Creating something memorable during the holidays can set a business apart, delight customers and engage employees. What’s more, it can draw in the community, create a loyal customer base, and boost sales as customers get in the spirit and find unique gift items.
“I think the more events you celebrate, the better,” said Darren Schulte, vice president of membership at NATSO. “Why not allow people to be cheery, especially in this day and age? Embrace the holidays, and let everyone have some fun.”
Spread Holiday Cheer
NATSO members said they focus on giving back to the community during the holidays.
Wanda Sheffield, vice president at Miller Oil Co., said the location emphasizes the spirit of giving. Every November, the company has a Peanut Butter and Jelly Drive for the local food banks, and in December, it has a toy drive. The stores get to decide where the toys will go and have given to local churches, social service offices and homeless shelters.
Hat Six supports a Special Olympics fundraiser in town, said Tiffany Gamble, business adviser for the location. “Companies around town decorate trees for the community to buy or donate. Hat Six usually ends up purchasing a couple of trees. They deliver them right to our store the week after Thanksgiving, and it is a cool way for us to give back, but also get our store ready for Christmas each year,” Gamble said.
Holiday decorations are one sure way to add holiday cheer. “Every holiday we decorate the store to bring the holiday to life,” said Erin Breeden, merchandise manager for Hat Six.
Bill Decker, general manager for Davis Travel Centers, said he starts playing Christmas music on December 1. “This gets everyone in the holiday spirit,” he said.
Oasis Travel Center holds a Polar Express event each year the first two weeks in December in Oasis Travel Center’s Derailed Diner. “We hire actors to act out parts of the movie and give the kids tickets,” said Dale Elks, general manager for the location.
Elks talked about the event with fellow operators during NATSO Connect. “The kids are in their pajamas. They walk around. The conductor punches their tickets,” Elks said. “We give them an ‘I Believe’ bell,” Elks said.
After the children come off, Oasis Travel Center makes balloon candy canes and gives them hot chocolate and cookies. “It is a great way to give back to your community,” Elks said.
NATSO was lucky to have Elks on NATSO’s podcast The Truckstop Stops Here as well. Listen below.
To add some fun, Miller’s places Christmas trees in every store and has a roving Santa that gives out toys and candy one weekend in December.
Schulte knows of one store manager who made little bags of coal with a tag that said, ‘You’ve been a bad boy or girl.’ She’d sell them for a $1 a pop, but if someone gave an employee a hard time, she’d give it to them. “If the customer was in a bad mood, all of a sudden they started laughing and the employees loved it,” Schulte said.
Hat Six holds raffles for professionals and locals and has huge stockings that it gives away. “Every customer who makes a purchase can enter to win the stocking at Christmas,” Breeden said.
Customers also appreciate wrapping stations so drivers can wrap gifts they bought in the store. Schulte said a candy cane, hot chocolate or cup of coffee is an inexpensive way to show appreciation for drivers and cultivate cheer.
Offer Gift Items and Holiday Merchandise
Don Quinn, vice president of NATSO Solutions, said operators should use the holidays to capitalize on gift sales, especially if they can offer unique or fun items. “Customers may walk into your business headed straight to the bathroom and to get a snack but see a cool display that catches their attention. All of a sudden, it is like you flip a switch, and they want to see what else you have. You have to have that retailer mentality to draw them in,” he said.
When Quinn was at Sapp Bros., a driver stopped for fuel, came in to grab a snack, and he walked out with a $140 Red Ryder BB Gun. “In a comment card, the customer wrote, ‘I had no idea when I stopped for gas that I’d walk out with a $140 Red Ryder BB Gun,’” Quinn said. “That is an opportunity.”
Davis Travel Centers sets up a Christmas display with different gift items for guests in November. “We will buy dolls, trucks, a lot of remote cars and plush toys. I will then look at pampering items for the drivers’ spouses, and I buy a bunch of tools and a couple of toolboxes,” said Decker. “Last year, I bought two Go-Carts and sold them both.”
Decker said the No. 1 seller for kids is art sets. “Then we go to little kitchens and Black and Decker kids’ tool tables, which also sell pretty well,” he said. “The kids always get a kick out of the display as they walk around and look at all we have to offer.”
In addition to stocking a special section of kids’ toys for the holidays, Hat Six changes its food selections to include more seasonal flavorings. “We have pumpkin spice during the fall and other flavors during Christmas/winter,” Breeden said.
The holidays can be a stressful time for employees. “We’re 24/7, so we are working on those days. Make it fun for them,” Schulte said. “There are small things we can do that don’t cost a lot of money. Think about bringing in cupcakes or giving out a signed card from the owner or the manager for those working on Christmas.”
At Hat Six, the staff has a week of fun with an ugly sweater contest, cookie decorating contest and an ornament exchange, Breeden said.
Quinn suggests operators allow their staff to wear some holiday cheer, such as a Santa hat or a blinking lights necklace. “Customers walk in and see that person, and that is a positive,” he said.
Decker coordinates a Christmas dinner, and staff all bring in covered dishes. “I supply some ribs and a couple of large hoagie pizzas—and if you never had a hoagie pizza, you’re missing out. Then I will supply potato wedges, and our Popeye’s will provide chicken,” Decker said, adding that he invites drivers in to show them appreciation for all they do. “This gets big- ger every year, and it’s fun to do. All the employees are happy as well as our drivers.”
Schulte said operators don’t need to limit celebrations to the Thanksgiving to New Year’s season. “Why not celebrate Halloween, Flag Day, Boxing Day? During football, let your staff wear their favorite jersey,” he said. “I’m sometimes surprised by the lack of decorations at truckstops and travel plazas, whether it is Valentine’s Day, Easter or Christmas.”
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