Over the phone, or online, the growth of digital has meant it has never been easier for a person to make a restaurant reservation. Yet, cancelling that reservation, if needs be, somehow seems harder.
Whatever the reason – be it a diner’s lack of courtesy, forgetfulness, or an emergency – no shows have a major financial impact on the restaurant sector, not only resulting in lost revenue from an unsold table, but also from the excess costs involved in staffing a half empty restaurant.
And no part of the industry is immune: high street chains, independent neighbourhood bistros and Michelin-starred restaurants all suffer, with the average no show rate being anywhere between 10 to 15 per cent of a restaurant's covers, sometimes even more when a business is new.
"I’d say a 10 per cent no show rate is realistic," says restaurateur Kurt Zdesar, owner of London restaurants Chotto Matte, Black Roe and Fucina when questioned about the extent of the problem at his restaurants, "but during launch periods this is a much bigger problem. I remember once having 140 no shows in a single evening, almost 50 per cent of our bookings."
While the industry recognises no shows as a problem, there remains to be a one-size-fits-all approach to solving it. Some, like the Clove Club, as we know, have taken the ticketed route - asking for payment at the time of booking - to stem booking flakiness and guarantee income regardless of whether guests turn up, others, particularly those without set menus, are yet to find a solution that works for them and their guests. In some cases, restaurant managers simply do nothing, feeling there is little they can do to avoid no shows.
"It's almost an industry accepted standard in restaurants that they’ll get no shows," says Charlotte Missenden, co-founder of reservations management company Tablebook.me who believes restaurants benefit from implementing a no show strategy.
"When we work with a new client, we ask, 'how many covers are you doing and what's your no show rate?' And most of them don't know.
"Restaurants are such a complicated business model, with the kitchen and service to think about, so reservations have always been a secondary thing to them. Most don’t apply a professional approach to it, but when you consider how important bums on seats are - in that it determines what revenue they generate - it's strange that so few are paying any real attention to the data and methodologies behind their reservation structure. [In some cases] booking and no show strategies are unheard of."
Credit card details
Executive chef Andrew Dargue put a no show strategy, of sorts, in place at his city-based vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black last year when no shows became a serious problem for his business.
In a typical week, the 80 cover restaurant, could have 10 no shows on a busy Saturday night and the same number on a Wednesday, which as Dargue, says, had a greater impact due to the fact that only 40 covers might be booked for that night. The restaurant's tucked-away location also means those tables are likely to remain empty all night.
"If they just don’t show up I can’t do anything, nobody just walks past here, they have to know where they are going," he says
"It was hard to take, especially when you’ve got stock in and extra staff. It’s a shame because it spoils it for others because you need to put something in place that then affects everyone."
Dargue's compromise was to ask for credit card details for bookings made online for five or more people, with the warning that the restaurant would charge £25 per head if a cancellation was made less than 24 hours in advance.
“We started it with Fridays and Saturdays and then and then increased it to the whole week. The difference was remarkable. You could guarantee, most of the time now that people will call up and say ‘I’m sorry, I can no longer make the booking’. Once that deterrent was in place, people just made an effort to let us know,” he enthuses.
Like Dargue, Zdesar wrestled with taking credit card details from customers at the point of booking, but decided to introduce the practice for online bookings as, also like Dargue, online bookings resulted in the highest number of no shows.
"We found that the rate of no shows through telephone bookings is far less so we have been forced to introduce credit cards for all online bookings," he says. "I hate charging for no shows and only charge if we cannot fill the table from the holding bar or walk-ins but with the cost of rent, rising rates, insurance, staff costs etc. we have to be full for both lunch and dinner or put our prices up in order to survive.
"Asking for credit card details also ensures that you’re dealing with a real person and not a false booking which is a problem we had faced in the past."
Right from the start
Alex Wrethman, owner of the three-strong restaurant company Charlotte's Group also takes credit card bookings for large online bookings - those of tables of eight or more - and has contemplated taking credit card details for all bookings at his Chiswick restaurant Charlotte's Place, which like Vanilla Black, is not blessed with many walk-ins.
