Customers making a reservation but not turning up costs the on-trade tens of thousands of pounds a night. Gaëlle Laforest checks out the options for making no-shows a thing of the past
At Michelin-starred restaurant The Clove Club in east London the phone doesn't ring, customers are brought course after course without having seen a menu, and at the end there's no bill in sight. It's not a strange new pay-what-you-want system, nor an act of hospitable charity; rather, it's the work of Tock.
'We heard about Chicago-based restaurant Alinea doing a ticketing system,' explains The Clove Club's Daniel Willis. 'We knew about it and how it'd completely revolutionised how they'd done reservations. And again, we'd become incredibly frustrated with no-shows at the restaurant.'
Booking website ResDiary estimates that missed bookings cost the UK restaurant industry from £4bn to up to £16bn per year. And so it was that, last year, exasperated at the number of no-shows and at the money they were costing his business as a result, Alinea's Nick Kokonas decided to take matters into his own hands.
We still don’t want to take deposits because we want that personal touch
Bringing on board both experienced restaurateurs and top Silicon Valley software engineers, he created Tock, a ticketing system that requires customers to pay for their restaurant 'experiences'
in full, at the time of booking.
'That process I compare to buying flights,' Willis continues. 'You don't buy flights unless you really know you can go. Tock forces people to commit to coming to their booking.'
The Clove Club was the first venue in the UK to take the system on board last year, across its restaurant and some of its bar offering, and it's not looking back. No-shows have dropped from 10% to less than 3%, and Willis is adamant it’s entirely due to the system: 'You’d be surprised at how better people are at remembering a date when there’s a lot of money associated with it.'
That's not to say no-shows are the sole cause of changes to bookings. Simply, the world has changed and customers' habits and lifestyles have evolved along with it. Long gone are the days of chunky agendas, pencils and erasers. Booking a table has become a business as much as having an actual meal or drink.
While Tock is the latest of those, and perhaps one of the most extreme products out there, there's definitely been a wind of change sweeping the trade – and it's mostly a digital one. OpenTable, the leading provider of online restaurant bookings in the world, works with nearly 5,000 venues in the UK and has seated 72 million diners in the 12 years it’s been here.
And that’s just one system – you've got Bookatable, Velocity, and more self-hosted booking systems by website providers such as Wix. There are also bar-only products such as Design My Night.
No free lunch
Third-party websites have a cost, though. OpenTable charges 25p for seats booked via its widget on a restaurant's website,
but that amount goes up to £2 if customers use OpenTable's website directly.
It also costs £25 a month to use its Connect house management and marketing tool, and £149 if you want its Guest Centre, which help businesses with table management, smart seating and keep track of customers' preferences.
Collins, the booking system created by Design My Night, charges a monthly £125 per venue, with prices decreasing as the number of venues increase, and a plethora of additional functions.
Naturally, that's not for everyone. Whisky bar Black Rock in east London is as old school as it gets in this day and age – bookings are made on the phone or over email, and tracked via Google Calendar.
You don’t buy flights unless you really know you can go. Tock forces people to commit to coming to their booking
'We get a decent overview of bookings and it's easy to move things around. It works for us,' says bar manager Thomas Solberg. 'We do have a bit of no-shows. The smaller the space, the more no-shows will affect you — it's simple maths. But we still don’t want to take deposits because we want that personal touch.'
The bar, however, was advertised as no-bookings when it opened, and that’s the other side of the coin. Increasingly, newly opened venues choose to operate walk-in only policies, taking the negatives of bookings out of the equation entirely – and the positives, too.
While it's maybe traditional with bars, where table turnover is generally fast, it traditionally wasn't in restaurants until recently. Trends for small plates, restaurant hopping and more spontaneous dining could explain it. Still, perhaps surprisingly, a 2014 YouGov survey of Londoners found that 53% were unfavourable to no-booking venues.
The future of booking
'Clear, quick and easy…'
'It's very early days but it's the start of a new revolution in terms of guest relations,' says The Clove Club’s Daniel Willis. 'It's clear, quick, and overall really easy for guests to book a table using Tock – including international diners. I think paying for a meal after you have it will be a thing of the past.'
'No-show rates close to zero…'
Mobile app Velocity focuses on last-minute bookings of high-end restaurants, allowing the user to book up to seven days ahead of dining, keeping bookings
fresh in people's minds.
'We have found no-shows across the Velocity network to be around half the prevailing rates in the general industry,' says co-founder Zia Yusuf. 'Many of our restaurant partners choose to use our feature that requires customers to have a payment method stored securely so that they can easily apply a pre-agreed no-show fee. Venues using this service find no-show rates close to zero. Given this is the norm in all other aspects of hospitality (hotels, taxis, etc) we expect this to rapidly become the industry standard.'
'We wanted it to be as natural as possible…'
Flatshare-themed bar and restaurant The Little Yellow Door in west London takes about half its drinks and dinner bookings via messaging app WhatsApp.
'We felt that for our concept of a flatshare to be authentic, everything had to be as it would be if you were going round to a friend's house,' says co-founder and director Kamran Dehdashti. 'We wanted it to be as natural as possible for guests. Take out the formality of having to fill in booking forms and to make booking as simple and easy as possible, just like texting your friends. For some places the formality needs to be there, for us it's a great way of showing how casual and welcoming we are.'
'No-reservation restaurants are an example of how different a business model it is compared to what we do,' says Willis. 'When someone is in the queue at [Soho-based Sri Lankan restaurant] Hoppers for 25 minutes and decides not to go, they step out and someone else takes their place. But as we get more areas that are developing, I do think no reservations will win in the end.'
That's the way it's gone for the Mothership Scotland group in Edinburgh. While Bramble used to take bookings when it opened, it’s now walk-in only; so is sister bar Lucky Liquor Co after 9pm. 'The footprint of the venue and its footfall are what influences our decisions when it comes to booking systems,' says Jason Scott, the group's co-owner. 'Bramble's very busy whether it's a Monday or Friday. It's not possible to hold a table on a Saturday night.'
Back in London, Michelin-starred restaurant Chez Bruce still welcomes bookings. Phone bookings for parties over four require card details, as do online bookings – and all are confirmed on the phone on the day. The issue, owner Bruce Poole explains, is 'a complex one' – but it shouldn’t alienate the honest customer.
'Yes, no-shows are a pain in the arse and yes, they cost us dearly over the year,' he says. 'But we are in the hospitality industry and there is a very fine line between insisting on surety for a reservation and appearing unfriendly, aggressive or grabby – something we never are.'
Ultimately, that's where the debate now lies. In this age of fluidity and spontaneity, how can the hospitality industry balance friendly customer interaction with the assurance that people will turn up?
According to Willis, a ticketing system actually solves the problem by focusing all staff’s attention on positive customer interaction, rather than menial administrative details.
'With a restaurant of our standing, the first contact you would have would be terms and conditions,' he says. ‘And we'd have to take a lot of information over the phone. You end up with two people employed just to pick up the phone – which no restaurant can afford. The phone can be a great tool, but we reserve it for communicating with booked guests.
'You have to use the technology available to improve your organisation and make it as efficient as possible,' he concludes. 'Besides, no one complains at the end of Glastonbury that they didn't book their ticket over the phone.'