The Senior Dining Association Conference & Expo delivered a unique, first-ever opportunity for the community of industry professionals to compare notes and form new relationships.

For four days in March, senior dining executives and professionals from across a range of disciplines gathered in Charlotte, N.C. for a rare moment of community. The SDA Conference offered more than just high-energy speakers and powerful, practical content. For many, the gathering delivered a rare moment of camaraderie, a chance to share insights with others who have been there too.

The welcome reception for exhibitors and attendees helped set the stage. Strangers quickly became friends as they discovered a shared landscape of professional interest and experience. These engagements quickly formed the building blocks of the relationship experience that would come to dominate over the next few days.

Harris Ader, founder of the SDA took the mic to rally the troops Monday morning, and a surprise performance by an acapella group helped bring everyone together in a moment of musical spontaneity. We at SDA were delighted to be able to give something truly special to the attendees, kicking off the gathering with the same kind of Wow! factor that senior dining professionals deliver every day.

Dr. Dale Henry of Your Best Unlimited drew a standing ovation with a discussion about the value of customer service and It was clear that his energetic presentation spoke to the experiences of many in the audience.

The next highlight came as attendees roamed the expo floor, discovering new products and exploring emerging concepts across the spectrum of senior dining, from new technologies to creative food offerings. Laser-focused on the senior dining experience, the expo spoke to the very specific needs and interests of the crowd. Consultants and educators were on hand as well to explore new food products, sanitation, and a range of other key operational issues.

A general session on technology threw open wide the doors of innovation, as the gathered professionals addressed the dizzying advance of technology not just in the kitchen but across the senior living experience. We combed over the latest offerings, especially around the promise of automation. In the big picture, attendees explored the continuum of the dining experience, starting with residents placing orders in their apartments or interacting with a lobby kiosk, and continuing all the way through to the kitchen. It was exciting to consider the ways in which technology can work across the entire dining operation to drive efficiencies, manage costs and enhance the customer experience.

Chefs face off

Things got wild Monday night as three teams of “celebrity chefs” turned up the heat in a reality show-styled cook-off. They had 90 seconds to grab their ingredients and then it was off to the kitchens to build stellar entrees around themes like East-Meet-West, Comfort Food, and Not Your Resident Salmon. Between the hilarity and the bonding, everyone came away a winner, but special congrats go to:

· White Team: Winners - Ryan Wagner, Ohio Living & Mohamed Tarawneh, Retirement Unlimited

· Silver Team: Andre Smith, Commonwealth Senior Living & Brian West, Ohio Living 

· Gold Team: Christopher White, 5 Star Senior Living & Phillip Platoni, Southminster

For senior living executives used to juggling multiple tasks and diverse responsibilities, Tuesday morning offered a chance to show off. Everyone got juggling balls – literally, balls to juggle – and inspirational speaker Jen Slaw demonstrated what it takes to keep it all in balance. Team building can be a juggling act: Slaw showed how to make it work by utilizing the strengths and styles of each individual member to put successful collaborations in motion.

An interactive networking lunch drove home the theme of community, with seating designed to bring peers together. VPs got to commune with fellow VPs, while executive chefs compared notes and traded stories with their cohorts. Industry awards and recognitions helped further solidify the sense that we’re all in this together, working toward a common cause.

As if reality-show kitchen pyrotechnics and a keynote juggling act weren’t enough of a circus, a celebratory closing dinner included…a circus! Attendees enjoyed stilt-walkers, a sword swallower, aerialists and other talented performers in a full-on party that had everyone calling for more.

There will be more – next year. Plans already are in the works for the second annual conference and expo. In the meantime, we at SDA are delighted to hear back from this year’s attendees that they have returned to their jobs refreshed and energized, with a new feeling of community and a shared sense of mission. For the first time, this year, senior dining professionals found a place they could call home – a venue where shared concerns, best practices and creative solutions all were given voice. SDA is proud and honored to have helped make it happen, and we salute the attendees who brought their intelligence, their skills and their sense of fun to this groundbreaking event.