The operators of the nation’s truck stops have quite a bit to consider these days, both as a segment and as players in a transcontinental market that has seen some game-changing consolidation in the past few years. As a group, they’ve had to become increasingly sophisticated to deal with fleet customers who now demand instant, online transaction reporting and back-office compatible interfaces. Then there are those customers on the front lines of the supply chain: the truck drivers, a diverse and demanding clientele indeed.
So where’s the business headed, and what can truck fleets and their drivers expect from these critical service providers both in the near term and in the coming decade?
Kelly Rhinehart, as co-owner and founder of Roady’s, spends time every day pondering where the trucking industry and his truck stops are headed. That encompasses everything from reconsidering restaurant layouts, to changes in freight delivery patterns, to how to handle trucks that run on electricity, and the potential impact of driverless trucks.
But while devoting some time to plan 10 or 20 years ahead will certainly pay off for those who get it right, truck stop operators first have to tend to today and the next quarter. Surprisingly, in these digital and connected days with new apps for everything, the trend in truck stops is decidedly retro.
A personal touch, it seems, is more important than technology when it comes to keeping truck drivers happy—although technology certainly plays an important role.
“We’re purposefully trying to be what drivers used to like about truck stops. And what they like is old school truck stops,” Rhinehart says. “They like the independence of being in Louisiana and having a ‘gator burger,’ but they also like to go up to Seattle and have the local coffee cake. They’re stopping in truck stops 2.1 times a day, and if it’s the same thing over and over, life gets pretty tedious.”
So for Roady’s locations, about 350 from coast to coast, managers feature the same 88% of offerings as the other stores, but they’re also directed to make that remaining 12% uniquely their own—“what sets you apart.”
“There is no opportunity to be less than world class in service,” he says. “That’s an absolute must.”
And that refocus on the customer is one of the positives that came out of the recession and trucking downturn from 2008-2010.
“We’re embracing the truck stop. Travel centers, travel plazas. That was all a hot button for several years. What we do recognize today is truck drivers are way more professional. That’s not their carriage or demeanor, but what’s expected by their employers is way different than it used to be,” Rhinehart explains. “Their time demands keep getting increased with all of the administrative things they have to stay on top of. They have computers on board and electronic logs.
“They don’t have to come into the truck stops to use the phones or rent a computer or even to use WiFi,” he continues. “There are lots of different opportunities for them to be connected with their families, their banks, everything. So we need to meet them where we are.”
Staying in touch
Rhinehart tells of a restaurant remodel whose business went down with the upgrade. Turns out, removing counter seats and adding booths wasn’t what truck drivers wanted.
“It makes you a better driver when you’re talking to a buddy, finding out what he’s doing and telling him what you’re doing,” he continues. “It makes the industry stronger, and those relationships can last.”
Roady’s routinely does parking lot surveys, and they’ve found that a lot of drivers never set foot inside the stores. “They get their fuel and they go to the parking lot. But we want those guys,” Rhinehart says. “How can we meet their needs?”
As a result, Roady’s has put employees in the parking lots trying everything from cleaning headlights to delivering a soda and a candy bar.
And that’s exactly the strategy adopted by North America’s largest truck stop chain. “Driver service champions,” or DSCs, are now out on the fuel islands and in the parking lots at 125 Pilot Flying J locations, reports Ken Parent, chief operating officer of Pilot Flying J. DSCs help direct traffic, solve problems with fuel transactions, and make sure the driver feels welcomed—and that his time is not being wasted.
"[We] have invested in technology to reduce the amount of time employees spend resolving transactions, freeing them up to spend time assisting customers."
— Ken Parent, chief operating officer of Pilot Flying J
From a facilities perspective, Pilot Flying J’s new concept focuses on presenting a clean, updated look and safe, comfortable feel. The PJ Fresh Marketplace, likewise, explores healthy choices in driver food options.
Technological innovations also are about providing choices to drivers, helping them get in and out quickly to be more productive in their workday—“whether they want face-to-face interaction, or to utilize the kiosk to print a receipt or reserve a shower.”
Similarly, the chain is rolling out a mobile point-of-sale device, a “line buster,” that will allow a roving store clerk to just swipe a customer’s card to complete a transaction. They’re also expanding an “assisted checkout” program to provide a fast and easy self-service option.
Customer service boost
Behind the scenes, Pilot Flying J has invested in technology to greatly reduce the amount of time employees spend resolving transactions, freeing them up to spend time assisting customers, Parent notes.
“We’re not taking the benefits of the technology to decrease our labor,” Parent says. “We’re actually increasing our customer service representatives.”
Indeed, this focus on the “personal touch” is becoming something of a “competitive differentiator” among the 2,500 or so truck stops across the United States.
Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO (formerly known as the National Assn. of Truck Stop Operators), explains that his organization recently did a “snap survey” of 100 or so truck drivers at a NATSO-member location. The operator thought the main selling point of his location revolved around maintaining low fuel prices.
Not so, notes Schulte. “The number one reason the drivers we surveyed said they selected this gentleman’s location? The friendliness of the staff,” he says. “Low fuel prices actually ranked third, with the quality of food in second place.”
"Historically, everyone tried to provide everything. Today, though, with the hours-of-service rule changes made several years ago, time is money. So now drivers and fleets stop based on whether they need just fuel and food or if a longer stop for maintenance or overnight parking is needed."
— Darren Schulte, vice president of membership for NATSO
Schulte also suggests that NATSO’s research indicates that the “fundamentals” make a huge difference in the truck stop industry today, with the personal touch packaged together with clean showers, clean facilities overall, and more focus on specific customer attributes.
“It’s really critical to understand the specific customers using your particular location,” he says. “Are they owner-operators or company drivers? Do you get a lot of pet owners?”
