Even though motorways make up less than 5 per cent of the UK's road system, they carry 33 per cent of all road traffic. According to research from Mintel, more than 700 million visits are made to Britain's motorway services each year. An average motorway service area may see 10,000 to 20,000 visits per day, with the busiest seeing more than 40,000. The average visit lasts for 28 minutes.
That is a decent-sized audience by any measure and the demographics are not bad, either. While the popular image of motorway services is somewhat coloured by experiences of fractious, screaming children on the way back from Bank Holiday outings, the truth is that 65 per cent of visitors are business travellers. And this is not a euphemism for lorry drivers, either.
The business audience ranges from sales reps and fleet managers to senior management. Motorway services are increasingly a hub for business meetings, with additional business services now offered at leading locations. That is why BT is sponsoring permanent "Open Zone" areas at services where business travellers benefit from wireless connections to the internet.
So, Bank Holiday weekends aside, service stations have recently become civilised places, as ownership has consolidated under three main operators - Moto (formerly Granada), Welcome Break and Roadchef - which own most of the 131 sites nationwide.
Obviously, most of us know the odd unreconstructed horror story but, by and large, services are no longer the ordeal they once were. They offer a choice of more or less edible food in reasonably clean environments, and perhaps the most significant development has been their evolution as retail environments, and the industry is lobbying to be allowed to expand service area retail space beyond the 5,000 square feet currently permissible.
Alongside confectionery, drinks, crisps, greeting cards and maps, retail areas offer a wider range of gift and impulse-buy items.
Again, according to Mintel, the most likely reason for stopping at a motorway service areas is to visit the washroom, so it is just as well fragrance and hygiene issues have, by and large, been addressed. Also, a lot of thought has gone into ensuring the signage and ambience en route from the car to the toilet works to convert single-mission visitors into spending customers. And washroom advertising - on A3 panels - remains one of the most important opportunities in this sector.
But the mainstay of the medium is illuminated six-sheets in and around the central facilities building on each site and they are commonly sold in packs targeting specific demographics - for instance, a business, motoring or CTN-oriented audience.
The business packages attract advertisers such as business magazines, energy drinks, car accessories (such as tracking devices and sound systems), recruitment, telecoms, insurance and internet services, plus, of course, most of the major car manufacturers.
Recent users include Red Bull, Vodafone, Carphone Warehouse, Orange, Direct Line, Ford, Jaguar, Honda, The Economist, Mercedes, T-Mobile, Siemens, BT Cellnet, Nokia, Samsung, Citroen and Reed Business.
MAJOR PLAYER: Admedia
WHAT'S NEW: Larger retail areas
CASE STUDY - Cadbury Trebor Bassett
Client: Cadbury Trebor Bassett
Brand: Trebor Extra Strong Mints/Trebor Softmints
Agency: Starcom Motive
Brief: Raise awareness of the Trebor master brand, drive sales of Trebor
Extra Strong Mints and Trebor Softmints
Target audience: Adults aged 25+
Length of campaign: Five bursts of activity from June until October 2005.
Inventory used: Six-sheet posters in 131 motorway service areas nationwide.
Results: The high-impact Cadbury Trebor posters successfully reached a huge mobile adult (aged 25 and over) audience, effectively communicating the key brand messages and driving sales. Sales of Trebor Extra Strong Mints and Trebor Softmints increased significantly during the campaign periods. Prompted awareness of the Trebor campaign reached 78 per cent among the core audience.