As it welcomes 2023, Pilot Co. is in full swing with its $1 billion New Horizons initiative, modernizing its fleet of U.S. travel centers and enhancing the guest and team member experience at its sites.
The Knoxville, Tenn.-based company announced the New Horizons initiative in March. The goal behind New Horizons is to create a more consistent experience for team members and guests no matter what they need while on the road as Pilot prepares its stores for the future of travel.
“It’s by far our largest investment to date,” said Allison Cornish, vice president of store modernization for Pilot, which operates more than 800 locations, 750 of which are part of its Pilot Flying J Travel Center network, in 44 states and five Canadian provinces. “We took the time to listen and learn from our team members and guests to understand what their needs are. We recognize that the needs of our team members and our guests are changing.”
Now, Pilot is putting those learnings into action as it remodels and modernizes over 400 locations across its more than 670 company-owned and -operated stores by March of 2025. By the end of 2022, Pilot had already completed the first 55 major gut remodels and an additional 60 lighter refreshes to locations.
As Pilot grows, it’s also embarking on new builds. Its latest new-to-industry (NTI) store opened in October in Palmdale, Calif. At just over 11,000 square feet, the site features 55 professional parking spots, seven diesel lanes, modern showers and restrooms, and a hot deli featuring pizza and sandwiches. The site also features a Cinnabon, a Subway, self-checkout kiosks and a spacious open
Pilot is planning to open another 15-20 NTI travel centers in 2023.
“We have a couple of locations currently under construction that’ll open up in the first part of 2023,” Cornish said.
As it evaluates the future of travel, Pilot is considering how, post-pandemic, customers are getting back on the road again, and the rise of alternative fuels is set to attract a new type of guest.
“We know that the electric vehicle (EV) driver has to stop and charge and will need to stop at our locations for maybe a little bit longer to charge their vehicle,” Cornish said. “We want to provide a comfortable environment for that guest as well while they’re charging their vehicle,” Cornish said.
That will include expanding its foodservice offering and adding kitchens to some locations.
As part of the modernization process, Pilot is also investing in new technology and equipment and developing programs, policies and practices that further support its people-first culture.
“One of the things we’re conscious about is making sure our team members have a great place to work,” Cornish noted.
That includes ensuring kitchens feature the latest equipment to make employees’ jobs easier, designing the layout to reduce steps, and adding technology that helps reduce administrative tasks, freeing up employees’ time to allow them to better serve customers.
Pilot is celebrating the reopening of each remodeled location with a community event that includes donations to local school districts that support equal access to technology. By the end of 2022, Pilot had donated $500,000 and the chain plans to do the same in 2023, Cornish noted.
The Road to Innovation
Pilot can trace its start to 1958 when James “Jim” Haslam II opened the first Pilot location in Gate City, Va.
By 1965, Pilot owned 12 stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, selling 5 million gallons of fuel annually. That same year, Marathon Oil Co. purchased half of Pilot for $2 million and loaned $4 million to build new locations.
In 1976, Jim Haslam II’s son, Jimmy Haslam, joined Pilot Co. His wife Dee Bagwell Haslam later became a partner in the business. Pilot’s growth continued, and by 1981, it reached 100 convenience stores and opened its first travel center in Corbin, Ky. In 1996, Jimmy Haslam took the helm as CEO.
By 2003 Pilot had grown its fleet of travel centers to more than 250 nationwide. In 2008, Pilot bought out Marathon Petroleum’s interest in the company and partnered with CVC Capital Partners, a European private-equity firm. In 2010 Pilot Travel Centers LLC merged with Flying J Inc. to form Pilot Flying J for a combined network of more than 550 travel centers. Five years later, Pilot bought CVC Capital Partners’ investment in Pilot Flying J.
“Pilot has been around for 64 years, and we’ve always been innovating,” Cornish said. “If you think about the history of our company, we started off as just a typical gas station, then we became convenience stores and now we’re travel centers.”
In 2021, Pilot welcomed new CEO, Shameek Konar, who previously served as Pilot’s chief strategy officer. Jimmy Haslam currently serves as chairman of the board, while Jim Haslam II serves as chairman emeritus.
The Haslam family has always been focused on innovation, Cornish pointed out, and Konar is driving the charge forward.
“Shameek has been highly instrumental and supportive of this (New Horizons) initiative,” she said. “He realizes the changes in the industry, in the travel center and in the needs of the professional driver and the gas guest, and he recognizes that we need to change with it.”
Konar spearheaded the idea to invest $1 billion to elevate Pilot’s travel center network as it aspires to be the leading network of travel centers both in store count and overall experience for employees and guests, Cornish said.
One of the biggest things Pilot heard when soliciting guest feedback was that customers are seeking consistency between locations when they stop along the road.
“Now is the time to be able to provide that consistent experience and invest to do so,” Cornish said.
