8 questions on truck stop issues with NATSO CEO Lisa Mullings

NATSO's Lisa Mullings and family

Lisa Mullings uniquely understands truckstop and travel plaza owners. After selling the family home in 2014, Mullings and her family traveled 40,000 miles in a 30-foot Airstream trailer, meeting hundreds of NATSO members along the way.

“In addition to talking to our members, we got to talk to a lot of professional drivers as well,” Mullings told FreightWaves in an interview. “We have a much bigger appreciation for how hard it is for drivers on the highway. Car drivers don’t realize how difficult it is when they pull in front of [a truck] and slam on their brakes.”

Chronicling a roadtrip

Mullings’ husband, Jeff Schrum, came up with the idea for the trip. He could ply his freelance writing craft anywhere. He wrote an account for The Washington Post about the journey in 2015. And he used his master’s in education to home-school their then 11- and 12-year-old sons. Schrum also attracted thousands of followers to his upintheairstream Instagram posts.

Mullings would fly back to Washington for a few days each month to tend to association business. She would then rejoin her family on the road. Compared with conference calls, emails and convention encounters, meeting members “on their turf” in 49 states proved far more satisfying.

“You observe things when you’re talking with them in person at their own locations that you would never have known if you hadn’t been there to see it for yourself,” she said. “Something would catch my eye. And I would ask about it. That’s the kind of thing that you would never talk about at a convention.

A new understanding

“After I got back, I understood their business in a different way,” Mullings said. “It’s one thing just to hear of their challenges. But to see it, it’s just different. You get a look at the whole person when you see their families. A lot of them are family businesses, so they’re all working together.”

Six years later, the memories are still fresh. 

NATSO, formerly the National Association of Truck Stop Operators before legally changing its name, has a full plate. Ongoing threats include competition from state-run rest areas, the coronavirus pandemic and onrushing technology like autonomous trucks. Here are edited excerpts of Mullings’ discussion with FreightWaves:

How big a threat to NATSO members are food trucks operating at state rest areas?

My concern initially was that allowing the food trucks at the rest areas could hurt our members and other restaurants that have really been hit hard during the pandemic. When I initially heard about it, it seemed that it was the last thing that government should be doing is to further hurt demand for an industry that is really struggling. But NATSO didn’t oppose that decision, especially in places where there was no other option available for drivers. We knew that the first priority [was] to make sure that the drivers had their needs met, especially in terms of eating. We didn’t ask the government to rescind its decision. But we did express our concerns. We also explained to the Federal Highway Administration that we really wanted to make sure that as soon as the emergency was ended, they began enforcing the law again. 

Is it a slippery slope to offering other services?

I think that my real concern was, “Is it going to hurt our members or not?” When states do this, we want to make sure there’s an end date. There are lots of things going on during the pandemic, such as the hours-of-service changes [for truckers]. They’re not going to continue forever. I don’t see this as any different.

What about adding electric vehicle charging stations at state-run rest areas?

NATSO members are in the beginning stages of looking into putting in electric vehicle charging stations. Our members view this as if our customers need electric charging or gas or diesel or Kool-Aid to fuel their vehicles, that’s what they want to provide. Unless we decide the government should just be in charge of the entire EV refueling business, we need to look at what that does to the private sector investment. It’s the last thing that policymakers should be doing.

So you see rest area commercialization as anti-competitive?

Yes. [People] think this will give [them] more choices. I can tell you with absolute certainty that it would not increase competition. It would have the opposite effect. Our members are used to competition. They are at the highway exits. They compete with one another to attract customers every day. The price of their highest-volume product is advertised on huge signs where drivers don’t even have to get out of their vehicles in order to see what the price is. And because fuel is the second-highest cost for trucking companies, that intensifies the competition. Trucking companies can negotiate fuel contracts with our members and switch to a different truck stop over just a fraction of a penny per gallon. When I hear from the government that this is going to create more competition, it just makes me shake my head because it doesn’t do that. 

How are members coping with lost dine-in restaurant revenue from COVID-19?

We’ve had some members really enhance their grab-and-go meal options. [They are taking] some of the things they had in their full-service restaurant, and modifying them for sale inside their travel or convenience stores. Truck stops never stopped serving food. I think everybody understands that this is just a time that we are having to do whatever it takes to keep people safe. 

How much did President Trump’s recent guidance on mask-wearing influence the timing of NATSO’s recommendation to members?

NATSO had begun laying the groundwork for our formal recommendation before President Trump began encouraging mask-wearing. NATSO’s call for truckstops and travel plazas nationwide to implement a mask policy was driven by a need to have a uniform set of operating rules. Since the start of the pandemic, retailers have struggled amid varying interpretations of the CDC guidelines by local governments and local health officials. As the mask issue became highly politicized, it became increasingly important for our members to implement a uniform standard to ensure the health and safety of drivers, employees and customers. 

How is NATSO preparing for the November elections?

NATSO’s policy priorities appeal to members of both parties. We support long-term investment in the nation’s infrastructure. And we support consumer-focused, market-oriented alternative fuel incentives. These have not historically been extraordinarily partisan issues. We are well positioned to pursue our members’ priorities regardless of which party controls Congress or the White House.

How concerned are you about the impact of driverless trucks on the future of truck stops?

I still think we’re quite a ways away from full automation. Even with Level 4 [high automation], there may still need to be somebody in the truck. If that’s true, then regardless of automation, they’re going to need to stop for food or restrooms. Or the truck is going to need to fuel. So I think there’s always going to be a need for a truck stop. Part of our job is to help members evolve to look at future trends and how changes might affect them and their customers. But until the infrastructure evolves, until legislation comes around, I think Level 4 trucks are a little further off. Look at airplanes. We have pilots despite autopilot technology. So, I just don’t see truck drivers being taken out of an 80,000-pound vehicle anytime soon.

Related articles:

NATSO, ATA urge wearing masks at truck stops

Short-circuiting electric vehicle charging at rest areas

Reforming Renewable Fuel Standard major task for NATSO

Click for more FreightWaves’ articles by Alan Adler