The Low-down on Restaurant Reservations (and How to Survive No-Shows)

A no-show at your restaurant often means more than an unexpectedly empty table. Here are the ups and downs of taking reservations at your venue, plus tips to manage the ones that don’t turn up.

By Dave Eagle

The practice of customers calling in advance to secure a table at a specific time can be a boon for everyone involved, but some restaurants have…well, reservations about it.

The reality is that when an establishment accepts reservations, customers are the only guaranteed winners: there will be a table waiting for them when they arrive. If you know a place is likely to be busy at a certain time, reserving a spot lets you bypass the queues.

For a restaurant however, a reservation is a promise that only pays off when fulfilled. It’s a bit of a gamble on their part, because a no-show can often mean more than an unexpectedly empty table.

The Low-down on Restaurant Reservations (and How to Survive No-Shows)_Kounta

Reserving a seat: the good, the bad, and the ugly

So why do restaurants keep taking this gamble? Well, as far as business risks go, reservations are pretty low on the list in terms of damage done. And the rewards are enough to make the idea compelling:

  1. A restaurant that routinely fills its seats can actually enhance customer satisfaction. Customers with a reservation start their whole dining experience smoothly, gliding in from the street to their table, immediately ready to order some drinks and look over the menu.
  2. If you’re running a restaurant and you know in advance how many people are coming to dine, you can plan your resources accordingly – get more staff in or order more raw supplies.
  3. Reservations are also helpful when preparing your restaurant’s table layout for service, especially when dealing with larger parties. Few things throw off the mechanics of a dining room filled two- and four-seat tables like a party of six or more showing up unannounced.

READ NOW: Don’t Table This Discussion – Preparing Your Restaurant’s Table Layout for Service

But of course, reserving tables can just as easily put a restaurant in a bind

The most obvious problem is the no-show. Even the most popular restaurants go through lull periods, and the fact is that unfulfilled reservations cost money. Dimmi’s annual 2017 No Show Report revealed that Australian hospitality businesses lose a staggering $75 million a year due to unfulfilled reservations.

Also, the closer you get to the reservation time for a given table, the trickier seating for it becomes. A walk-in party that can’t be seated at a table that’s been reserved for 30 minutes is likely to leave, and any time you don’t have someone sitting and ordering, you’re losing money. 

If you’re willing to cut it close, you can seat people in reserved seats, but then the timing of meals become extremely important. Your kitchen workflow will probably be disrupted, and if there are still guests lingering at 6:55 for a table that needs to be ready at 7:00, there’s only so much you can do to get them out without offending them.

If you don’t do enough to free the space, you’ll upset the party that was trying to avoid the wait in the first place with their reservation and it’s in this last case that things can get ugly.

Customers who make a reservation (and show up) expect a no-wait experience, and if you can’t deliver on that, you might need to deal with a complaint, a scathing online review, or both. With 35 per cent of Aussies depending on verified diner reviews to make an informed decision about where to eat, it’s more important than ever to give your customers an enjoyable experience in your establishment.

READ NOW: How to Drive Positive Reviews on Sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor

Worse than this is when the reservation somehow gets lost or forgotten, and your customers show up and have to be turned away entirely, but at least that’s within your control.

So what should you do when it comes to taking reservations?

The Low-down on Restaurant Reservations (and How to Survive No-Shows)_Kounta

Have a system in place to honour the bookings you take

Establishing a set protocol for accepting reservations is an essential step if you’re taking table bookings – this means setting things up so that:

  1. whoever is on shift is able easily retrieve and verify reservation records when customers come in. Pen and paper will suffice for most small establishments, but remember that doing things manually, especially during the hustle and bustle of a busy shift, can result in mistakes.
  2. whoever accepts the reservation also knows to inform customers of anything important, like, if they can only have the table for two hours, or how long they have to notify you if they’d like to cancel.
  3. you have enough information to contact your customers to remind them of their booking.

