Eleven Great Takeaways from the Great Ideas! Workshop at NATSO Connect 2023

Whether you were lucky enough to take part in the Great Ideas! Workshop at NATSO Connect in person or are learning about it from afar, here are 11 takeaways that can get your creative juices flowing.
Eleven Great Takeaways from the Great Ideas! Workshop at NATSO Connect 2023

Article created for the June digital issue of  

The popular Great Ideas! Workshop returned to NATSO Connect 2023 with truckstop and travel center operators coming together to share ideas and listen to a fireside chat moderated by Amy Toner, executive director of the NATSO Foundation, with panelists Stephanie Stuckey, CEO of Stuckey’s Corp. and a former politician from Georgia, and Dale Elks, general manager of Oasis Travel Center.

Whether you were lucky enough to take part in the Great Ideas! Workshop in Dallas or are learning about it from afar, here are 11 takeaways that can get your creative juices flowing.

  1. Connect with the Community: Elks works hard to market to his local community. “I have nine managers. Every week each manager goes out and meets two businesses. We take food or something from the travel center. That gets more of a local draw,” he said.
  2. Get Cashiers Involved: Each cashier at Oasis Travel Center gets $20 a shift to give to customers. “They can give them a free cup of coffee. We ring it up and track it,” Elks said. “We give that ownership to our cashiers, and they take it. When they do that, they go above and beyond.”
  3. Cultivate a Brand: For Stuckey, branding has been at the heart of building her family’s candy business, Stuckey’s Corp. “Branding is the story of who you are and why you do what you do,” she said. “If you’re not branding, you’re not promoting what you do, and if you’re not promoting, you’re not selling. If you’re not selling, you’re not making money.”

    (Tools to Develop Your Brand Strategy - Video and Worksheets: Are you struggling to develop your brand's niche to gain a competitive advantage? Look no further than this informative video overview by NATSO's Vice President of Branding and Marketing, Andrew Evans.) 
  4. Small Budgets Can Get Big Results: When Stuckey took over her family’s candy brand, the company was six figures in debt, and she didn’t have the funds to sink into marketing. Instead, she has relied on grassroots marketing, especially LinkedIn. “Every single major account we’ve gotten has been through LinkedIn,” Stuckey said. “The content spoke for itself, but it took a year and a half of posting every single day and telling stories that were unique, authentic and relevant.”
  5. Embrace Social Media: Both Stuckey and Elks said they use social media to promote their businesses. Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok have proven to be effective tools to connect with customers.
  6. Engage with Employees: Turnover is a pain point for most businesses, and Elks has a turnover rate of just 13%, which he said is almost unheard of in today's operating environment. Reducing turnover takes work, and Elks spends time getting to know his employees, which he said helps. He has lunch with a team member each day. “Not a manager, but the staff,” he said, adding that he trains new cashiers for 14 days. “You might be turning over in three weeks if you’re throwing them to the wolves because you're short-staffed, but you have to invest time in your staff.”
  7. Respond to Reviews: Elks said he monitors social media and responds promptly. “Don’t just start social media and then leave it alone. People are looking for interaction,” he said, adding that in the old days, an unsatisfied customer might tell five people about their experience. “Now they tell 500 people. When you see those fires, you have to turn into a fireman immediately to reverse that situation and get it fixed.”

    When responding to negative reviews, Elks first sends a private message and provides his cell phone number. “Literally, within two minutes, they call. Usually, they’ll take the post down, but I don’t ask them to.
  8. Spotlight Employees: During the workshop, members split into small groups and then shared their ideas with the room. One participant said he has boosted social media engagement by highlighting employees on posts. “If we put something out about Burger King, we don’t get much feedback, but if we post Mary has worked at Burger King for ten years, and we post a picture of Mary, we get 200 comments. That has helped our sales a little bit, too,” he said.
  9. Support Local Vendors: Elks has successfully partnered with local vendors of coffee mugs, honey and beer. “We have a huge wall of beer. There are five breweries in Mobile [Alabama], and I sell all their beers. Customers can do a mixed six-pack. We try to support as many local businesses as possible," he said. "You have to watch each other’s backs.”
  10. Create an Experience: Establishing and then building around an experience at a location can bring in customers, and one NATSO member shared his location’s experience with its dog park. “We have a dog park and interacting with customers helped us realize we could help the customer enjoy their stay even more by adding a shelter so people sitting there don’t have to be hot,” he said. “That got good reviews.”

    The location took it a step further by including 'dog park' in its messaging so if people it comes up on a Google search. "If they’re driving down 95 and searching, they know where to go,” he said. “We are creating an experience so people will pull off because of that option.” 
  11. Have Fun: Oasis Travel Center has embraced the concept of fun, which is evident in its interior. The location features a 1950 International Harvester tractor-trailer with the fuel desk in the trailer. From the outside, the Derailed Diner looks like three train cars crashed into it. Inside, there is a train car that is a 60-seat dining room, plus there is a school bus that leads workers into the kitchen. There are creative tables inside, including some that look like customers are sitting down at a tailgate. Plus, cashiers work in a giant pirate ship. “It is like going to work at Disneyland every day,” Elks said. “Who wouldn’t want to be at a cash register that looks like a giant ship? People are happy to be there.”

Gather more ideas on branding from Stuckey on the NATSO Foundation’s podcast in Creating a Strong Brand for Your Travel Center with Stephanie Stuckey, CEO of Stuckey's Corporation.


// This article was created for Stop Watch magazine, the magazine of the NATSO Foundation. The NATSO Foundation is the research, education and public outreach subsidiary of NATSO, Inc. The NATSO Foundation provides programs and products aimed at strengthening travel plazas’ ability to meet the needs of the traveling public through improved operational performance and business planning. Visit www.natsofoundation.org for more information. (Donate to the NATSO Foundation here.)

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