In a widely shared recent FT piece, food critic Tim Hayward fingered a new suspect in the crime of restaurant no-shows: online booking. Booking by phone was a ceremonial contract, he argues, but now any personal connection with the chef-owner or family-run restaurant behind the booking widget has been lost.
Instead, with their pushy recommendations, booking apps make diners: “Feel like a faceless commodity herded in to fill seats.” So it is unsurprising, says Hayward, that people make multiple bookings then no-show (behaviour which, unless you are very determined, will get you banned from most portals).
But what if, rather than relying on technology too much, restaurants have been slow to exploit it? For instance, in 2018, not taking online bookings is bizarre. I am not evangelical about tech. I have no booking apps on my phone. I don’t need them. I know where I am eating. I am not interested in late, location-based offers and recommendations. But equally, I love the fact that in a few clicks I can find a restaurant website, book a table and get an immediate email confirmation.
Contrast that to the aggravation of having to phone repeatedly (because it’s engaged), find a slot, give your details verbally and check them all back. Or that archaic practice, still favoured by smaller high-end restaurants, of first having to email them with your preferred time-slots, numbers, dietary requirements, etc, which, after days of toing and froing and a final phone call, might result in a table.
In the restaurant world, the theory persists that such rigmarole constitutes ‘hospitality’ – a personal service. But, in modern Britain, who has the time? Moreover, most top restaurants will then ask for your credit card details. That is why guests turn up. Not because your staff have a charming telephone manner, but because, quite justifiably, you are holding their card details.
Credit card guarantees, deposits, prepayment: these are the only ways to protect against no-shows. In every other leisure and entertainment sphere it is standard practice. Yet (is it irrational fear, habit, ingrained prejudice?), restaurants are reluctant to make that leap. Any backlash will fade. People will get used to it. They have everywhere else, from hotels to gig tickets.
That you can formulate those payments in various ways, using for instance ResDiary or Tock, is a clear reason to embrace that technology and, once you know your guests will definitely turn up (The Clove Club’s no-shows dropped to under 1% using Tock), start thinking, imaginatively, about other user-friendly ways in which you could automate your bookings.
Whether as a core service or an add-on (eg, ResDiary’s Pre-Orders, £45-a-month), several booking platforms now allow diners to pre-order items and interact responsively with a venue.
In the very near future your website could become a smooth, holistic concierge service. A place where you take credit card-guaranteed bookings, but where diners can also choose their table; quickly flag-up allergies/dietary preferences (producing a clear paper-trail); pre-order a favourite wine to ensure you have it in-stock; order dishes, menus or supplementary items (eg, celebration cakes); while appending their booking with notes about anything from high-chairs to accessibility issues. None of which will be reliant on FOH staff writing messages to each other in a diary.
That clever website would help provide each guest with a bespoke experience, while embedding them in the ethos of your venue. Simultaneously, it would free up your team to better deliver the incredible face-to-face service (cough, upselling) and food you want them to. The technology is here… or near. You have nothing to lose but your no-shows.
This article first appeared in the November issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here. Follow Tony on Twitter @naylor_tony