MSAs and COVID-19
I appreciate it's not fashionable to be positive on the internet, and it's perhaps not something I'm used to, but I genuinely feel that praise is due for the way many transport operators have adapted to COVID-19.
That's not to undermine the challenges that customers have faced - lorry drivers in particular have, at times received an especially raw deal - but its only fair to acknowledge the amount of work that has got us to where we are.
On the motorways, all of the service area providers are used to dealing with uncertain conditions. They put up with accidents, roadworks, snow and Bank Holidays. But none of these begin to compare with the disruption and confusion felt in 2020.
The first challenges became clear in March 2020. Customer levels were falling because people weren't travelling to meetings or for days out. How long would this fall go on for?
Meanwhile, customers and staff were both anxious. We had all read the health advice, but it's easier said than done. This in turn puts pressure on each business as they wanted to assure customers and colleagues but they didn't have any answers to give. They were struggling just to find hand sanitiser!
I didn't like the fact that many of the operators were slow to acknowledge the concerns about COVID-19. They will have their reasons for this, but to an outsider it looked like they were naively hoping to style it out. It was all a bit "don't mention the virus".
Having said that I must say that when Roadchef did mention it, I thought they struck the tone just right, which is a difficult thing to do when you're a large business commenting on a global crisis.
As Britain lurched into lockdown, it was the start of new unknowns. We knew the roads would be very quiet, but what would that mean? How much stock do you buy? Will the public be assured or annoyed by you staying open?
Mistakes were made, of course. It was an unprecedented period of disruption and confusion. What's important is that feedback was acted on quickly: operating costs, marketing slogans and novelty shop items went out the window as the priority became maintaining a basic and safe service.
Moto's campaign regarding meals for HGV drivers was a good example of this. While regrettably it did take rather a long time to put in place, drivers won't realise how much work went into it.
Moto's campaign was also a reminder of how so many issues are caused by poor communication. Lorry drivers don't like motorway service areas for all sorts of reasons, yet when Moto (or "new Moto" as I shall call them, given their recent dramatic turn in communication style) picked a campaign line and hammered it home, the initial moans quickly turned into positive feedback.
The push towards online ordering is another example of lockdown time being used wisely. Modern businesses rely on the work of so many other brands which made COVID-19 especially difficult, but it also opened doors to ingenuity.
From my own point-of-view, perhaps the most assuring sight came when the brand names first began to return. We didn't need an immediate return to the full food court, but just knowing that a few coffee outlets were open was like a light at the end of the tunnel.
This led us to a new period of unknowns, as service areas came to terms with the realities of one way systems, cleaning regimes and counting crowds. The end of lockdown formed a good dry run for this, but those few weeks were sheer paradise compared to the pressure of a summer rush on the M5.
Again, mistakes were made. Customers were nervous and would report any transgression they thought they had spotted. Others were fed up and thought it was all a bit much. Staff, understandably, wanted to be kept safe.
Overall though, the post-lockdown relaunch seems to have worked. At the time of writing we are about to embrace the August Bank Holiday, which is traditionally the busiest weekend of the year, but it also the marks of the end of the peak season. It hasn't been ideal trading conditions, but the right systems were in place.
Everybody hopes the road to normality will continue smoothly. Both the public and businesses are more resilient now, and are likely to change their behaviour but not cancel their plans if things change again.
If things do go wrong, the experience gained this year will help service stations not just put more plans in place, but communicate it clearly. Attention should be given to regional issues where people may read about a local outbreak and not be sure if it will affect their journey.
The challenges of COVID-19 affect every single business. You wouldn't expect the public to remember the challenges service stations faced above those in any other industry. We've all had plenty of our own things to worry about.
Perhaps that will be the strangest takeaway from the whole experience. All of the operators are united in knowing how much work went into maintaning some-sort of service throughout 2020. The public appreciates that effort - though they might not realise it.