Five Takeaways From NATSO Connect 2024

An elevated customer experience, electric vehicles and automation were key topics at the annual event.
truck stop sign on highway

ORLANDO, Fla. — Today's consumers have more choices than ever regarding what to buy and where to shop, but above all else, they are looking for an elevated experience. The truck stop and travel center industry can set itself apart by being a reliable source of freshly made food, unique offerings and a seamless shopping experience.

NATSO Connect 2024 brought together operators and key decision-makers to network and discuss both the business challenges and opportunities poised to shape the U.S. travel center landscape in 2024 and beyond.

Here are some of Convenience Store News' key takeaways from the event:

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1. The Electrification of EVs

According to Tony Portera, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, there is currently a small penetration of electric vehicles (EVs) in the industry. However, looking toward 2035, if regulation and legislation remain unchanged, nearly a third of fleets will be alternatively fueled or at least be hybrid.  

2. Destination: Discovery

Truck stop and travel center operators can set themselves apart from the competition with a merchandising strategy that lends itself to customer discovery. Partnerships with local farmers markets, for example, can help retailers become destinations for food, beverages, crafts and other merchandise. 

3. The Future is Foodservice

Polly Flinn, founder and principal of Flinnstone Consulting, predicts future travel centers and truck stops will operate like restaurants over the next five to 10 years. "One of the things I want you to think about is that today, you actually manage and operate most of your fuel business. My hypothesis, or my suggestion, to you going forward is that you should be thinking about the same thing with food — that you should be controlling that supply chain. You should be controlling that offer. Maybe not all of it, but some of it, and you should be moving your business in that direction," Flinn told attendees.

4. Connecting With Customers

Attaining loyal customers isn't so simple. In modern society, personal information is so important because everyone wants it. Harman Aulakh, vice president of marketing at Onvo, a regional travel center and convenience store retailer that operates 39 locations throughout Pennsylvania and New York, shared how the chain recognizes, engages with and rewards its customers. 

When a customer signs up for Onvo's rewards program, the retailer collects a sufficient amount of data, which is utilized to drive personalized offers so that customers feel they are gaining something from the personal data they are giving up.

"We make sure we customize messages with some personal touches and deals on days like customers' birthdays and the anniversary of their sign-up date, so they can feel like, 'Alright, Onvo knows this about me. I gave them this information and I'm getting something back for that.' Because if you're going to ask people to give up personal information, you have to make it worth their while," said Aulakh.

5. Automation is Everywhere

Automation and digitization are shaping nearly every industry, including trucking and highway-based businesses that serve drivers. An Ernst & Young report entitled "Embracing the Automation Revolution in Trucking," which was prepared for the NATSO Foundation, revealed that a world in which automation becomes the norm in the trucking industry is already beginning to emerge. The report cited: 

  • Fleets are using artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize routes, which is increasing fuel efficiency and removing wasted miles. 
  • At truck stops, AI-supported technologies such as chatbots, virtual personal assistants and image recognition are being adopted.
  • Robotics is helping operators automate tasks and redirect labor to responsibilities that directly benefit customers.

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

About the Author

Danielle Romano

Danielle Romano

Danielle Romano is Managing Editor of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2015. Danielle manages the overall editorial production of Convenience Store News magazineShe is also the point person for the candy & snacks and small operator beats.

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