A question of time

Adam Ion, co-owner and head chef at Melaleuca Port Douglas. Picture supplied.

It’s not too much to ask that diners arrive for their reservation in a timely fashion—but how do you make it happen? By Frank Leggett

One of the major aggravations facing those in the hospitality industry is diners who make a reservation then turn up late or not at all. It means tables can’t be turned over for other diners and has a negative financial impact on the business. So, what’s the best way to ensure diners turn up on time?

“This is not an issue born out of malice by the guests,” says Drew Fellows, co-owner and design director at the hospitality consultancy firm, the Eatery Group. “There’s simply a lack of understanding as to why their individual action affects many. Unfortunately, this is a situation where we have to break a large collection of people of longstanding bad habits.”

Online booking

Online booking systems have improved cancellation notifications by removing the embarrassment some people feel in calling a restaurant and explaining why they can’t make it. Additionally, when they make the booking online and pick their reservation time, customers are more inclined to turn up punctually.

“Our online booking system has definitely improved guest punctuality,” says Adam Ion, co-owner and head chef at Melaleuca Port Douglas. “We also have staff follow up the booking with a phone call. We believe a personal touch makes the guest more comfortable but also gives them an opportunity to cancel or rebook at a later date.”

While an effective online booking system encourages guests to act in a timely manner, running a restaurant without such a system in place is setting yourself up to fail. People simply expect to be able to book online.  

“We are at a point in time where people order $100 worth of restaurant-level food to be delivered by someone on a bicycle because they can do it from their iPhone without missing a single moment of Tiger King,” says Fellows. “That’s what you’re competing against. You have to make it easy for people to book but also to cancel.”

Drew Fellows. Image supplied.

Follow up

Charging a refundable booking fee is a common practice though the amount, how it is imposed and the cancellation policy varies between venues. During this era of COVID-19, the number of people restaurants can legally sit can change from month to month. When restrictions are at their tightest, a no-show of a table of 10 could represent more than 50 per cent of a night’s takings. While a booking fee certainly helps get customers to the restaurant, a little follow-up can encourage them to arrive on time.

“Our online booking system sends a text to all reservations four hours prior to their booking,” says Ion. “The customer then must accept the booking. If there’s no confirmation, we call them to confirm. We only take a deposit for large tables over eight people. This is refundable up to 24 hours prior to the booking. This helps us staff correctly to stay within budgets.”

Drew Fellows suggests going even further. “Calling your guests the day before adds to their sense of responsibility. When a real person asks to verbally confirm your booking and politely reminds you of any financial penalties, it makes the booker more accountable. Take the opportunity to say, ‘We’re looking forward seeing you’ or ‘Are there any special arrangements we can make for you?’ Reinforce the time of the booking as many times as it can be naturally included in the conversation.”

Clear communication

Restaurants need to train diners in the way they do business. To do this, they need to communicate clearly with their clients. While social media is a great way to promote your business, it can also be an effective method of communication.

“Social media is not just a place to put up photos; it’s a communication channel with your diners,” says Fellows. “Establish the correct tone of voice, and let customers know you really appreciate everyone turning up on time. Make sure all your terms and conditions around reservations are indisputably clear and visible at the point of booking. Have a limit on how long you’ll hold the table, call them before that time is up, and remind them of any financial penalties. Use social media as an education tool as much as a promotional tool.”

A multi-pronged approach is required to ensure your diners turn up on time. Make it easy for them to book or cancel a reservation. Clearly communicate your terms and conditions. Take a booking fee. Make personal contact with them prior to the booking.

“We’ve found that communicating with our guests before their arrival ensures punctuality and reliability,” says Ion. “Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and have a conversation with your guest. Not only will this have them seated on time, it also enhances their experience and makes them feel important so they’re more relaxed when they arrive.”

Fellows agrees. “Call your guests for confirmation and politely remind them of their obligation. Your obligation is to have their table ready from the first second of their reserved time. Reservations are only powerful if they are efficient. Waiting for a reserved table is enough to turn the most accommodating guest into a monster.”