Lessons from Around the Globe

“The biggest takeaway was that, uniquely, we all have similar problems and similar answers,” said Dan Alsaker, Broadway Truck Stops, who participated in the tour.


Lisa Mullings/NATSO

What happens when independent operators leave their businesses in the U.S. and connect with their peers from 22 different countries? They get the opportunity to visit some of the most innovative retail and petroleum formats abroad and walk away with new ideas and insights that they can apply to their operations.

In September, NATSO members traveled to Dublin and London as part of NATSO’s International Study Tour. In addition to site visits, operators took part in interactive presentations, exhibitions and video case studies.

“The biggest takeaway was that, uniquely, we all have similar problems and similar answers,” said Dan Alsaker, Broadway Truck Stops, who participated in the tour. “It was amazing to be able to talk to people who were experiencing or had experienced things that we’re in now.”

Alsaker said he enjoyed being able to learn from his international peers. “I was enamored with the South Africans and Asians and how far they had pushed the envelope in terms of convenience for their customers. The automation, the freshness of food products, the training, it was all superior to what I’m currently doing as an independent operator,” Alsaker said.

Other NATSO participants included Bobby Berkstresser, Vesuvius, Inc., Tom Heinz, Coffee Cup Fuel Stops, and Robin Puthusseril, Greater Chicago I-55. NATSO President and Chief Executive Officer Lisa Mullings and Pamela Hayes, NATSO vice president of strategic partnerships, also attended the tour.

NATSO Website Extra!


Tour participants had their cameras along on the trip and have graciously shared their photos with NATSO. To view the slideshow, click here

Fresh perspectives on food
Operators told Stop Watch they were impressed with the wide variety of fresh food offerings they saw during site visits.

“You saw employees in pressed, neat, clean uniforms offering you non- traditional meats, condiments, freshly made egg salad sandwiches among other homemade non-traditional, unexpected food,” Hayes said.

Alsaker said about one-third of a c-store’s offerings included fresh foods in addition to their sandwich and quiche offerings. “In some cases, that was all manufactured off-site, especially if it was a chain, but most of the places we saw had kitchens on-site, so they were baking and assembling fresh each day,” he said. “So many of our products are frozen and then we bring them to room temperature or NATSO attendees on the tour take a minute to digest all they have learned. Attendees inspected the fuel pumps abroad. reheat them.”

Alsaker noted that the younger generation of customers in the U.S. make a point of seeking out freshness and quality.

“I have to start rethinking how I get the convenience food to go,” Alsaker said.

At Berkstresser’s locations, salty snacks are one of the biggest movers. “Over there, you can find almost no salty snacks. They have a lot healthier choices. Fresh prepared foods are a huge business,” he said.

Tech tools of the trade
To improve their customers’ experience, the international business owners NATSO members met embraced new technologies.

“We saw flat-screen TVs offering daily specials or upselling something unique in the store. The screens were strategically placed and really struck a chord with how easy it is to reach your customer while they are standing at the ATM or standing at the candy aisle,” Hayes said.

Alsaker was impressed with a product that removed the opportunity for robbers and inside embezzling in terms of cash-handling. “It is a dispensing machine, and it is tied into the POS system and the islands. You identify what pump you are on and it will tender cash, read the cash, lock the cash up and give you change if need be. The cash is in a locked canister and neither the robber nor the cashier would have access to it,” he said.

Small wonders
Because land is expensive in Dublin and London, operators made excellent use of the space they do have.

Berkstresser said, “They’re a lot better at utilization than we are. You’ll take what would be a c-store over here and it will have a deli, a very nice coffee area and a Burger King in it.”

To help maximize space, operators did small things, such as using upright ice cream boxes versus the lay down boxes Berkstresser uses at his location. “Their presentation is absolutely gorgeous and there is no lost room,” he said.

In some locations, operators had turned corners of their businesses into small café settings. “These were great and filled a need for busy travelers. Even though you may have been in a convenience-store size business, the owners did not settle for the standard offering in a small square footage,” Hayes said.

Berkstresser is preparing to expand his c-store. “I changed the kind of fixtures I will put in based on what I saw over there,” he said.

Hayes said, “The lines were long, and it showed all of the study tour participants that you do not have to be the biggest store on the block — or highway — but the most unique or delightful.”

She suggests that NATSO members spend some time finding food and specialty items indigenous to their area, state or region, which travelers will seek out. That creativity will make them remember the business.

Hayes said, “Owners should walk through their businesses and ask themselves, ‘What is the item, offering, that I provide that’s memorable?’ If they are having trouble finding that something, then its time to rethink their food or merchandise and get busy finding that niche.”

Inspiring examples
NATSO members who took part in the tour all noted how energy efficient the locations were.

For example, one location had zero landfill because everything is recycled, and several locations use skylights on the canopy and collect rainwater to run the toilets.

“They’re doing the same thing we’re doing in terms of trying to cut expenses and one of the best place is to cut expenses in energy waste and energy consumption,” Alsaker said.

As a result of ideas she obtained on the tour, Puthusseril hopes to improve her communication with drivers. She noticed that her peers in the United Kingdom and Ireland work hard to educate their customers.

“They communicate quality, mission and core values in writing, right where the customer shops,” Puthusseril said. “I’d love to educate our customers more and be able to demonstrate our core values by what we sell. There is great value in communicating with our drivers and letting them know why we offer certain products over others.”

While operators walked away from the tour with concrete ideas and examples, Puthusseril said it was the experience itself that meant the most to her.

“What stands out most from the trip was the opportunity to learn, think, be creative and be inspired by all that I saw and experienced,” she said.


The next NATSO International Study Tour will be Sept. 24-28 in Norway, London and Paris.

“A study tour gives you a learning experience like no other,” Hayes said. “Don’t discount what you can learn from others, and be ready to step out of your comfort zone by traveling to another country. You will be very glad you accepted this adventure!”

The unique event will again bring the industry together and offers convenience and gas retailers from around the world a unique look into best practices in the advanced European market. The 2012 tour begins in Oslo, Norway, with hosted retail study tours, followed by the Future of Convenience conference and exhibition in London.

Members should register through NATSO to receive the NATSO member discounted rate of GBP 1680 plus VAT tax (estimated $3,158).

Click here for more information on NATSO's International Study Tour.


Join the conversation! Are you seeing some of these trends at your location? Have you visited truckstops abroad? Please share in the comments below.



This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations and provides context on trends and news affecting the industry.

The magazine is mailed to NATSO members bimonthly. If you are a member and not receiving Stop Watchsubmit a request to be added to the mailing list. Not a memberJoin today or submit a request to receive additional information.

Subscribe to Updates

NATSO provides a breadth of information created to strengthen travel plazas’ ability to meet the needs of the travelling public in an age of disruption. This includes knowledge filled blog posts, articles and publications. If you would like to receive a digest of blog post and articles directly in your inbox, please provide your name, email and the frequency of the updates you want to receive the email digest.