COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One of the largest truckstop and travel-plaza operators in the country, Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America (TA), recently opened Petro Columbia in Columbia, S.C. The site features the chain’s Minit Mart c-store, a 16-lane bowling facility, arcade, Starbucks and more. Tom Liutkus, senior vice president of marketing and PR for TA, shared the strategy behind its newest travel plaza.
Q: Your latest concept features many impressive amenities, including a fitness room, a 6,700-square-foot arcade and 16-lane bowling facility. Is this your biggest and most robust travel center?
A: Columbia is not our largest site (our average facility size is 24 acres) but certainly our most diverse in what we offer. Our goal with Columbia was to take advantage of the unique nature of the location. It combines a heavily traveled interstate artery, a dense rooftop presence and a large major university. We have tried to offer something that will cater to customers from all these areas and, by the early results, we have been successful.
Q: TA has expanded its c-store program since its acquisition of Minit Mart in 2013. How has your c-store evolved from both a product-offering and design perspective?
A: This Minit Mart is just more than 4,500 square feet and offers the full array of products for both the professional driver and motorist. The site features our proprietary World Blends coffee and Captain Cool fountain and [frozen carbonated beverages]. It also offers fresh breakfast, lunch and dinner options for customers who do not have time to sit down for a full meal in the Quaker Steak & Lube. We are very proud of the large, clean, brightly lit restrooms, in which the water faucets, hand dryers and towel dispensers are all touch-free.
For the balance of our more than 230 Minit Mart convenience stores, we have employed significant capital to remodel all the locations we have acquired. We have focused on a strong core of convenience items but have buffered that with unique local product offers and have expanded or installed a strong branded foodservice presence. We have also infused new technology and other improvements into Mint Mart locations that offer a car-wash facility.
Q: You have a broad customer demographic. What is the breakdown of regular motorists to truck drivers? How has your customer base evolved over the past five years?
A: By virtue of fueling transactions, we actually serve more motorists daily than professional truck drivers. However, the typical long-haul driver may stop two to three times a day at a travel-center property for reasons other than a fuel stop. When that is taken into account, the numbers will skew to the professional truck driver.
Q: On the forecourt, how many fueling positions do you have?
A: At the Columbia location, we offer branded BP gasoline with 10 fueling positions. There is a separate diesel canopy with eight fueling positions and separate ingress and egress.
Q: What role do loyalty programs and social media play in your marketing efforts and customer communications?
A: We currently have a rewards program for professional drivers called UltraOne, as well as a mobile app branded TruckSmart, to facilitate loyalty and ongoing communication with our customers. On the Minit Mart side, we offer an app and customer engagement activity such as trial deals, special offers, games and ongoing brand communication within the app.
Q: Is the Columbia location a prototype for future ground-ups?
A: It is early to say, but we are extremely pleased with the success of the new facility. We have brought in new customers and for different buying occasions. The bowling alley brings league events and corporate and family outings. The game room has hosted birthday parties, group events and families who just want to have fun for an evening. And Quaker Steak & Lube is famous for national award-winning food, regular entertainment events such as Bike Nites, car shows and live music, all set in an atmosphere filled with automobile and racing memorabilia.
Couple these new features with the basics of a great location, strong branded gasoline presence, Starbucks coffee, a large Minit Mart c-store, Voted Best (by professional truck drivers) restrooms and showers, fitness room and a six-bay truck maintenance and repair garage, and we’re very happy with where our Columbia site is heading.