Wendi Powell, co-owner of Big Boys Truck Stop in Kenly, North Carolina, knows that travel centers need to be all things to all people, and she tries to create solutions that appeal to all types of customers, whether they are locals, the traveling public or professional drivers.
“The more creatively we can make the mix work, the better for us,” Powell said.
Although convenience and time are always important, local customers love favorites while travelers like experiences. “It's my goal to create a mix,” Powell said.
At Busy Bee, a regional chain of travel centers in Florida, local customers are in the store weekly and form close relationships with the locations and teams. “We see them coming in to not only to fill up their cars, but also meet daily/weekly needs from grocery items to our locally made cakes,” said Elizabeth Waring, president of Busy Bee. “However, with our traveling guests the needs slightly vary. When they stop in at our facility, they are there to fill a more immediate need. We have tried to build those relationships so that as they travel they look to us first to fill that—or empty that.”
Hat Six Travel Center, based in Evansville, Wyoming, works hard to reach all three of its customer segments, which it categorizes as travelers, locals and professional drivers. “We have our store somewhat segmented to appeal to all three customers,” said Tiffany Gamble, owner and president of the location.
Chuck White, vice president, brands and marketing for DAS, said it is important for operators to get to know their customers—whether it is a trucker, leisure travel or mobile business person. “How often do they travel and who are they and where are they going? Professional truck drivers are more than 90 percent male, versus the traveling public or commuter, which is 50 percent male,” White said.
Several travel plaza and truckstop operators told Stop Watch they reach out to different customers through unique food solutions and merchandising.
Following Their Path
Looking at how customers move through the location can help operators position items in a way that drives sales. “I tend to think of the path of when each customer leaves the fuel pump and what is their next destination. If it is highway, the next stop is the restroom, so what is the path from the pump to the restroom and then the ready-to-serve beverage or beverage cooler. If I want to get an impulse purchase with general merchandise, I have to get them on that path,” White said.
To improve its merchandising to the traveler, staff at Hat Six talks to current customers and tries to envision what they are doing when they leave the location and what they will need. “We have a lot of RV’ers, campers, fishermen, huntsmen, etc. In our store, we have a camping/RV section and we have also submitted Hat Six for authorization to sell fishing licenses and off-road vehicle licenses. Anything we can do to truly make our store a one stop shop.”
Meeting Customers’ Needs with Food
Food and beverages are often a top priority for travel plaza customers. Hat Six has a large selection of freshly made grab-n-go products for both travelers and the locals. “Both segments love the fresh, healthier options, as well as our selection of fruits and veggies. All of our deli items are made fresh daily. It truly does make a difference and our customers can tell,” Gamble said.
Busy Bee keeps its coolers stocked with grab-and-go items, such as salads and sandwiches, that are easy for traveling guests to pick up when they stop in. “Similarly, our local guests will stop by to get them for a lunch break or to take home,” Waring said.
Busy Bee also sells reusable cups that have a discounted refill. “Most of our local guests will bring these in when getting their fountain drinks. Our traveling guests will purchase these as a souvenir of their trip. In addition, we have Yeti cups for sale and a fountain frequency cards,” Waring said.
Powell said locals need the constant affordability of eating out while travelers are refreshed by the change of options. “We want it to feel like a unique local business they came upon that wowed them by the quality and choices. When's the last time you were traveling and stopped to find fresh cooked pork tenderloin in a mushroom gravy with fresh corn and cabbage? Or maybe beef tips and rice with lima beans and field peas? We love surprising people with how great the food is here,” Powell said.
Big Boy’s newest restaurant is a sandwich shop called Wrapideli, which features wraps, sandwiches and subs. “Our bakery has homemade items, such as turtle brownies and peanut butter or chocolate mint,” Powell said.
Big Boy’s also offers sit-down service at its Lowell Mill Restaurant that features traditional food, such as a hamburger steak, as well as creative items, like its Joey burger that has BBQ pork and onion rings on it. “The food has to be from a quality base of what everyone loves but turned out in unique options,” Powell said.
Lowell Mill Restaurant has added an all-you-can-eat buffet to a cafeteria style food bar. “We have so much less in food cost and are able to offer a great price for a meal,” she said, adding that locals love that they can get just a small plate or add a fresh salad bar to the meal. “We see this as a bridge to the next generation.”
Big Boys stays away from quick-serve foods with a lot of preservatives. “We have seen repeat travel business because the customers find a great place worth taking fifteen more minutes for. We like fresh food fast here,” Powell said.
Big Boys has a great local crowd on Sundays and special occasions. “We do a lot of catering with our local college and other businesses in the area—our chambers and schools. On special days, like Easter, Christmas and Mother’s Day, we put on white linens and call ourselves the only five- star travel center on the road.”
