The ‘they’ in question is an all-too-familiar thorn in the side of hospitality operators: no-shows.
Ball, alongside innumerable fellow business owners, is no stranger to people who for no discernible reason make a booking but neglect to actually turn up. Even a call an hour before a booking is preferable to the alternative – a dispiritingly empty table.
“It used to be really bad,” he says. “We previously used OpenTable but what I discovered is that with OpenTable you could have one account but book multiple restaurants for the same time. I had some massive fall-outs with them over things like this.”
Cards on the table
According to a spokesperson for OpenTable, the online reservation service, a diner will be prohibited from making future bookings if they don’t show up for a reservation four times over 12 months.
They told The MA: “OpenTable understands that restaurants turn away walk-in customers to ensure reservations are fulfilled and it can be difficult when these bookings don’t show up.
“We also understand that life happens and diners may not be able to make their booking for a variety of reasons. Our approach is to maximise the functionality of our technology to minimise the impact of no-shows on our restaurant partners.”
The spokesperson stresses that OpenTable sends reminders and encourages operators to follow up and advise them of no-shows. These assurances, however, haven't been enough to retain the Red Lion & Sun's business.
Heath Ball has since moved to a different online booking system. But no-shows are still an issue, with some customers allegedly booking four or more restaurants or pubs for the same timeslot and infuriating all but one.
“I think it’s that attitude of ‘we’re giving you our business and I spend a bit of money so it doesn’t matter’,” he says. “You couldn’t count the amount of times I’ve rung up people and gone ‘hi, where are you?’ and they’ve said ‘oh, I forgot to cancel’ or even just hung up on me.”
It's important to note that Ball doesn’t believe people are acting maliciously. Rather, he attributes the problem largely to a lack of understanding that a pub or restaurant is not just a place to eat or drink. In many cases, it is someone’s business and their lifeblood.
And while those within the industry harbour no illusions when it comes to food businesses' notoriously poor margins, it's reasonable to assume that members of the public are, as a rule, unaware of how tight those margins actually are - and the genuine effect that one table defecting on a reservation can have.
Ball recalls a particularly absurd experience: a group of customers booked out half the pub for a hog roast, paid a significant deposit and confirmed their booking. However, the sizeable group failed to materialise on the day.
“I rang them and asked where they were and they said they had too many cancellations and weren’t going to come. Granted, they gave me the money for the rest of the pig, but I was still counting on the revenue from the drinks spend and from having a busy pub – I’d closed off half the pub for an event and no one had come.”
While some higher-end restaurants have resorted to taking credit card details to avoid no-shows, Ball doesn’t feel this is appropriate for pubs, which customarily trade on informality.
“I’d hate to ever go down that road,” he says. “It just doesn’t work. But I don’t know what the solution is. I think [no-shows] must think ‘oh it’ll be fine, they’re always busy’ but it’s more a case of ‘you’re killing me, you’re absolutely killing me’.”
To charge or not to charge
An increasing number of higher-end restaurants and a small number of gastropubs are beginning to request customers’ credit card details when a booking is made.
In most cases, this adequately foolproofs against no-shows. If a customer knows they will be charged – regardless of whether they’re charged £10 or £50 – having something to lose is often enough to spur them into cancelling well enough in advance.
But pubs that don’t have the high-end credentials sometimes face an image problem with asking for card details. All too often people are reluctant to hand over their details when the establishment is “just a pub”.
“The problem definitely affects us but that’s just part of the job, I guess,” says James Penlington, director of the Bell, Stoke Mandeville.
“It is happening a little bit more often than it used to but I think potentially that’s more to do with a societal shift of sorts – people’s expectations are higher and they expect to get what they want quite a lot.”
So what is the answer? Penlington is wary of getting too caught up in the issue. Although he accepts the serious challenge no-shows pose to businesses that rely on turning tables to make a profit, he takes a pragmatic approach.
“It is a challenge and I know it can be very, very difficult for certain businesses and their business models but we’ve just got to look at it from a proactive point of view and ask how we can manage this better,” he says.
“We need to tell people the story and explain that the key thing is other people are being disappointed. There are other customers we’d love to look after who would love to have that table and are being prevented from potentially having a nice night out because we haven’t got organised or we have been cancelled on.”
Penlington and his staff do their best to mitigate no-shows by religiously confirming every booking: “Quite often, if I phone somebody up and ask if we’ve made a mistake in our bookings when they haven’t shown up, they often come back and say they’re really sorry, but they completely forgot to cancel.”
He emphasizes the importance of focusing on the positive effects for customers of supporting local hospitality businesses. Supporting, in this context, means more than just spending money, he says. It means engaging personally with customers so they let you know if they can’t make it.
He finishes: “If you want these businesses to succeed and be here in three months’ time, even if you don’t want to eat with us tonight but you want to come next week, you have to keep supporting the business properly if you want that choice.”
Is your business affected by no-shows? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org