Pro-tip: If you’re using Kounta, add new customers into your database while taking reservations, and get their email addresses. You can then send them e-receipts automatically after a purchase, sync your customers list with add-ons you already use (to collect feedback for example), and nurture them with a loyalty program.

If you’re running a larger hospitality business and find it tricky to manage a ton of bookings day-to-day, then it might make more sense to use a reservation service, like OpenTable or Dimmi.

While costs can rack up using these services (OpenTable charges a subscription fee of US$249 per month and an additional dollar for every successfully seated customer), there are certainly benefits to doing so:

  1. Your establishment benefits from exposure via a connected network. Dimmi for example, gives your restaurant visibility to 1.4 million diners who actively search and make reservations on the website and app.
  2. The convenience! You’ll be able to take bookings 24/7 instead of only during your opening hours and do things like automate confirmation notifications, build guest profiles, and access support teams that promote your restaurant and help you troubleshoot any issues.
  3. You’ll be able to access a number of functions that can really change how reservations boost your business. For example, OpenTable has a Bonus Points feature that helps restaurants attract diners to cover empty seats during typically slow periods (without discounting). Both Dimmi and OpenTable also have integrations that allow visitors to make a booking at your restaurant directly from sites like TripAdvisor and Google.
The Low-down on Restaurant Reservations (and How to Survive No-Shows)_Kounta
Customers can book a table at your venue’s listing directly from Google search results when you partner with a reservations service.

Whether you handle reservations entirely by yourself or opt to have software do the work for you, you’ll benefit from having an established system to take, manage, and fulfil your reservations.

That still leaves you on guard against no-shows, however. While this is something out of your immediate control, there are measures you can take to try and prevent and/or mitigate them.

The Low-down on Restaurant Reservations (and How to Survive No-Shows)_Kounta

How to show the no-shows you mean business

When you’ve put in place all the right pieces to support taking reservations, you’re investing time and money to make sure you’ve done things right. So how do you make sure that your customers uphold their end of the bargain?

The short answer is you can’t, really. But the current one-way dynamic of restaurant reservations is something more hospitality businesses are striking back at. 

Ultimately, it’s up to you to design your no-show policy, but here’s what some businesses have done:

  1. You can publicly shame them, but there could be serious repercussions to doing this. Back in 2013, the owner of Los Angeles restaurant Red Medicine stirred up quite a bit of controversy when he tried to shame no-shows on Twitter and started naming names. Did he get his point across? Maybe. Is the restaurant still in business? Not since 2014.
  2. You can blacklist people. Restaurateurs like Joel Best (of Sydney’s Bondi Best) have been doing this for some time, usually by keeping a list of names of the people who’ve done them wrong. Reservation services have taken the concept a step further – Dimmi famously maintained a blacklist of the names of over 38,000 Aussies who’ve flaked out on their reservations. They report a 25 per cent decrease in no-shows since the implementation of this list, but that is another way of saying that 75 per cent of people are still pulling the same tricks, so you could potentially be refusing a lot of business by doing this. 
  3. You can obtain credit card numbers up front, and charge a fee if they don’t show up. The higher the charge is, the more effective this policy becomes. Momofuku Seiōbo for example, charges a hefty $185 per person for cancellations that occur within 24 hours (or no-shows on the day), which certainly weeds out those who fear commitment. But it also might rub some people the wrong way, and make those with good intentions feel less than welcome to dine with you.
  4. Take reservations only for a certain number of people and above. Sydney-based establishments like Restaurant Hubert and Mr Wong choose to only take dinner bookings for groups of six or more people, securing a table for those that can commit to a sizeable spend. This obviously lessens the amount of reservations and no-shows that they have to deal with, but can be slightly off-putting for diners who just don’t want to queue.

There are clearly many benefits to accepting reservations at your venue, but also a few downsides, which thankfully are not impossible to manage. If offering a customer-centric experience is what you’re trying to achieve in your business, then don’t just react to those who behave badly.

Positively rewarding people for being customers – thanking them for not only reserving with you, but for showing up – will help you leave a lasting impression and discourage no-shows in the future. That’s what it means to be hospitable, right?

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