Some operators find that partnering with an established brand can help at- tract customers, whether they are local or traveling down the highway. Cindy Martin, director of non-traditional development for IHOP, said the national restaurant chain is focusing on bringing its food to places the company hasn’t traditionally served, such as travel centers, and it has multiple options for its industry partners, including its traditional sit-down experience as well as an express offering that provides faster service.
“All of the normal restaurant trends are applying to the travelers with a layer of speed and they love getting a comfortable place to sit. It becomes a place of respite driven by a shorter service than a traditional service,” Martin said, adding that IHOP’s consumer studies have shown that travelers are looking for an upgraded experience. “They know they are going into a travel center and they want something fresh.”
National brands also appeal to locals. “Locals are excited the brand is there,” Martin said. “We invest so much into advertising, it has driven top-of-mind awareness for us. In the travel center, the local customer wants what they see from IHOP. The traveling public is looking for something trusted and known and maybe a newer of more elevated experience than the traditional travel center offering.”
Limited time offers can help bring locals in. “This isn’t just a pass through once a week or once a year. This becomes a bit of their regular rotation where they get experiences or food,” Martin said.
IHOP also encourages its local operators to recommend items that are special to a region that they’d like to offer. “The locals want to feel like it is part of the community and their place and that is a way our brand can do that easily,” Martin said. IHOP can also create a trucker’s counter for those individuals that are looking for their own little community. “There is this bridging of the old and the new and not forgetting what the professional driver desires,” Martin said.
Because speed of service is increasingly important, IHOP has launched technology to allow customers to order online and pick up for takeout. It is in early arrangements for delivery services, such as Amazon and Door Dash. “The need to have immediate order options or variety through payment solutions is happening through every neighborhood in this country,” Martin said.
Offering Unique Merchandise
Waring said she likes to fill Busy Bee’s stores with a wide variety of products customers don’t normally find at a convenience store. “From freshly made fudge to quirky gift items, we want to not only be a spectacular bathroom break but also a happy destination on a traveler’s trip or to your local hangout,” she said. “Some favorite items of our traveling and local guests are our handmade truffles, beef jerky, locally made cakes and our private label gourmet foods.”
Travelers are also often looking for items for a friend or family member to take home for themselves. “We make sure to keep a plethora of gift items for all occasions stocked in our locations. Our local guests stop in with us for their gift needs as well but will also pop in for their everyday essential items,” Waring said.
White said that for professional drivers, nutrition and hygiene are the first things they think of, then they turn to supplies they need on the road.
“It could be truck supplies, electronic supplies, travel gear or a heated blanket,” White said. “On the trucker side, their cab is their home on the road.”
Professional drivers are also looking for things to keep them occupied. “Increasingly they’re very digital, downloading movies and streaming content. They’re more likely to need to buy a Bluetooth speaker, earbuds, or things to accessorize their tablet or smartphone whether it is for work or for play,” White said.
However, electronics can appeal to all customers. “Impulse in general merchandise is in electronics accessories— headphones, earbuds, chargers. Those tech accessories are increasingly part of how we work and play,” White said.
Customers traveling on the highway often want things to help them travel comfortably and safely, such as neck pillows and blankets, White said. “Travelers are also interested in the gift and toy category as well as maintenance items,” he added.
The proximity of a location to construction sites, business districts or industrial parks can shape the number of customers who come in during the lunch hour. For people working
in trades, their truck is their mobile office. “They may need a small digital mouse for their laptop or a stylus for their tablet,” White said.
Promoting Cross-Over Items
In many cases, the items travelers and locals want are the same, Gamble said. “Sometimes the local does just need to grab something quick for dinner and the traveler is getting something for the camping trip, but they are the same items. We do have the variety—not only in product categories but also in flavors and sizes, so the customer can get exactly what they need,” she said.
For products that appeal to both professional drivers and travelers, White suggests placing them on the consumer half of the store because both audiences have a probability of shopping the area.
Busy Bee’s employees stay current on guests needs by spending time in the stores talking and listening to them. “Our teammates are also in an invaluable resource by communicating with us trends or needs they see,” Waring said, adding that Busy Bee also invests time and resources by sending its team to shows to stay on trend.
Gamble said Hat Six’s merchandiser is very involved with the fuel desk and the store, which helps her stay current on what the customers need. “She will fill in on the register when needed and she interacts with the cashiers on a daily basis. The cashiers are really great about leaving notes to let us know what the customer is needing,” she said.
Powell told Stop Watch that Big Boy’s is an ever-evolving business. “We love that change is a good thing,” she said. “As our next generation comes on board full force we are grateful for the years of experience and the iconic reputation that’s been built. We hope to stay a favorite for a long time to come.”
Photo credit: Busy Bee, Hat Six, Big Boys
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