, as opposed to, we have a one stop, one size fits all approach, because it just isn't that way.

Erin:

No, that's really good and it's very true and it's something in the deep down south of Alabama was always a struggle for me, we didn't necessarily have a banjo player, but there were certain level of five star that didn't resonate with people, I want to wear a t shirt and a pair of pants into the dining

Aaron:

room, Exactly. and in your example, it's okay, instead of things just being thrown on the table, let's figure out how to keep them neat and clean and organized. Because The residents will appreciate that order on the table, right? And then when you're walking somebody through, they'll see, oh, one, it's neat and organized. So they know that they're going to take care, right? Those little details stand out. Like they take, pay attention to the detail. Therefore they're going to take better care of my loved one. But two, I also, that, that flip side of, the crackers are on the table and the hot sauce is on the table and all the stuff I need is right there, so I don't have to worry about it, right? There's a way to approach that where you can do, have your foot in both those camps of, again, it's about how do I elevate the experience without changing the expected experience.

Erin:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's why you and I have so much synergy in regards to our training and mentoring and why we came together to start the Culinary Leadership 360 program was to add in a level of support to those culinary leaders and the executive directors that May not be there. I, for me, and then, mindset has always been, a struggle. And now that I understand it better, I understand, I look back at my career and I see how mindset was a struggle for a lot of people and. One of the biggest barriers in overcoming obstacles for success was fear, fear of the judgment, fear of failing, fear of all of that. And the way we think about everything affects our outcomes. And so we took the unique approach to start with purpose with Anna Hall and mindset and leadership, and then roll into the tactical strategies for culinary. I think it's, I know that it, it made an impact and it will continue to make an impact. Yeah. So what's your take on

Aaron:

that? Yeah, no, I think you, you bring up a lot of good points and for me, the idea of laying a foundation, right? you've gotta do that in order to be able to build the skills to be successful on top of that. One of the things in all of my like travels working for different operators and different management companies was, and I think you'd agree with this, when it comes to how do we do the day to day things? How do we use our software? How do we use our systems? Operators are very good at that. They understand what their expectations are. They understand how they need to get there. They understand how they're going to, the tools they're going to use to get there. But it goes back to that, the soft skills that we were talking about earlier of. They don't tend to do very well I think in general of providing training and support for that, and in creating a program or programs that support, not just managers and leaders in the communities being successful that but also helping. Frontline staff who want to grow in the industry be better. And so if I teach you how to use, the CRM for our company, how to use it, you're probably going to hit some of those numbers, right? But are you going to grow as a person? Are you going to grow as a leader? Are you going to be better at selling to those leads that are coming in by being able to connect with someone? Like my purpose is this. and this is why I work in this community. And so this is why this community is important. And so all of those softer skills have to be properly, trained and learned and mentored. Continuously in order for the tactical trainings to make a lot of sense and so that's where from my standpoint that culinary 360 culinary leadership 360 workshop can make a difference and will make a difference is that we do lay those foundational pieces of the soft skills but then we do talk about right well now you've now you understand those well how does that look when you're Dealing with residents, right? Or when you're training staff or when you're looking at the operational aspects, right? a lot of those things are still going to be important because. We're an industry of people serving people at the end of the day. That's what we do. And if you don't have the ability to connect and have the right mindset and understand your purpose of why you're going to be successful, the tactical trainings are just going to be averagely successful on an average basis. Not higher than that.

Erin:

Yeah, absolutely. Ooh, that gave me chills. So good. that's that's our goal in a nutshell, right? Like just that.

Aaron:

Yeah, exactly. No,

Erin:

that's so good. It motivates me. our, I think our goal, I know our goal is to impact as many people as possible with that program, because in my neck of the woods, finding a culinary director is like finding a needle in a haystack and the more that we can pour into current leaders who are feeling stressed, burned out, watched and not seen, All those things we can help them stay, just stay. And that's the goal because we need consistency in our communities and in the industry. So absolutely. Anything else that you want to bring to the table before I close us out? No.

