Motorway services: For a five-star experience, take the next exit

Britain's service stations now have to meet tough new standards

'Cottage pie – is that made with lamb or beef?" Howard Loxley is giving me an idea of the kind of awkward question he likes to put to restaurant staff in motorway service stations. He's not a contrary chap, it's just his job. Howard leads a team of six inspectors that roams around England assessing the standard of the nation's motorway service areas.

Each of England's 107 motorway service stations has been put through its paces no fewer than three times during the past 12 months. Howard and his colleagues have just reached their conclusions for 2012 – the project's second full year – and VisitEngland, which supervises the Motorway Services Quality Scheme, will announce the latest star ratings on Thursday.

Asking staff impromptu questions about the content of a cottage pie to judge how helpful they are inclined to be towards customers, is just one the numerous ways in which Howard and his team work out how well a service station is performing in a detailed assessment that can take up to two hours.

The project was initiated in 2008 when the Highways Agency approached VisitEngland to help them devise a quality standard that services operators could use to improve the customer experience. VisitEngland drew on the ranks of the self-employed assessors working on its Visitor Attraction Quality Assurance Scheme to put together an independent team.

"We purely come at it from the customer's point of view," says Howard. "So we follow their experience from start to finish. Even before we arrive, we take into account how they deal with inquiries over the telephone and email." (People phone up service stations? Who knew?)

At the location, the questions mount. "Signage off the motorway, cleanliness of the roadsides, the markings, the car park, the lighting – how easy and safe it is to get from your car into the building – the outdoor seating and picnic areas, children's playgrounds, dog-walking facilities, facilities for families, facilities for disabled guests, facilities for coaches, facilities for caravans, facilities for lorries..." He hasn't even stepped inside the building yet.

It's a lot of work, says Howard, especially since research shows that the vast majority of people who visit motorway services come in, use the loo and go. I'm not surprised: the toilet stop is surely the most compelling reason to call in at one of these places.

Howard tells me that the operators recognise that almost all their customers will use the toilet, so it's a really important part of an operation.

Beyond the toilets, Howard and his team have catering, cleanliness, food, retail, service, the site and the petrol station forecourt to consider. "We answer about 250-260 questions," he says. "It's all about making sure we look at every aspect of the operation. For a service station to get a star rating, it needs to be consistent across the operation." He tips me the wink that just one motorway service station has won five stars this year – the first ever to achieve top marks – Tebay Services southbound, between junctions 39 and 38 of the M6 in Cumbria.

Howard's sheets of intricate questions, with their multiple-choice answers, make me goggle. Does a queue at a shop take more than the four-minute acceptable limit? Were car park bay markings clear? Is a restaurant's dining furniture clean – including the rails beneath the seat?

The questions were written by the assessors themselves, using commissioned customer research. The operators of the motorway service stations, whom they regularly meet to offer feedback, also had an input. In fact, the six main companies whose venues are inspected – Moto, Welcome Break, RoadChef, Extra, Westmorland and Euro Garages – pay for the scheme.

Howard is keen to impress upon me that when he and his fellow inspectors visit a site they always arrive unannounced. He has chosen Beaconsfield Service Station, just outside London on the M40, for our meeting. It has just retained its four-star rating, and Howard is pleased to see that the management has acted on recommendations he made in 2011.

Outside, we stop by a fingerpost sign erected in the past year. "When we first did the assessment, nobody would have known there was a lovely dog-walking area just around the corner of the building."

Beaconsfield, like the other service stations, will be able to display its star ratings for everyone to see on a special plaque. But whether or not the customers clock that, Howard hopes they'll notice a positive difference. "It sounds sad," he laughs, "but our team is now very pro motorway service areas and what they do."

I'm not sure I'm a fan, but I'll never look at a motorway service station in the same way again.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week