Key Takeaways From NATSO Connect 2020

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Key Takeaways From NATSO Connect 2020

By Renée M. Covino, Convenience Store News - 02/25/2020

DENVER — Just as truckers forge through all kinds of weather, truck stop and travel plaza operators braved three days of snow to convene at the NATSO Connect 2020 conference, held at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center, just outside of Denver.

The event featured three keynote presentations, six learning labs, a renewable fuels master class, a Great Ideas Workshop, a retail tour, quick talks from trailblazers, and more than 60 exhibitors — all with the intent of sharing ideas and tools for travel plazas and truck stops to thrive and meet the needs of the traveling public in this age of disruption and increased competition.

Here, Convenience Store News offers a rundown of key takeaways from the Feb. 6-9 event:

Tour other stores to drive ideas at home: Suncor Energy Products Partnership, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has a strategy group that is continually working to improve the customer and driver experience. Wholesale Business Manager Peter Pilalas and other company executives regularly tour other truck stops and travel plazas — most recently, in the United States — to get ideas for evolving the company’s legacy sites and new plazas moving forward. They look for “simple things” that can be easily deployed. “Petro Canada is a big machine with lots of moving parts and over 300 locations. We can’t turn on a dime; we have tons of processes to follow,” Pilalas explained of its approach.

Display fresh produce in fresh ways: Putting bananas, oranges and apples in separate baskets by the register is a colorful and fresh way to tap into health and wellness trends that have certainly hit the trucking trade. Pilalas advised that the simpler the display, the better.

Use LED lighting and light-up gondolas: “It really gives you the ‘wow’ factor. It encourages impulse. …It’s an easy one and we’re doing it this summer,” Pilalas shared.

Dog parks: Suncor is going to have its first pet-friendly site this year thanks to a “Bark Park” dog area. This idea came from a travel plaza it visited in South Dakota with NATSO last year.

Promise a cleaner shower: The “promise” can be conveyed with a snap frame on the shower door showing a photo of how it looks inside. Then, make sure it looks that way when customers open the door, with clean towels rolled and stacked, etc. “It’s such a simple idea and an easy fix,” Pilalas said. “As soon as they open the door, the promise is delivered.”

USB connections & charging stations: This should be a given, according to the Suncor executive. His recommendation is to create lounges like some airports have, adapting to the changing driver needs for a break with a power recharge, literally.

Paint “pull up” lanes near fuel area: Suncor had problems with drivers leaving their trucks in the fueling lane after they were finished fueling to go use the restroom or grab a sandwich. Meanwhile, other trucks were waiting in line, three or four deep, which is about a 45-minute wait. Pilalas is keen on the idea, if the law permits, of painting lines for trucks to pull up and move out of the way of the fueling area. “Another easy fix,” he stated.

Make merchandising magic: Simple, inexpensive ways to increase the customer experience, sales and margins are easier than you think, according to Sean Momin, vice president of operations for Pats Travel Center, located just outside of Houston. One minor change he made about a year ago involved selling 24-ounce beer cans in a tub, instead of 16-ounce cans. “In Texas, we can break up six-packs and sell beer in a tub, so we were selling 16-ounce cans because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We finally asked ourselves: What if we went to 24-ounce cans and didn’t break up six-packs?” And so, they did and it increased revenue and margins, and also reduced the number of UPCs on-site and reduced the human error of punching one instead of six (sometimes, customers would walk out with a six-pack at the single beer price). “The beauty is it cost us zero to implement. We just changed the UPC in the back-office and the stickers for pricing,” Momin said.

Go wild on an item or two: Want to get more customers to stop in their tracks in-store and purchase additional items? Consider stocking a wild-card product or two, such as a rack of grass flip flops, as seen at NATSO Connect. Gff ( is just as it sounds: this plastic footwear features faux grass in the footbed that looks and feels real. Whitaker Oil in Loveland, Colo., is one truck stop chain that decided to give the grass flip flops a try. “We’re always looking for truly unique items that set us apart from the competition,” said Brent Shaddeau, operations manager.

Get gaming: According to Accel Entertainment, an Illinois gaming provider, the net revenue for truck stops that have a gaming business can pay a manager’s salary. “If you’re in a state that doesn’t have it and you want it, talk to us about talking to legislators,” said Kevin Jaglowski, director of enterprise sales. “Gaming is like Redbox. It’s a hands-off model, you just have to provide electricity.”

Take a streamlined approach to foodservice: Einstein Bros. Bagels recently refined its approach to make its models more simple, profitable and easier to execute. Taking 90 percent of its menu away in a format that can be as small as 130 square feet, the bagel company streamlined and simplified its options “given today’s challenges with labor and foodservice, yet delivering on a customer expectation of higher experience,” said Nick Schaefer, senior vice president of development, bagel brands

Consider offering “super diesel:” ExxonMobil’s Synergy Diesel Efficient fuel for fleets is formulated to keep engines cleaner for 2 percent better diesel fuel economy. Matt Van Zan of J&H Oil Co., a branded wholesaler in Grand Rapids, Mich., says it’s been a “game changer” for his business. “For a branded wholesaler like us, a fuel that saves a fleet serious money is a true competitive advantage. The buzz phrase is ‘cost per mile.’ I’ve got a fuel that my competitors don’t.”

Create a destination/amusement-like location: This best practice is really for the independents or small operators who have a lot of flexibility. Oasis Travel Center in Robertsdale, Ala., almost has to be seen to be believed. “I get to work at Disneyland every day,” quipped Dale Elks, general manager. The travel plaza has a VW hippie-themed bus sticking out of its front façade. Customers walk through a psychedelic entrance and land in a shopping extravaganza, featuring more than 117 craft beers, a beach and hippie area, high-end western gifts, toys sold in a separate playhouse built inside the store, fresh gourmet popcorn, two quick-service restaurants (Chester’s and Subway), a “space-themed” coffee station, a game room, and a diner. The Derailed Diner appears to be three train cars crashed into the building from the outside. Inside, the diner is an old train car converted. With no real view of the store interior from the outside, Elks put up 8-by-10-foot posters on the outside that show what the inside looks like and sales went up 25 percent. “We work hard to make this a destination,” he relayed.  

Care about your employees’ lives: The employer/employee relationship has changed, and the truck stop arena needs to catch up. To retain good workers, employers must connect with their people and give them value through continuous praise and recognition of how the business can contribute to their work/life balance, according to Annamarie Mann, workplace and human development consultant for My Future Catcher. It’s no longer about the paycheck being the sole value; it’s much more than that, and it’s not going to go back to the way it was, she said. “Employees are saying, ‘I want you to know me, my life and my goals,” Mann explained. “Employees want to know: Is this job worth my time? Is it adding to my story? Is it a good experience?”

NATSO Connect 2020 was hosted by NATSO, the national trade association that represents the travel plaza and truck stop industry. More than 1,700 travel plazas and truck stops nationwide, owned by more than 200 corporate entities, make up NATSO’s membership.