However, Wrethman regards the taking of credit cards as a last resort and believes that the right approach from restaurant managers at the point of booking can make all the difference to the number of no-shows a restaurant receives.
"I know that sometimes people book several restaurants. It’s frustrating but it happens. However, the percentage isn’t that high, so if you start taking credit card details for all tables then it’s bad will with a lot of your trustworthy guests."
All Charlotte's Group restaurant managers are given reservations training, where not only are they taught to maximise table bookings, but manage the guests reserving them too.
"An operations manager will crucify a restaurant manager who has a high rate of no shows," he says. "The restaurant manager will say the company should take credit card details, but really they just need to manage it better when they take the reservation.
"With us, the critical point is taking the data accurately in the first place. We take a person's full name, surname and take the trouble to get the spelling right, then take their email and phone number so we can contact them to confirm the booking. We need to do everything we can our end to get it right from the beginning."
Wrethman makes it the responsibility of all his restaurant managers to call all lunch and dinner bookings in the morning to confirm them, a step he believes, is an easy, yet significant one in the battle of the no-shows.
"I think it's about giving the customer the impression that we take it seriously," he says. "We take your reservation seriously, so please take our business seriously. It’s so simple, it’s just taking the time to do it properly. We don’t have dedicated receptionists in our restaurants, it’s the restaurant manager’s job to manage them. They are in charge of hosting and that starts before the customer arrives in the restaurant."
Not all restaurants are able to dedicate time and resource to calling all bookings, an aspect Missenden, whose company manages reservations on behalf of operators, recognised when she set the business up.
Tablebook.me has dedicated staff who will answer calls to restaurants and manage bookings around the clock. They will also call all bookings to confirm in advance at times that they've found work with the customers, not the restaurant.
"It’s trial and error as to what works, but the important thing is having a dedicated resource. Most restaurants don’t have someone with the sole responsibility for the no show rate. They may have a reservations manager or manager, but that’s not their main responsibility," says Missenden, whose company currently works with the likes of the Crazy Bear Group, Benares and Lima London.
"Our staff will remind the customer when they book, 'Mr Smith, if you can't make it on that day, could you give us a call?' That simple addition can reduce the no show rate by a couple of per cent. If you’ve asked personally, people are a little more mindful of letting you know. All these little things that have an impact."
"One of the objections to using our service is that it doesn't have the personal touch, so restaurants are reluctant to use these methods, but we noticed that with those we worked with like Crazy Bear, that once we did the confirmations by phone it reduced their no-show rates by 5 per cent pretty much immediately."
Using Tablebook.me has also helped Zdesar in his company's battle against the no shows as well as taking the pressure off his staff in managing reservations.
"We used to have three people handle the phone and had wait times of up to 15 minutes sometimes," he says. "Using Tablebook.me means we now have a response time of six or seven seconds, which stops customers from dropping their bookings due to being on hold. The team is also great. They call the day of the reservation to confirm each and every booking and make full use of our wait list. I have even asked them to collect data for me on whether customers that are offered alternative booking times due to availability are more likely to be no shows and they assisted me without hesitation."
As many operators face both staffing and financial challenges this year in the wake of Brexit, investing in some help to guarantee that tables are maximised and keeping a venue busy could help safeguard the business.
"Calls for bookings don’t come one after the other in a two hour block, so if a restaurant is going to employ someone to focus on reservations, the question is, when do they pay them to do it? How do you resource this in a restaurant? If your business isn't big enough to have a dedicated receptionist, resourcing for reservations is really important," underlines Missenden.
"The average restaurant pays £5 an hour for the service we provide. Even before the minimum wage goes up in April, a restaurant can never hire anyone for that. We work 12 hours a day for no holiday and sick pay. The price hike is going to hit restaurants hard internally, so it makes sense to look at ways to save money now."
This BigHospitality feature was sponsored by Tablebook.Me:
Tablebook.Me provides Reservations Management and Call Answering services that reduce your staff overheads, improves customer engagement and drives massive cover increases for your Restaurant, Bar or Nightclub. To arrange a free 7 day trial of the service visit www.tablebook.me , call 0800 8620199 or Melanie Kirkpatrick on 07961 316676.