It’s been widely reported in the media today that the proposed Gloucester Gateway MSA has been given planning permission. See, for example, this report in The Guardian, in which motorwayservices.info gets a brief mention,
Normally, a new MSA wouldn’t warrant much in the way of comment, but this one seems to be different. For a start, it’s been very controversial locally – there’s been a strong campaign against its construction from local residents who fear that it will be a blot on the landscape (although, to be fair, there’s been an equally strong local campaign in its favour, on the grounds that it will be a much-needed economic bost to the area).
What’s more interesting, from the point of view of the travelling public, though, are the organisations behind the proposal. Gloucester Gateway Services (to give it its working title, the official name hasn’t yet been decided) won’t be run by one of the “big three” operators, or even by the up-and-coming Extra MSA group. Instead, it’s a joint venture between a local organisation, the Gloucester Gateway Trust, and Westmorland, operators of the Tebay services. Like Tebay, the new site won’t be reliant on national franchise burger and coffee bars, instead, it will operate the restaurant and shop entirely under its own brand name (whether that’s Westmorland or a new brand is, again, yet to be decided) and obtain as much food as possible from local sources.
Independently-run MSA aren’t entirely novel – apart from Tebay itself, the new Stop24 services at Folkestone aren’t operated by one of the major chains, and Cairn Lodge operates Happenden on the M74 in Scotland. But the link beteen a local organisation and Westmoreland is unusual, and it’s also notable for being Westmorland’s first venture outside their home territory.
The Tebay services have, ever since their construction, won praise from the media and regular travellers for their ambience and quality. But I suspect that comes, to a large extent, from the MSA cognoscenti who value Tebay primarily because it is different. But the major operators aren’t stupid, the reason they have national franchises on board is because their market research tells them that that’s what their customers want. The risk for Gloucester Gateway’s operators is that Mr and Mrs Average and the kids on the way home from holiday, or Mr Mondeo Man on his way to the next appointment, will skip Gloucester Gateway and continue to Strensham because what they really want is a burger or a coffeee, and Strensham will offer them that from a recognisable brand name while Gloucester Gateway will be an unknown quantity.
The same applies to Tebay, of course, but when you’re regularly winning awards for being the best MSA on the network then you can afford the downside of not having well-known brands. But only one area can be the winner, and if that continues to be Tebay then Gloucester Gateway will merely be another MSA with nothing special to set it apart – other than the fact that it doesn’t have national brands.
On the other hand, if Gloucester Gateway is a success, then it may well spawn many more that are similar. While the branded franchises of the major operators may suit a large proportion of the travelling public, they clearly don’t appeal everyone – just look at the comments on motorwayservices.info, for example – and there probably is a market for MSAs which deliberately set out to offer something different. The key question, therefore, is whether or not that market is big enough. Gloucester Gateway may well go some way towards answering that.