Schulte also notes that the truck stop industry is returning to its roots in a way by splitting into two distinct camps: the full-service facility and the fuel-and-go location.
“Historically, everyone tried to provide everything,” he points out. “Today, though, with the hours-of-service rule changes made several years ago, time is money. So now drivers and fleets stop based on whether they need just fuel and food or if a longer stop for maintenance or overnight parking is needed.”
Yet even the short-term fuel-and-go locations are deploying the personal touch, Schulte adds.
“One of our members developed a ‘food while you fuel’ option so [drivers] could place an order while refueling their truck. Then it gets brought out to them by a ‘truck hop’ server,” he explains.
“It’s a way to make that stop, however short in duration, a more friendly experience. And making it more personal may convince that driver and/or fleet to use that truck stop again down the road.”
Check your tires?
Speaking of returning to roots, many drivers today might be too young to remember when fuel pumps came with attendants dedicated to quick and convenient vehicle service. Those days are coming back for truckers.
About three years ago, a Love’s focus group suggested that tire care was a critical issue, and fleets and operators needed help making sure tires were properly inflated and the tread was up to spec. The tricky part, of course, was that drivers couldn’t be stuck sitting around while the tires were being rechecked.
The result is the TirePass program. Based on a technology that assesses tire pressure and tread depth with a handheld device, TirePass works from a dedicated fuel island.
When a truck arrives to fuel, an attendant connects all of the tires on the tractor and trailer to a tire inflation system on the island. The handheld device then communicates with the inflator, which fills the tires to the proper pressures. As the attendant removes the hoses, he checks the tread.
The software behind TirePass allows customers to set the tire specs for a vehicle or a fleet, so when a truck pulls up and its QR code is scanned, the inflation system is set accordingly.
And here’s the selling point: “All this happens in the time it takes the driver to fuel,” Dan Jensen, Love’s director of tire care, says. “When he’s done, we’re able to give him a report that gives all of the specifics of that visit. If a fleet is signed up, they’ll get reports that automatically let them know that they have a truck at a Love’s that has a specific tire out of spec. That gives them a chance to react to it, save some casings and some fuel consumption—all the things that come with proper inflation.”
TirePass is installed and expected to be operational at 90 locations by the end of summer in the first phase. Love’s is also exploring other services that might be offered at the island, although Jensen declined to reveal more details.
Going forward, new Love’s locations will be built with the TirePass lane, and current locations eventually will be retrofit with the system.
“These trucks are on the road all the time, and some of them—especially the trailers—don’t get back to the yards very often. So being able to keep [tabs on] casings, to track a tire through its entire life, has always been very tough,” Jensen says. “This idea was to ‘let us help you manage the tire from cradle to grave.’ The drivers appreciate it because it’s a hard, tedious job to check the tires every day. We can help make that easier for them.”
Integrating vehicle telematics, routing, and fleet management systems with truck stop data—whether customer loyalty information, fueling details, or maintenance—is an obvious opportunity.
But an area where truck stop operators are especially interested in helping themselves and, more importantly, the trucking industry overall, is providing information on the availability of parking spaces.
Safe parking solution
Indeed, technology already exists that can track parking spaces, keeping up with how many spots are available. With modern communications technology, truckers on the road should be able to check that parking availability.
According to Roady’s Rhinehart, the hurdle is that for such a solution to be truly effective, most if not all of the spaces along a lane would need to be in the database. And that will require cooperation among the truck stop groups and even state highway departments as a uniform standard is developed and shared. He estimates that Roady’s could develop the technology within a year, but he anticipates that an industry-wide deployment will take three to five years.
Likewise, Parent hinted that Pilot Flying J has some announcements in the works for later this year featuring new technologies “that provide easy solutions to help drivers be aware of where parking is available and where potential spots are to park that night.”
Pilot Flying J is also working on upgrades to its loyalty program, using technology to better target what’s important for each customer.
“Since we are large, we have over 60,000 driver panel touch points per month. So scale affords us the chance to get a tremendous amount of feedback from professional drivers,” Parent says, noting a driver app designed to gather customer reaction to service and offerings, and suggestions for improvement.
Next-generation truck stops, while maintaining the personal touch, also will continue the trend of expanding services.
Roady’s, which is in the same family of businesses as Truckstop.com and uDrove, has a number of “tech-y” solutions available to customers, including the ability to integrate with a trucking company’s dispatching software or TMS.
As for technology to benefit the owner-operator, the group touts itself as a “one-stop shop” for not only truck stop services, but for load matching, decision-making tools, and factoring and financing.
In addition to opening more locations, Love’s is expanding offerings as well, including financial services, CNG fueling, adjacent hotels, or just rolling out on-site storage facilities. “We’re looking outside of just the travel stops,” spokeswoman Kealey Dorian says. “How can we serve drivers? We continue to examine how we can broaden what we offer.”
The truck stop business will continue to evolve along with the trucking industry, of course.
“Truck stops made a ton of money off of pay phones once,” Rhinehart recalls. “Then we turned the phone rooms into computer rooms. Now they’re TV rooms or workout rooms.”
Certainly, the business has come a long way from the days when load boards were literally that: bulletin boards with load offerings pinned to them. Then came the electronic listings and drivers racing each other from the television monitor to a pay phone, all chasing the same load.
So Roady’s is keeping an eye on the growing trend in shuttling freight and last-mile handoffs. Possibilities range from making parking lots more convenient for trailer drops to actually operating local delivery fleets.
Pilot Flying J, likewise, is on the lookout for new opportunities. “How do we leverage technology to make it easier for the professional driver in everything that they do?” Parent concludes. “We understand the importance of the role the driver has in moving freight across America. There is a driver shortage, and we can help by just providing a great experience, showing a generous amount of hospitality, and being a home away from home in addition to a safe environment.”