The Motorway Service Area (MSA) has been synonymous with the long car journeys of Britain since they opened with the M1 in 1959. Since then, the humble MSA has seen vast improvements and now delivers an evolved, efficient service for road users up and down the network. Operators and the retailers within, can clearly see the benefits of adapting to the climate in this steady sector, but how did we get here?

Following the first MSA opening in 1959 there have been a further 92 opened across the UK. Starting life as a Government owned establishment they became denationalised in 1992 and are now, in the majority, privately owned and managed. The three main operators of sites are the household names we are all familiar with seeing along our journey’s; Moto (38 sites), Welcome Break (24 site) and Roadchef (20 sites). These are not the only players however, with Extra operating in 8 sites and a further one under construction in Leeds.

Generally, the requirements for MSAs are based on the Department of Transport regulations. They include several stipulations;

• 24 hour access, 365 days a year
• Free parking
• Free facilities
• Fuel provision
• Disabled access
• At least hot drinks and cold food available at all times
• A picnic area of at least 0.5 acre

There are other points to consider dependent on location and the operator will work in conjunction with the local Police, Regional Tourist Board and Highways Agency to ensure services are provided. This list of requirements is likely to continue to evolve over time. For example, the introduction of electric charging points may become more of a necessity than a luxury.

The modern MSA
The trend of eating at restaurant type venues within MSA’s has declined and today’s customers prefer a shorter stop with an emphasis on food-to-go. Road users trust the brand they know and in order to facilitate their needs, MSA operators have forged links with various high street names such as M&S Simply Food, McDonalds, Burger King and Subway, to name a few.
With the relaxation of regulations, traffic signage can incorporate the logos of these retailers, which in turn drives visits to the MSA, thus higher revenues.

The days of a standard square ‘shed’ type building with basic facilities are numbered as road users demand a better experience from the service areas. This has come hand in hand with the rise of the ‘coffee culture’ and it is fair to say that virtually all retail offers within MSA’s are now franchised. Indeed, there is more customer choice than ever. For example, the coffee retailers, such as Costa and Starbucks, have numerous outlets within the MSA, enabling customers to stop at a restaurant, take away or simply drive-thru.

MSA’s are ideally positioned to take advantage of emerging retail trends and the adoption of operators to embrace the ‘Grab-and-Go’ concept proves their ability to adapt to a changing retail landscape. Even Wetherspoons trialled a licensed premises at the Beaconsfield service area on the M40, although this has yet to be repeated elsewhere.

The independent MSA

The game changed again in 2014/15 with the opening of Gloucester Services on the M5 between Junctions 11a and 12, which is operated by Westmorland. The concept is unique to them in that national retailers have been rejected in favour of local farm produce and independent cafes and restaurants.

However, it is the design of the facility that is to revolutionise MSA’s moving forward. The built accommodation blends seamlessly with its surroundings to include the sustainable grass roof. But more than that, the main amenity building did away with brash branding and instead incorporated wood effect styling and sweeping curves within the design of the building, rather than simply a big square box.

An example of a new facility following the Gloucester principles is the Leeds Skelton Lake Services, currently under construction by Extra and due to open in summer 2019. This facility has a grass clad undulating timber frame roof on the main food court building, as well as an additional 100 bedroom room hotel and petrol forecourt facility.

What does the future hold for MSA’s
With regard to new build activity in the MSA market, the development of new sites is naturally constrained due to the national coverage of existing sites. Furthermore, the need to commit high levels of capital expenditure on start-up costs, in conjunction with tight regulatory conditions, restricts new developments.

Whilst the regulations have relaxed slightly, for example, the strict spacing between motorway services by way of distance/drive-time can be overcome if there is a genuine ‘need’ for a facility in a certain location, the costs and time make it difficult for new operators to enter into the market. So whilst there are only six MSA operators within the sector being Welcome Break, Roadchef, Moto, Extra, Westmorland and EuroGarages, there is plenty activity and potential for further changes in the outlook of the MSA.

For further discussions or detail on Motorway Service Area’s do not hesitate to get in touch with the Automotive & Roadside specialists at Rapleys.

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