Ovation’s Stephanie Grade Creates Connections for Seniors

If Grandma Margaret could see Stephanie Grade now—living out her calling and life purpose to serve people and still applying lessons learned from when she was a little girl, tagging along at events her grandmother hosted at a Lincoln-area country club.

As regional vice president of operations for Ovation senior living communities and the leader of Omaha’s Heartwood Preserve senior living community, a day doesn’t pass before Grade thinks about something she saw her grandmother do when she was “touching tables”—a hospitality industry term for working the room, checking on every guest at every table and anticipating their needs during an event.

“She would pay me with Andes mints when I worked with her, and I still love them to this day,” said Grade, who learned at Margaret’s side when big bands and big dinner dances were all the rage. “She had this way of lighting up a room and finding that little something to make the night more fun and brighter. She would enliven a space, and I loved how she knew everybody and knew their stories. It was interesting to see how she connected with people, and I enjoyed that energy.”

Grade took that life experience and learned to “give a smile” at Iowa State University, where she switched early in her college career from microbiology to an immersive hospitality program where she worked as a banquet server and head waitress. That background served Grade well as she launched her post-graduate career in banquets and events management with John Q. Hammons Hotels and Resorts, at one time the largest full-service hotel developer in the U.S. with well-known brand names such as the Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites, Marriott, Radisson, and Sheraton. Over the next 15 years, Grade rose up the ranks of management in hotels and conference centers in Topeka, Kansas, LaVista, Nebraska, and Little Rock, Arkansas, before becoming general manager of the Embassy Suites and DoubleTree hotels in downtown Omaha.

Grade became a regional opener, launching new locations like the expansive Embassy Suites complex in LaVista. She stayed at Embassy Suites to oversee all events and catering in the complex’s two hotels and conference center—and learned many more valuable lessons along the way. “In that opening environment, you had to get the people right, and you had to prepare everyone for the realities of an opening environment and its instability,” said Grade, who grew up in Crete, Nebraska. “You learn how to frame it to be a positive experience. Giving realistic expectations and creating a culture that thrives on engaging in change. I always give the example that ‘the spoon will be in the right drawer today, but tomorrow it’s going to be in the left drawer, and the next day it’s going to be back in the right drawer.’ It was all about helping teams navigate an opening environment, because openings are managed chaos.”

As much as she thrived in the pace and change of the hospitality industry, Grade’s leadership in launching a career program for young adults with disabilities highlighted a missing element in her evolving career journey. “That gave me a first taste of purpose aligning with my work, and hotels weren’t fully filling my bucket from a values perspective,” Grade said. So, when she met with leaders at Avamere Living about developing and running luxury senior living communities, Grade found the place where her deep service background and skills found the perfect match for her passion for a purpose-driven career.

Grade opened the first Ovation Heartwood Preserve building in Omaha in 2019 and has overseen the growth of the campus that will add a new independent living community this summer. “I saw the move as an opportunity to align my personal passions with my profession,” said Grade, whose daughter Elaina was four at the time of the transition. “More than anything, I wanted my daughter to be proud of me and see me truly making a difference.” That’s because when Grade and her staff impact a customer now, it’s for more than night or two. “With senior living, you’re not having this momentary experience with somebody,” Grade said. “You have an opportunity to truly enhance someone’s final chapters and to ensure those chapters are amazing.”

Amazing is how Grade describes Heartwood Preserve’s new independent living experience that will soon join Ovation’s assisted living and memory care communities. The level of amenities at the senior living community near Omaha’s Boys Town is every bit as resort-like as Grade’s 4-star hotels. The 148 apartments and two penthouses are “smart” apartments that have been designed based on cutting-edge research in senior living and include an IT concierge onsite.

The new senior living community also touts resort amenities such as underground parking, a pool and spa, movement studio and fitness center, onsite exercise physiologist and physical therapy, a theater, golf simulator, two outdoor kitchens, and a robust life enrichment program. “We are bringing another perspective to the industry and bringing a level of service that hasn’t been here before,” Grade said. “We’re not playing Bingo here. We’re taking the experience to a valet level everywhere.”

That’s especially true in one of Grade’s sweet spots—food service. Ovation Heartwood Preserve will launch three new open-to-the-public restaurants, including a coffee shop by day/lounge by night and a finer dining restaurant with a private dining room and special wine wall designed for wine tastings. The dining options—which are four times the size of the national average in live-in communities—promise to deliver the same quality of dining experience as Ovation Heartwood Preserve’s current restaurant that brings in $150,000 of revenue from outside guests.

“That means my residents are having more family visitors and it makes the community more robust,” said Grade, noting another lesson learned from visiting Grandma Margaret in her assisted living community and not even considering staying for the food. “It makes it more fun and inviting and our residents are happier because of it. Here, we see people coming purposely to join Mom and Dad for steak night. It gives it a vibrancy and a connection that I don’t see in other communities. It’s really cool to see someone come on their lunch break to have lunch with Mom.”

Grade’s leadership has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Connie award (named after Conrad Hilton) for #1 hotel in the world for Embassy Suites three consecutive years, Ovation’s Sales Support Leader of the Year in 2022, Ovation’s Nicolete Leadership award in 2023, and a nomination for the 2023 Inspire: Visionary Award – Celebrating Women’s Achievements, which honors women who excel in their industries and contribute to the betterment of their communities.

Great leaders have great support, and Grade is quick to recognize those around her. “My husband, Shane, has supported me and my career for over 20 years,” she said. “He has walked alongside me in every endeavor, encouraging me. My teams have been successful in creating change and navigating complex challenges. I am known for building strong cultures, embodied by one of my catch phrases, ‘Executing with Excellence.’ I’m proud of what we’ve done—that people can feel the love when they walk in our building.”

Grade has no doubt that all of this would put a huge smile on Grandma Margaret’s face—building high-performing, values-driven teams and life-changing experiences for seniors who are living out the sunset of their lives. “I think she would be proud,” Grade said. “I think she would think it’s amazing that I am where I am. I think she would find it pretty cool that the spunky little girl who had the pigtails with the haphazardly cut bangs is spearheading a division in a company and really trying to make a difference just like she did.”

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