As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues — even accelerating in most states — truck stops are keeping up with drivers' needs while keeping them and staff as safe as possible. The facilities are accomplishing this by making sure that everyone is adhering to best practices guidelines, updating and expanding the use of mobile apps and offering more grab-and-go foods to help drivers spend less time inside.
"The Pilot Flying J app is a helpful tool for guests and professional drivers to use any time, but especially now to limit contact at stores and help stay safe and healthy," Jason Nordin, Pilot's chief operator, wrote in an email to FleetOwner. "With the Pilot Flying J app, drivers can handle business and get the services they need from the safety and convenience of their phone. For example, in the app drivers can book shower and parking reservations, conduct mobile fueling, redeem loyalty points or offers and access receipts at any time. The Pilot Flying J app is the way to make the most of stops with us, especially when logged in with a myRewards account."
The COVID-19 pandemic has also created financial instability for owner-operators and some fleets. "In April, knowing the importance of access to credit in the trucking industry, we introduced the Axle Fuel Card with more rewards and flexible credit solutions for fleets of all sizes," Nordin said. The card is accepted at more than 950 locations in the U.S. and Canada, including Pilot Flying J Travel Centers, the One9 Fuel Network and at Pilot Flying J Truck Care Service Centers. There is no transaction, account management, annual or other hidden fees, he added.
"Professional drivers will also receive perks when using the card at the pump with one bonus loyalty point per gallon at Pilot Flying J locations and two bonus loyalty points per gallon at One9 Fuel Network locations," he added.
In response to drivers' requests, Tina Arundel, director of communications at TravelCenters of America, said TA is offering more app-based perks as well as no longer restricting drivers to using kiosks for redemptions. They can do it at point-of-sale locations.
"Soon, drivers can redeem their UltraONE Loyalty points for more things through the TruckSmart app,” she told FleetOwner. “We know drivers enjoy using the TruckSmart app to redeem points for showers, parking and WiFi. Drivers will now be able to use the TruckSmart app to redeem points for meals in restaurants, merchandise and food in our travel stores."
Drivers will no longer have to stop at TA kiosks to print certificates before they check out, Arundel said, assuring that drivers can convert points to currency, “down to the penny.”
She added: "Another initiative we're doing is Pump Smart where Ultra One members can initiate use of the fuel pump using their app. They can select the fueling location and check lane availability. Pump Smart will be available in the TrustSmart mobile app. This is all part of our efforts to expand the use of mobile apps and increase contactless options."
Delia Moon Meier, senior vice president of Iowa 80 Group says that the Walcott, Iowa, truck stop is fortunate to have a lot of room both inside and out which helps with social distancing. "At the Iowa 80 Kitchen, before (the pandemic) it would seat 350 people," she told FleetOwner. "Now the tables have to be spread apart, but we still have a giant restaurant, with 30-foot ceilings, and over-done air conditioning and heat… It's easy to social distance there."
Meier, who is also chairman of National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), said that the truck stop is doing a lot more grab-and-go orders than before the pandemic.
Winter is coming, too
While they're still dealing with the pandemic, truck stops are also gearing up for winter which can present additional challenges. "At Walcott, we've got heated sidewalks," Meier noted. "The driver's den has a fireplace in it and so does the restaurant. It feels cozy."
Of course, some food choices are changing with the season. "At Pilot Flying J, a specially-sourced Nicaraguan coffee that can be brewed on-demand with bean-to-cup and a peppermint mocha creamer makes the perfect winter cup," Nordin said. "In November, we will be rolling out new beef stew soup, wild and zesty wings and a three-cheese smoked chicken pizza." The company is also prepared to help professional drivers and their trucks be winter-ready with increased inventory on cold-weather products such as coolant, tires, tire chains, additives, winter wiper blades and fuel-water filter separators.
"We start preparing in September and October for the wintertime," added Arundel. "The stores have plenty of winter fuel additives, washer fluid, and tire chains. We try to ensure that our locations in areas where trucks require chains are adequately stocked with product...We have a ton of winter essentials, like snow brushes, wiper blades, air coils, but also items like clothes, blankets, gloves and thermal blankets."
Travel Centers has recently re-opened its driver lounges. "We have everything social-distanced and have increased our strict cleaning procedures. It's a place for drivers to relax and unwind during their downtime."