Trends and Priorities Affecting the Truckstop and Travel Plaza Industry

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As industry suppliers, your success and profits are linked directly to the success of the nation’s truckstops and travel plazas, which in turn is directly tied to the success and needs of the trucking industry.

During The NATSO Show in Savannah, Ga., trucking industry experts and truckstop operators said everything from driver health concerns and hours-of-service regulations to increased fuel efficiency and changes in the length of haul are changing the way they operate.

History shows that the offerings and business operations at truckstops and travel plazas shift as their customers’ needs change. The most successful operations work to stay current on industry trends and remain flexible enough to adjust accordingly.

"We’ve evolved because we had to. If you aren’t willing to change, you won’t be successful," said Jimmy Haslam, chief executive officer of Pilot Flying J while addressing attendees. 

Hours of Service
Truckstop operators and carriers alike are waiting to see how upcoming changes to the hours-of-service rule will affect them. Changes are slated to take effect on July 1, and will restrict how drivers can use the optional 34-hour restart to reset their weekly driving limits of 60 hours in seven days, or 70 hours in eight days. Drivers will be able to use it only once every seven days, and it must include two periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The new regulation also requires drivers take a half-hour rest break before driving more than eight hours.

Operators and trucking executives said the mandatory 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. rest periods could create parking challenges and additional traffic congestion as drivers hit the road at the beginning of rush hour.

Due to a number of concerns, the American Trucking Associations is challenging the rule and will argue its case on March 15. The association expects the court to issue a decision in late May or early June.

Driver Health
Chris Stephens, director of pricing for Bigg G Express, told attendees at The NATSO Show that driver health is a top priority for the carrier. The carrier holds weight-loss contests for drivers, giving cash prizes to those who lose the most weight in an eight-week period. 

"We have an on-site exercise facility for our drivers. We have also changed out our vending machines to healthy food and beverage choices. We think that is a big issue for this industry," Stephens said, adding that the carrier would promote locations where drivers could exercise or walk outdoors if they wanted to. "We do have drivers that will run and that may be something they could do in a designated area at a truckstop," he said. 

Length of Haul
The average length of haul for carriers is changing, which is also shifting drivers’ needs. "The average length of haul used to be 750 miles, now it is 500 miles and all of you make money from selling fuel to those people," said Bob Costello, chief economist at American Trucking Associations during his keynote presentation at The NATSO Show.

Costello said that shorter length of haul means that most freight will not be converted to the railroad despite the railroads’ efforts to gain market share. "Trucks and trains compete on a very, very limited basis. Truck freight is not going to be converted to the railroads if it doesn’t go at least 500 miles and there are people out there who say it needs to go closer to 750," Costello said.

In addition to shorter lengths of haul, carriers are becoming more fuel efficient due to diesel exhaust fluid and new aftermarket equipment, such as trailer skirts. Haslam said growing gallons may be a challenge. "I don’t know how much the pie is going to grow and I think it is going to shrink a little bit," he explained, adding that it is crucial to control costs.

Haslam recommended his fellow operators focus on their niche. "If you have 1-2 stores, what is your niche? Maybe you’re in an oil field area where things are growing quickly. It could be that you have an all-star restaurant or a great shop. Maybe you’re in a state where you have gaming," he said. "I think it is really important to find your niche and determine what you do better than anyone else."

As industry suppliers, you have a unique opportunity to help your customers find and promote their niche offerings.

Passenger Travel
Pete Pantusso, chief executive officer, American Bus Association, said bus travel is on the rise, which can result in increased business for truckstop and travel plaza operators. "The bad economy over the last few years has been good for the bus community," he said. "The industry has historically grown 5 to 7 percent a year."

Pantusso said that when busses are out on the road, one of the things that attracts them to a travel plaza is passenger amenities. "Whether it is a Burger King or Subway or clean restrooms or a maintenance shop that does small minor repairs, those are the things that appeal to them. They also like if you’re easy access in and out of a major metropolitan area," Pantusso said.

Industry suppliers may be able to help operators tap into the growing travel segment of the industry by introducing them to new offerings that appear to passengers.

{HBMHighway Business Matters is a brief semi-monthly newsletter created exclusively for companies that provide products or services to the truckstop and travel plaza industry. Highway Business Matters will keep you informed on trends, tactics, and tips to help you connect to the $65 billion truckstop and travel plaza industry. 

Help tailor Highway Business Matters to meet your needs by sharing your feedback and story ideas. Send your input to: atoner@natso.com.

Mindy Long's photo

Mindy Long

Before launching a full-time freelance career, Long edited NATSO's Stop Watch magazine. Prior to that Long worked as a staff reporter for Transport Topics, a weekly trade newspaper, covering freight transportation, fuel and environmental issues. In addition to covering the transportation sector, Long has written, reported and edited for a variety of media outlets. She was the Washington correspondent for WCAX-TV (CBS) in Burlington, Vt., a criminal court reporter in Chicago and a freelance copy editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington D.C. Long hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.More
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