Today, Pilot’s average travel center measures 11,000 square feet. As sites are upgraded, some stores are staying within their original footprint but using space more efficiently, while others are gaining an additional 300-1,000 square feet of space.
Each travel center is being outfitted according to its needs. While the overall goal is to include consistent elements, some more heavily trafficked locations might require more restroom or shower capacity. Design-wise, all sites are being brought in line with Pilot’s latest standard look, feel and equipment.
Travel centers are receiving both exterior and interior upgrades. Exterior remodels include LED lighting, updated branding, refaced walls and various touches to modernize the look of the store. Each store will display a welcome message, such as “Welcome to Albuquerque, New Mexico.” Fuel canopies are being wrapped with Pilot’s latest brand image.
Inside, stores are being redesigned to appear lighter, brighter and feature industrial-style accents. Restrooms, showers and laundry facilities are being upgraded, and in some cases expanded or added to a site.
Restrooms are becoming more spacious and receiving energy-efficient, touchless fixtures — including soap dispensers and toilets — as well as new tile, paint and brighter lighting. Updated restrooms will also feature airport-style doorways for a completely touchless entry.
“One of the things that we definitely heard and learned from the pandemic is that people don’t like touching things as much,” Cornish noted. Now, with touchless restroom doorways, touchless fixtures and touchless payment, customers can have a mostly touch-free experience within the store.
Once the New Horizons initiative and 400 remodels are completed, Cornish expects regular store updates to be ongoing at Pilot.
“This is something that we now believe is going to be part of our DNA, and we’ll continue to refresh and remodel locations as they come up,” she said. “As long as the needs of our guests are changing, we expect this is part of our company culture.”
Pilot’s newly redesigned store layouts showcase a food-forward presence. The foodservice section is gaining more space and positioned front and center. Kitchens are being added to a number of locations.
Pilot operates 670 proprietary fresh delis that feature programs such as pizza, homestyle meals and grab-and-go food. As part of New Horizons, Pilot is increasing its signature fresh deli items. On the grab-and-go side, guests will be greeted by brightly lit hot and cold food cases with more than 30 grab-and-go items.
“In our cold cases, you’ll see things like fruits, veggies and cheeses,” Cornish said. “You’ll see sweets. You’ll see meat snacks.”
More locations are rolling out the proprietary pizza program, which is made fresh in the store, and/or a chicken wing offering. Locations featuring the chain’s proprietary homestyle meals will feature items like meatloaf, chicken, and a large variety of sides such as mashed potatoes and green beans.
The food team at Pilot is always innovating and switching out items to keep the menu fresh and exciting for Pilot’s guests.
Lounges and dining areas are being expanded so guests can relax and recharge in comfort while they enjoy their meal or rest before getting back on the road.
In addition to its proprietary offerings Pilot also operates more than 600 quick-service restaurants (QSRs) across 14 different brands, including Dunkin’, Cinnabon, Wendy’s and Subway.
Pilot is rolling out bean-to-cup coffee in addition to its regular brewed coffee across all of its company-operated stores.
“We have bean-to-cup in 600 locations today, but we’ll continue to expand that in the locations that we operate,” Cornish said.
Innovating With Technology
With its remodels underway, Pilot is integrating technology into the daily lives of its team members and guests with the goal of making their jobs easier and transactions faster.
“Innovation’s been part of our culture from day one. Technology is at the center of everything that we do,” said Josh Birdwell, vice president of guest systems and application development for Pilot.
Pilot has partnered with NCR to add about four self-checkout kiosks to each remodeled and NTI location, depending on the footprint of the site.
“Self-checkout helps get customers through as fast as possible and allows our team members to interact with the guest a little bit differently than they have before,” Birdwell said. “They’re able to talk to the guest, help them through that transaction and help a lot more guests at the same time.”
The locations will still feature traditional points of sale (POS) that guests might need for more complicated transactions.
Pilot is also leveraging the technology its QSR partners are already using to streamline systems for employees. For example, if a site features a Wendy’s QSR, then that site will convert to the standard Wendy’s POS going forward, and guests will also be able to order ahead from the QSR’s mobile app.
While Pilot hasn’t yet added order ahead or delivery for its proprietary food offerings, it is exploring options within its Pilot mobile app.
“We are looking at things like DoorDash, too, for third-party delivery,” Birdwell said.
In the forecourt, Pilot is upgrading dispensers to include the newest technology available from its partners. Customers and professional drivers have multiple options to pay for fuel, from standard card swipe to EMV, to contactless payment, or through Pilot’s myRewards Plus app.
On the backend, Pilot is simplifying systems for team members, automating tasks like invoicing and counting. In conjunction with its partners NCR and Zebra Technologies, Pilot is rolling out new tablets and handhelds.
Pilot is also taking advantage of mobile technology to elevate the customer experience. Pilot’s myRewards Plus app helps guests navigate their Pilot experience.
“It’s the easiest place to interact with us, and that’s how we offer utility and value to all of our guests,” Birdwell said.