Aaron:

Yeah, no, definitely. you can, always connect with me on LinkedIn or you can go and follow on literally any of the other social media channels. I also have my tips from Trestle podcast, season three comes out January 16th. And so we're currently recording some of those sessions. Now we've got a new. little mini podcast, all just tips from Trestle Shorts, that's going to launch alongside this. So that's going to be more of an operational focus, five to seven minutes. Like here's the topic of the week, and we're going to give you just practical things you can use to be successful. and then obviously to learn more about Trestle Hospitality Concepts, you can just go to our website, www. TrestleHospitalityConcepts. com. Yes,

Erin:

and two things I want to add, When you do a podcast or when you do a lot of content on LinkedIn, getting feedback is really important. And when we were at Georgia senior living, you had somebody reach out to, come to you face to face. Yeah. Yeah. It was so neat to be a part of that and you listened and that's where this technical approach is coming from. Correct? Yeah.

Aaron:

No, that it, it was a first, an actual podcast listener approached me and said, Hey, I recognize you cause I listened to your podcast. And so I got a little bit of okay, that's new. I guess maybe this people call it, people have called me an influencer and I'm like, stop, no. No. an influencer, somebody that gets like 50 K views on videos and stuff like that, I'm not that, but, the one big thing was I asked what would make the podcast better for you? And it was, as an executive director, he was, what can I do from an operational standpoint to maybe be better? What are some like tips and tricks and skills? And It goes back to with the podcast, trying to maybe build some of that foundational stuff and talking about, mindset, like when we visited or purpose, when Anna was on the podcast, there's all the other like bigger picture things. It's okay, great. But now there's operators out there that aren't filling the void, even on some of the tactical things. When it comes to food and hospitality. And so that's, that was the epiphany and the birth of the TFT shorts is that these are going to be just as valuable, if not more valuable to the frontline and to those day to day leaders who are trying to be successful in their communities.

Erin:

Yeah. Feedback is so important. So If you listen to Aaron's podcast, go tell him how wonderful he is. That's

Aaron:

I'd love it. Definitely smash that like button as my kids like to say, smash that like

Erin:

button. Oh, one more thing I saw on Instagram one time, I think it was Instagram. It could have been LinkedIn. I'm not sure, but it said, make sure that you're surrounded by people who are yes and people. And I had. Not become aware of that or understood. Yes, but yes, but because I've always been a yes, but person you were the first person consistently that has been a yes and person. And I can tell you how that makes me feel when we disagree or when we see things differently, but it helps facilitate the agreement, the connecting of the two visions and just from a leadership standpoint, how important yes, and is, but also just from a person to person standpoint. To be the yes and guy and to be the recipient of, wow, that makes me feel good and strong and confident and heard and making decisions. yes. And is very important. So thank you for being an example of that for me.

Aaron:

Yeah. It's, do you want to be positive or do you want to be negative? Because when you say yes, but. The but negates everything before that comma, right? So it doesn't even matter if 95 percent of what was said before that comma was spot on. It's all out the window because I've picked the 5%, whereas like you said, the yes. And is like this, there's a lot of good there and how can we make it better? And how do we address this? How do we address the 5 percent that needs to be changed as opposed to negating the 95 percent that was right? It was a lesson taught to me that, I just, it made me feel better and it made me think and approach things differently. And so it's just the way I've always worked with my teams, how I've had the most success, and so it just makes sense to approach it that way.

Erin:

Yep. And there is your tactical tip on aspiring for more and tips with Trestle is that right

Aaron:

there? Exactly. Exactly.

Erin:

thank you for your time. I appreciate you, on a professional level, certainly on a personal level and for being an inspiration to the industry, and being a consistent voice for one of the most important departments in our industry.

Aaron:

Yeah. thank you for having me and letting me share my story. I appreciate it.

Erin:

Absolutely. And always to all my listeners aspire for more for you.