There was stiff competition in both the rural and motorway categories at this year’s awards, and the judges were impressed with the very high standards from entrants.
One thing that stood out was that the most successful and professional sites were those where retailers really knew their market - and made sure they catered for it.
The growth in freshly made food-to-go was apparent at sites in both categories, with sandwiches made to order as well as quality coffee and tea offerings standing out as sales drivers.
The rural category was dominated by Northern Irish retailers, who said that it was as important as ever to try to remain competitive with nearby shops and especially with supermarkets on fuel prices. But at the same time they said sites needed to offer what the supermarkets often lacked - service with a smile and local services for customers.
Meanwhile, stocking and selling the big brands was hugely important for the motorway sites, with major names like Costa Coffee proving a draw for motorists.
=== Rural - Overall category winner ===
Brennans Spar in Seaforde, County Down, is a modern, stylish store with food-to-go as well as an eat-in cafe.
The site was a winner in the rural, nine sites or less category, and emerged as the overall rural victor. The site was previously unbranded but after being given a major refit last year, the shop became Spar and the forecourt now uses the Go! brand of fuel, which is supplied by Irish company the LCC (Lissan Coal Company) group. The site’s owner Conor McKibbin, pictured left, says: "We really brought the site up-to-date and to a very high standard, including improved lighting, flooring and shelving. We also brought the off-licence into the store - before that it was a separate shop attached to the side of the building. We’ve seen a good bit of growth in sales since the changes but our traditional offers are still going strong. For example, for many years we’ve offered a wide range of ice creams and people often visit on a Sunday and like to sit outside - or inside if the weather’s bad - to have an ice cream. We’ve found it’s a real draw for business."
=== Rural - Oil co/supermarket-owned/managed ===
Trolans Supervalu Ballymoney in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, is a huge site with a fabulous supermarket with plenty of choice, including a great array of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables.
There is also plenty of parking and an excellent off-licence.
Owner Patsy Trolan, pictured right, describes the site as a one-stop shop where customers can buy their fuel and do their weekly shop as well as find a good selection of non-food items such as healthcare.
Patsy adds: "The nearest big supermarkets are only seven miles away so we try to remain competitive on fuel - we’re usually within a penny of the fuel price of either Asda and Tesco.
"The supermarket we have on site is obviously a very big draw and our hot and cold deli bar is usually busy from about 6.30am.
"We also make sandwiches to order and have a very popular Tchibo coffee offering, both of which are great for business."
The site is open from 6am to midnight seven days a week.
=== Best motorway site - winner ===
The Cardiff West Motorway Service Station, which is at junction 33 on the M4 in Mid Glamorgan, won the best motorway site award for its clean and tidy appearance as well as its excellent On the Run format and Costa Coffee offer. Judges were also impressed with its well-stocked and well-merchandised shelves.
The site’s manager Gill Lockhart (pictured left) says: "The site is bright, it’s bold, and it’s customer friendly - which I think is the key for motorway sites. Our site stands out and is a great place to stop to recharge the batteries.
"Having Costa Coffee is fantastic, the whole brand awareness thing is very important.
"Food-to-go is definitely the biggest area of sales for us and we also offer fresh doughnuts which continue to be a very popular feature with our customers.
"In addition we’re also trialling different kinds of concepts, such as our toy section which offers travel toys for kids." Gill says much of this is still down to trial and error but adds that it’s an area she’s very interested in developing in the future.