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Motorway service areas have a very bad reputation when it comes to quality and value. Jane Lewis finds out how these potential oases are now trying to enhance their image.

Most people break a motorway journey to go to the toilet. They’re stressed and uncomfortable, and usually hungry. Not so long ago the weary driver would have been faced with a run-down block of crowded toilets and a stale sandwich. But over the past couple of years a transformation has been taking place. Big names like Pentagram, Wolff Olins and 20/20 have been enlisted to overhaul the dated and poor image of motorway service areas.

Although these motorway stop-offs are legally restricted from becoming destination sites, they are nonetheless intentionally becoming increasingly like the high street, with brands playing a bigger than ever role. Not only can customers fill their stomachs with a wider range of cuisine, in some sites they can even take a shower or place a bet. Recent research carried out by Mintel shows that what motorway service station users would most like to see is more banking facilities at sites, followed by chemists and, predictably, a better range of food and drink outlets.

Granada, the UK’s biggest services operator with 42 sites to date, has been implementing an extensive revamp across its estate and has introduced brands ranging from Burger King to Boots to widen customer choice.

“Sites are increasingly moving to a high street-style environment for the customer so they see names and signs they’re familiar with as they travel around the country,” comments operations director at Granada Hospitality Tim Moss. “From your first introduction to Granada from the slip road you’re made aware of the brands that are on offer,” he adds. Last year the group invested 45m on its motorway facilities, including Little Chefs and Travel Lodges, and is planning to spend a similar amount this year.

Welcome Break, which was sold by Granada after the Forte deal to Investcorp, is planning an overhaul of all of its 21 sites in addition to opening new ones. “There has been little investment for a number of years and we plan to put much needed money into a refurbishment and site-acquisition programme,” states Welcome Break director of sales and communication Sara Fernandez. “We’re looking at how we can improve what we offer and create a better experience.”

Road Chef, an independent operator with 12 sites, has expanded its offer to include food courts, Wimpy outlets and banking facilities. According to development director Tony Cooper, Road Chef is investing 2m over the next year to upgrade existing sites and works with Hitchin consultancy Pentangle Interiors on design elements.

Pentagram and 20/20’s work for Granada has transported service station environments into the Nineties, and other operators have been quick to follow. Pentagram created interiors and graphics for the refurbishment of Granada’s Stafford site including signs, elements of which are being implemented across the chain, while Wolff Olins has been involved in a revamped identity. As Pentagram partner Daniel Weil points out: “It’s all about humanising and it was long overdue. People expect more from a transient place.”

The challenge for designers is to create an environment to suit a target market which is as broad and diverse as the British public. Yaron Meshoulam, head of strategy at 20/20, comments that any approach has to consider the “massive numbers of different segments of customers, from business travellers and lorry drivers to families and coach trips – each with a completely different frame of mind”.

The consultancy was responsible for creating a new concept for Granada’s motorway shops which were rolled out last year. “The goods they carry vary from sandwiches to CDs to first aid products,” says Meshoulam, who goes on to explain that the new retail outlets feature interiors segmented into distinct areas for each product group to compete with delivery on the high street.

Road Chef has taken a similar approach with its retail outlets by replacing uniform racking throughout stores, with individual areas for different types of product. Interiors and graphics were devised by Pentangle, in conjunction with Cooper.

Despite the growing importance of retail, catering remains a key area for motorway services and operators have been keen to improve the quality of what they offer in the face of poor public perception about the standard and price of motorway food. Mintel’s recent research shows catering turnover at service areas grew by 27 per cent between 1991 and 1996 to reach 203m, though branded fast-food outlets performed best with sales doubling between 1993 and 1996. Not surprisingly, operators have been quick to sign up fast-food chains with Burger King, McDonald’s and Wimpy all available on the motorway, as well as Pizzaland, Harry Ramsden’s and Rock Island Diner.

The research suggests that self-service restaurants run by the operators have not been performing as well as the fast-food outlets. Cooper stresses restaurants have come a long way since the drab serveries of the Seventies. “Everything has changed. Going back to the Seventies, restaurants were great huge areas of unbroken seating like large canteens. Now to give variety we’ve incorporated screens and intimate areas.”

Following Pentagram’s Coffee Bar concept for Granada – a radical departure from the usual motorway restaurant, which was piloted at sites on the M4 and Stafford – Granada is rethinking its self-service restaurants. “We want to revitalise self-service under a branded name and identity. The restaurant is currently poor in terms of identity, though it’s strong in terms of sales. We need a sense of value, identity and clarity so customers know what they can get,” comments Moss.

Elements of Coffee Bar, which incorporates wooden flooring, wood laminate table tops and seating which is not screwed-down, are likely to be incorporated in the new-style restaurants, but Granada has not yet appointed a consultancy. “Our aim is to get away from the image of food that’s not fresh – but we won’t attempt to move away from food that is popular for a wide range of people. We want to improve the quality of food, but acknowledge that fish and chips is very popular. Who are we to say they shouldn’t have that, if they want?” says Moss.

A point-of-sale breakfast campaign created by Glazer throughout Granada’s restaurants helped to boost sales significantly. The campaign, a finalist in the Design Effectiveness Awards, repackaged the restaurants’ breakfasts into five combinations, ranging from American to full English. Glazer senior designer Dean Richman claims it has helped dispel the image that the restaurants are overpriced. Glazer is also working on a corporate guidelines manual for Granada, with the emphasis on ensuring everything on the site has the Granada strapline.

Toilets are often the first port of call at motorway areas, but in the past have suffered from lack of investment. Now all the operators seem to be upgrading their conveniences. Pentagram came up with some stylish, high quality ideas for Granada. “We created a sense of individual units. They look a hell of a lot better. They’re more spacious and sophisticated, with wood-look laminates and black marble,” explains Weil.

Cooper claims that Road Chef’s new toilets, which include recessed module light fittings as opposed to fluorescent strips, are proving a deterrent to graffiti artists. “We’re always trying to improve the quality because it’s what the public expects now and it does pay off. The nicer the toilets are, the more vandals seem to be deterred.”

The motorway service areas of the future are likely to feature even more high street brands, as well as the development of the operators’ own brands for self-service restaurants and shops. Meshoulam believes there are still further opportunities to “help customers to unwind”, and the potential for leisure facilities. “It’s not just about sticking in some high street shops, it’s about thinking what frame of mind the customer is in and what can be done,” he says.

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