Guests can use the app to buy showers, purchase parking or pay for fuel via the mobile fueling feature. Through the app, professional drivers can earn points per gallon when they purchase diesel fuel, which can be redeemed for purchases in-store, including foodservice items.
Everyday customers can also take advantage of promotions and deals within the app, which are personalized for each guest.
The chain also offers a separate PilotCo app for employees. “It’s how we communicate. It’s how we cascade information, how they access training and how they access their benefits,” said Jamie Landis, vice president of team member experience for Pilot.
Pilot serves more than 1.5 million guests per day with help from its 30,000 team members. The company began increasing the focus on its team member experience about 12 months ago, listening to employees to ensure it is developing policies, practices and environments to meet their needs. Since then, Pilot has been elevating its rewards and recognition program, benefits offering, diversity and inclusion practices, and new perks.
“We are super passionate about maintaining our people-first culture, and to that end, very committed to staying a really great place to work,” Landis said.
The company’s employee focus is paying off. For the fourth year in a row, Pilot is set to be honored as part of Training magazine’s APEX Awards, which ranks companies’ excellence in employer-sponsored training and development programs.
Pilot introduced a new onboarding program in September of 2022 to provide more consistency for those joining the organization, which has already brought an uptick in Pilot’s retention rates.
To further aid retention, Pilot analyzed the employee life cycle and the moments that make or break someone’s decision to stay or leave Pilot, Landis explained. Pilot is now working to make those experiences best in class.
When it comes to rewards and recognition, Pilot’s Capture the Moment program rewards employees for delivering a great guest experience or exhibiting Pilot’s values. In Q1 of 2023, Pilot is making that program digital and adding monetary components. Pilot recently rolled out a $10 free meal and 15-cent gas discount for employees, which they can access by scanning a barcode in the PilotCo app. It is also adding additional perks and creating partnerships to offer discounts to employees on their cell phone bills, TV channels, movie tickets and more.
The company has also been improving its benefits. Pilot introduced a new parental leave policy in September of 2019, which provides paid parental leave for six weeks to all full- and part-time U.S. team members who have at least one year of service and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months. It also offers tuition assistance up to $18,000 a year.
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Pilot has launched business resource groups, which are team member-led groups focused on attraction, retention and development for their group. To date, Pilot has launched five resource groups, including Pride of Pilot, for LGBTQ+ individuals; the Women of Pilot; Veterans of Pilot; Emerging Leaders for millennials and Gen Z; and BRIDGE, which is a multicultural group.
“We know that we’re stronger and we’re better when we’ve got a very inclusive culture and we’re empowering our team members,” Landis said. “To that end, we created a role and hired our first director of inclusion and diversity, Angie Cody, who is focused on developing intentional strategies around retention and attraction.”
As Pilot remodels stores it’s also upgrading and expanding breakrooms and workspaces to better suit employees.
“What’s been really exciting to hear is the feedback that we’ve gotten from our team members and our guests where we’ve completed a remodel,” said Cornish. “Our team members are super proud of their stores.”
Fueling The Future
Sites are being equipped with fueling alternatives including EV charging stations, and Pilot is developing a strategy to support low-emission and zero-emission vehicles.
Pilot has partnered with General Motors (GM) and EVGo to reduce range anxiety drivers might have as they travel long distances. It’s installing four stalls of chargers at 500 locations using 350-kilowatt chargers to ensure a best-in-class experience.
“GM and Pilot are committed to working together in the long-term interests of this program as widespread EV adoption continues to take off,” said John Tully, vice president of strategy and business development for Pilot. “With 750 travel centers nationwide, Pilot’s network is ideally situated geographically to build an extensive charging network across the country.”
The EV charging infrastructure investment is a separate investment from the New Horizons initiative.
Pilot has also partnered with Volvo Group to add EV charging for Class 8 trucks.
“Together with Volvo Group, Pilot is working to develop a high-performance charging network open to all battery-electric medium- and heavy-duty truck brands to support our fleet customers as they work to meet their electrification and decarbonization goals. This partnership will provide fleets with a reliable electromobility solution that further enables widespread adoption of electric trucks,” Tully said.
Pilot is also collaborating with Kodiak robotics to develop autonomous commercial trucking services at Pilot and Flying J travel centers, such as inspections, maintenance, refueling, load pick-up and drop-offs, plus transferring data to be used for feature development and mapping.
“Our companies are also in the process of creating an autonomous truck port in the Atlanta area to evaluate potential autonomous service offerings,” Tully said. “We hope this partnership will help us chart out a blueprint for our other locations as Pilot Co. explores the future of autonomous trucks, as well as help us determine how we can best support these customers.”
“Our ultimate goal is to be the leading travel center, regardless of how you need to fuel or charge or get on down the road,” Cornish said. “However anyone is going to travel, we want to be ready to cater to the needs of those guests.”