KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Pilot Flying J expanded its network of more than 750 Pilot and Flying J travel centers in 2016 by adding 58 new locations. The company will spend nearly $500 million, including approximately $85 million in 2017 as part of a five-year plan of investing back into that network and its infrastructure, said Ken Parent, president of Pilot Flying J, in mid-December during the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company’s first “Voice of the Industry With Pilot Flying J” year-end 2016 update.
“2016 has been an exciting year of growth,” he said on the call. “We continue to grow as a company and expand our footprint. Our goal is ‘to be a connector for people and places,’ and be positioned in those areas of North America where drivers need us the most.”
“One of the things that we did [in 2016] that’s a little bit different from an investment standpoint is invest back into our existing facilities. We spent about $40 million trying to create a better environment from a work team member perspective, which, in turn, hopefully will deliver a better guest experience toward drivers. … In 2017, we’re going to expand that,” Parent said.
Click through for an update on the chain’s 2016 expansion and for details on several key initiatives for 2017 and beyond …
The 58 sites include 41 former Speedway/WilcoHess locations in the Southeast that Pilot Flying J has finished converting— through PFJ Southeast LLC, a joint venture with Enon, Ohio-based Speedway LLC—to either the Pilot or the Flying J brand.
“Working with Speedway as part of PFJ Southeast LLC has allowed us to quickly and easily grow our presence in the heavily traveled Southeastern corridors,” Parent said.
“We also plan on investing about $2 million in each of those locations to help enhance them, and that could be from DEF [diesel exhaust fluid] in every lane—that does not exist today—to new diesel pumps, gasoline pumps for our four-wheel traffic,” he said. “Lots of activity—drivers’ lounges, new restaurants, new showers at those former Speedway WilcoHess locations.”
Pilot Flying J also opened 17 new travel centers in 2016.
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Including the converted Speedway sites, the 58 new locations are in 16 states:
- Alabama (3; Cottondale, Good Hope/Cullman and Lincoln)
- California (2; Orland and Patterson)
- Florida (3; Wildwood, Jacksonville and South Bay)
- Georgia (6; Calhoun, Carnesville, Jackson, Kingsland, Valdosta and Villa Rica)
- Illinois (2; Bridgeview and Carol Stream)
- Indiana (1; Marion)
- Missouri (1; Springfield)
- New Mexico (1; Santa Rosa)
- North Carolina (10; Candor, Conover, Haw River, Kenly, Marion, McLeansville, Monroe, Salisbury, Troutman and Warsaw)
- Ohio (1; Lebanon)
- Pennsylvania (1; Harrisburg)
- South Carolina (11; Blacksburg, Bishopville, Graniteville, Hardeeville, Latta, North Charleston, Prosperity, Rock Hill, St. George, St. Matthews and Winnsboro)
- Tennessee (5; Monteagle, Niota, Gordonsville, Pioneer and White Pine)
- Texas (3; Pasadena, Schulenberg and Stratford)
- Virginia (6; Disputanta, Raphine, Skippers, South Boston, Tom’s Brook and Wytheville)
- Canada (2; Whitecourt, Alberta, and Balgonie, Saskatchewan)
“Adoption of technology is accelerating,” said Parent. “One of our goals that we set about two years ago at this time of year was to step back and [look at] how we leverage technology to improve the professional driver experience. This will expand a little to four-wheel traffic. As we continue to talk to drivers, obviously they’re very tech savvy, and they’re looking for convenience and reliability to make their work lives easier and more productive each and every day.”
2. Mobile fueling
Pilot Flying J recently released myPilot, its newly enhanced mobile app.
Professional drivers now have the ability to save time with the app’s mobile fueling feature, which allows drivers to pay through the app. Drivers can also use the app to check which diesel pump is likely to open up next, reserve a shower, view store listings, get directions and receive and store electronic receipts and more.
All customers can save 3 cents per gallon on gasoline and automobile diesel when they use the myPilot app.
“We’ve been really excited about the progress from the app when we started with a soft launch in August,” Parent said. “The acceptance really continues to grow tremendously. We’re really up to about 2% of our diesel fueling transactions, which is now well over 3,000 transactions per day done through cardless fueling or from the mobile perspective. We now have over 36,000—in the last couple days we’ve had over 2,000—cards that have been registered in the mobile wallet. That’s really important from an adoption perspective, and that’s part of what fuels the number of transactions that we’re starting to do on a daily basis.”
“In the last couple days, we’re up to 99,000 showers reserved, and for one of our large fleets, that’s over 12% of their total transactions that have gone through the app,” Parent said. “We look at adoption—we’re really excited about the momentum that we have and there’s a lot of efforts ongoing with some small, medium and large fleets in terms of educating their drivers and seeing the benefits of utilizing the app.”
Parking is the top issue for professional drivers from a feedback perspective, according to Parent. Pilot Flying J added more than 1,300 parking spots in 2016. Of its 72,000 spots, only 4% are reserved.
“After rolling out cardless fueling and the shower reservations … parking availability and parking reservations will come up on the app in the first quarter,” he said. “We have a test going on out West on I-5 and I-99 related to real-time parking availability, where we have sensors that are on each of our spots and provide real-time, accurate data, so we’re about ready to launch that test. We have those sensors installed in 28 locations.
“The accuracy is right around 99%. The only issue we’ve had is related to bobtails sometimes registering on that. But we’re ready to launch that test formally and have that real-time availability show up on the app in the first quarter. If that test goes well, we’ve allocate some capital in 2017 to kind of work our way back from the West Coast to the East Coast and put that in everywhere.”
Pilot Flying J acknowledges that its Wi-Fi needs improvement. On its Wi-Fi webpage, the company has even posted negative comments, including “WiFi sucks at Pilot Travel Center.”
“We heard you. We fixed it. Try it today,” the company said.
It has spent nearly $14 million dollars to solve the issues in providing Wi-Fi for professional drivers at Pilot and Flying J locations.
“We’re providing a lot more consistency not only inside, but out on the lots,” Parent said. “We’re not perfect—far from it—but I think we’re doing a much better job of providing that reliable, consistent experience from a Wi-Fi perspective.”
7. Roadside assistance and repair shops
Between Jan. 16 and the end of June, Pilot Flying J will launch 150 roadside-assistance trucks, primarily for tires and light-duty repair. It is also getting into the repair shop business, planning to build 20 ground-up sites in 2017, starting in late January and early February.
“Since July, we have been building the infrastructure,” said Parent. “We’re in the throes of hiring tire technicians, we have developed a safety program, and the first trucks will start launching the week of Jan. 16 in markets across the country.”
The company has hired David Latimer, former president and CEO of U.S. Lube and the founder of Petro:Lube, to head the effort.
“David and his team will develop a strategy to build a network across the country of roadside assistance and shops, so we’ll have brick-and-mortar shops as well as the repair trucks out there on the road,” Parent said.