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In the 1990s, the mantra was truckstops weren't just for trucks.
In the early part of the 21st century, the saying goes a step further: Truckstops are not for trucks at all. An exaggeration? Perhaps only slightly.
The last decade watched rig-friendly truckstops open the door to a new and smaller guest, the all-purpose family vehicle — the "four-wheeler," in trucker parlance. The invitation meant an influx of quick-service restaurants, increased lot spaces for RVs and sedans, and bloated convenience stores stocked handsomely with year-round merchandise.
The disappearance of the traditional truckstop continues. One of the nation's largest travel centers, Flying J Inc. of Ogden, Utah, recently partnered with Shell Oil's refining and marketing arms to create a new kind of plaza, one that plays host first to traditional motorists and vacationing families. Truckers are an afterthought.
To make sure this was no fluke or misunderstanding, Chuck Shepherd, general manager of business development for Equilon and Motiva Enterprises LLC, underscored, "These travel plazas are not conventional truckstops in any sense of the word. Flying J travel plazas are intended to serve all motorists, whether they are driving cars, SUVs, RVs or trucks," he said.
"There are only so many trucks," Flying J operations vice president Jim Baker said matter-of-factly. "Cars will go on forever."
Unlike the company's larger 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot formats, these new, more agile units will occupy 7,000 square feet and rest along U.S. highways and interstates. "These units will have fewer diesel lanes and about five to seven showers instead of 12 at
our larger units," Baker said, explaining the scaleback in trucker amenities. Additionally, cars will enjoy as many as double the number of reserved spaces.
Already, Flying J has rebranded five of its 150 plazas to Shell with plans to build new units this year.
But it may be a bit premature to sound the death knell for traditional truckstops. A random survey of major travel plaza operators indicates wide-ranging profiles, some still dedicated to professional drivers, others shifting gears in favor of motorists.
"Of the major chains, we're the one whose niche has been and will continue to be the professional trucker," said David McClure, marketing director at Petro Stopping Centers, an El Paso, Texas-based operator of 55 travel plazas in more than 30 states. "Our niche is represented in our facilities. We have more parking, more showers and more seats in our restaurants. Everything we do is geared around the professional trucker."
McClure acknowledged most rivals have fattened their offerings in the past decade to appeal to four-wheelers and RVs. The changes are spurred by several factors, including increased car traffic, consolidation in the truck and fleet segment, and, most importantly, a dramatic decline in diesel margins, which have fallen in half since the late 1980s.
"All the truckstops are facing a soft economy," said McClure. "We're fighting for a smaller pie, which has put a lot of pressure on fuel margins. A lot of competitors have responded by shifting to the four-wheel. The problem with that is you alienate your key customer — the trucker. And that's something we're not prepared to do."
Petro has bolstered its trucker-based offering, including developing a proprietary frequent fuel card that ties rewards with usage. "From our standpoint," McClure added, "truck drivers get irate when they're going to spend $150 on gas and have to wait in line behind some guy buying $10 in unleaded. At the least, you need to have different entry points and you have to mix the groups as little as possible."
Finding the Mix
Traditional truckstop operators have always reaped their riches through handsome diesel profit, a practice that continues today. But the bargaining power has crossed from truckstop operator to the trucker, thanks to massive consolidation in the hauling industry. "You know why we've been switching strategies?" asked Michael O'Connor, director of advertising and public relations at 155-site TravelCenters of America in Westlake, Ohio. "It's all about the margins of diesel fuel. They have continued to erode and you can't make the money on it as you did 10 years ago. The margins are made on non-fuel."
Pocketing pennies on the gallon, companies like TA consciously opted to buttress their offering to cast a wider net aimed at the entire driving population. However, O'Connor added, "In no way are we abandoning our core customer, the trucker." As proof, he ticked off improvements the company has undertaken in trucker amenities such as loyalty cards and shower stalls.
O'Connor estimates truckers make up 75 percent of TA's sales. The company's goal is to forge a 50-50 balance between truckers and motorists. "But that doesn't mean losing trucker business," he quickly added. "It means growing the non-trucker side."
Greg Love, president of 130-unit Love's Travel Shops & Country Stores Inc. in Oklahoma City, Okla., attributes these changes to the struggle for survival. "You've got people today in the business, like Flying J and TA, spending a tremendous amount of money on new facilities," he said. "When you spend $5 million to $10 million on a location you have to do a lot of business and get a lot of people. Truck drivers are very important customers but they may not bring enough traffic for everyone. You have to get the bottom-line profit."
Love's operates some 70 travel centers, with revenues evenly split among haulers and motorists. Its offerings are weighted more in favor of families and vacationers. Love does not see the Flying J-Shell alliance as a further advance toward motorists. Rather, he considers it a company-specific strategy in a landscape of diverse operations.
"What you find in our industry," he said, "is we all have our niches. We all do some things differently," he said. "I don't know if what Flying J is going to be doing is another step further in the direction of the four-wheeler. The leaders have been continuing to target the 18-wheeler while trying to diversify to the four-wheeler."
According to Lisa Mullings, spokeswoman for the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, the organization's general membership is fighting to find the proper balance between catering to their standby truckers and luring new customers.
"Our members say truckers are still our bread and butter, but that they need to expand their business," she said. "Truckers seem to be of two mindsets concerning these changes. Some don't like the motorists and don't sit with them."
Walking that fine line, truckstop operators, she said, have taken steps to separate truckers from the travelers and tourists.
Adopting that "separate but equal" motif is 61-unit Williams TravelCenters, based in Nashville, Tenn. "We make sure there are different counters for the professional drivers," said spokeswoman Carol War. "There are sections for drivers, like the electronics department, the parts department. The area where we overlap is in the restaurants.
"You want to make sure you're catering to your business-to-business customers — your truck drivers, your fleets. On the other hand, you want more of a convenience store setup for your four-wheelers," she said, "In the end, it's the combination that makes it for us. That's our niche, that's our idea and we're picking locations that will match that."