Travel Stop Industry Faces Challenges & Opportunities

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NATSO Connect 2024 opening keynote panel

From left: Lisa Mullings, Joe Zietlow & Tony Portera

ORLANDO, Fla. — Electric vehicle (EV) charging, inflation, digitization, consumers’ changing preferences and government overregulation — these are just some of the challenges and opportunities facing C-suite executives and key decision-makers in the U.S. truck stop and travel center industry.

As NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings pointed out during the kickoff to the organization’s NATSO Connect 2024 event, the United States has become the second-largest manufacturing economy in world. This was made possible through competition, property rights, trade and innovation. 

“A recent study found that one of the keys to success for those emerging economies was pro-growth government policy. The most successful emerging market economies were those where private-sector companies could come in, invest and compete. Another study of 29 emerging economies looked at barriers to entrepreneurship and found that government overregulation was one of those barriers. There was a positive and significant effect on investment in that economy when those barriers are removed,” she explained. 

In large part, NATSO exists to protect operators’ right to do business, Mullings added, noting that advocacy is the key to getting information to lawmakers.

[Read more: U.S. Adds 1,000-Plus EV Stations in Six Months]

“At every turn, the market opportunities that you experience are being shaped by government. It’s essential that you work to inform and educate your elected officials. A company can hire the best people, can meet its customers’ expectations, can make the right investments, but if the government makes bad policy, all of that doesn’t matter,” she expressed. “[Lawmakers] need the experience and the insights that you in this room have. Some of these lawmakers have never had experience with any kind of business, much less the troubles that are in our truck stop industry, so they don’t understand. It’s not usually about bad intentions, it’s just ignorance, and you can help us with that.”

Echoing the need to raise the industry’s collective voice amidst change, NATSO 2024 Chairman Joe Zietlow compared advocacy to each and every person having “a dash.” This is the line etched in the headstone or written in an obituary between the date a person is born and the date they die. The dash signifies the stories we tell, and the ones we are a part of, he noted.

“One thing I know about all of us in this industry and in this room is that we’re here to serve people. We care about others. We care about our customers. We care about our employees, our coworkers, our families and our businesses, which contribute to our dash,” he said. “We need to tell our stories about the work we’re doing and how we’re making a difference. We should be telling them in our communities and sharing them with our legislators.”

The chairman encouraged audience members to attend the upcoming 2024 NATSO Day on the Hill, which provides operators with the opportunity to meet their elected officials and educate them on the issues affecting the industry and business. The event will take place May 20-22.

“[Lawmakers] don’t know what they don’t know. At the same time, nobody knows more about your business than you do,” Zietlow said.

A Look Into the Future

As part of the keynote presentation, Tony Portera, managing director and partner at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), posed questions surrounding the theme of NATSO Connect 2024: The future. What will the truck stop and travel center of the future look like? What trends will shape this ideation? What trends will impact the future of mobility?

According to Portera, topical surveys conducted within the last five years show what major trends will shape the future of how truck stops and travel centers operate. They are:

  • EV charging — “Right now, we have a very small penetration of EVs. In the future looking toward 2035, if regulation and legislation doesn’t change, we’re going to be looking at almost a third of the fleet being alternative fueled or being at least hybrid in the way it is delivered on its power.”
  • Inflation — In addition to the price increases being felt by customers in stores, operators are feeling the weight of significant price increases from suppliers. “This is something that everybody needs to think about as they evolve their business as we spend a lot of time talking with our clients about the need to figure out ways to procure more efficiently.”
  • The emphasis on foodservice and merchandising — With consumers more willing than ever before to eat food from a convenience store or gas station, there is a shift in consumers wanting higher-quality fresh food at a lower price point. When it comes to merchandising, there are some brands where quality products and a strong offering resonates, Portera pointed out.
  • Digitization — “There are a number of things that are going to change, and we’ve all heard about the buzzwords of AI [artificial intelligence] and how we use technology, but getting smarter and doing more with less by using technology to help you get there is going to be critical for business success going forward.”

Taking these trends into consideration, Portera advised operators to ask themselves how they can make their sites more productive. To provide a fully balanced customer experience, the BCG executive left NATSO Connect 2024 attendees with these five takeaways:

  1. Further embrace customer eccentricity.
  2. Consider the broader value of your real estate portfolio.
  3. Invest in the future of mobility.
  4. Leverage digital tools to work smarter.
  5. Crack the code on digital connections with customers. 

NATSO Connect 2024 took place Feb. 18-22 in Orlando at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resort.

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