The problem of restaurant no-shows has been a consistent problem for businesses for many years. Quite recently London and other large cities experienced issues of customers booking multiple restaurants for tables at the same time and then deciding which venue they would actually arrive at without cancelling the other bookings.
Other diners still believe that a booked table will always be resold even if they decide to "No Show" so see no need to inform the restaurant in question of their change of plan.
To my mind, there are two main issues here.
The first is to ensure our restaurant booking systems are robust enough to eliminate the possibility of any no-show, and the second is to change the customers perception of the restaurant business and encourage them to respect the fragility of table bookings - like airline seats or hotel bedrooms, you only get one chance to sell that space for that particular time and with any failure immediately lowering your occupancy rate and reducing your potential turnover.
Modern table management systems are designed to optimise occupancy and ensure the optimum use of that restaurant space during a given service period. Most systems now operate a system of taking credit card details at the time of booking to secure each booking (without taking a charge but checking the card details are legitimate). This creates an opportunity for the restaurant to make a No Show charge if a table fails to arrive. This can only work if the customer is informed at the time of booking and it is clearly stated in the booking terms and conditions.
Along with email reminders and even on the day phone calls to remind and confirm the booking, such a system would deter most no-shows with the option to charge the "lost" revenue in the event of a no-show.
This is all well and good for the larger more sophisticated restaurant operation, but for many smaller operators, there is a reluctance to ask for credit card details as such administration is seen as a barrier to booking and can deter the customer from booking that restaurant when the alternative venue is not so demanding. In addition many smaller operations do not employ full-time reservations or reception staff to manage their bookings and it not uncommon for bookings to be taken by a variety of restaurant staff including Chefs often just using a standard diary. In this scenario, the credit card option is too time-consuming and open to operator error.
So for the smaller operation, I found the best way was to take phone number and email details so that the booking could be confirmed back to the customer and to send email reminders the day before and day of the booking. If the service period was very heavily booked I would contact each booking by phone earlier in the day just to confirm their numbers and dining time and also run a wait list of customers who would take a table in the event of any no-show (for whatever reason). This does not completely eliminate the possibility of no-shows but does make the customer aware of the value of their booking to the restaurant and hopefully dissuades the more unscrupulous diner from not arriving.
In the event of a lack of response from customers regarding their booking, I would consider cancelling the booking and informing them prior to arrival but this would only be a last resort, but necessary if one is to protect revenue and ensure a full house.
In addition, on a busy night, I would have a wait list and have set dining periods for each table booking so that it was possible to ensure at least one if not two relays of each table so that the restaurant optimised its occupancy and received the maximum possible revenue.
In the event of a "No Show" I have billed customers for lost revenue and refused to take future bookings from them unless the circumstances were exceptional.
No restaurateur ever wants to alienate existing or potential customers but it is fair to say that when a customer makes a table booking, he is entering into an agreement to purchase those goods as the sole beneficiary and is, therefore, excluding other customers from that opportunity. If the customer fails to complete their booking, it should not be the restaurant or other displaced customers that suffer.
As Hospitality Managers, we must educate our customers about the needs of our business without lecturing them, as it is only through good communication and the development of good customer relations that they will begin to understand and respect our businesses in the future.
In conclusion, there may always be an element of no-shows in any restaurant business despite best practice and efficient booking systems, but with good diary management and regular contact with the customer prior to their arrival, I believe this frustrating aspect of the industry can be minimised and kept under control.
Of course the complete alternative is not operate any booking system at all and operate a first come, first served service but that has its own set of pros and cons and is for another discussion.