Opinion: To book or not to book

I have just returned from a road trip through the NSW wineries of Mudgee and Rylstone. A lovely area at this time of year – clear open skies, crisp cold mornings, the beautiful autumn colours with fallen leaves swirling around on the ground in the light cold breeze. Now that the grapes are almost all picked, there is an air of optimism for both wine production and tourism.

Due to the COVID restrictions, wineries, like everyone else, are limited to a certain number of visitors at any one time – so most are now taking bookings for wine tastings. And they are charging a small fee – between $5 and $10 per person for the tastings. This is usually credited off any wines purchased.

$10 for a 45- to 60-minute tasting class with a passionate winemaker and a limited number of people is excellent value.

Yet it is odd. We have no problem paying for tickets to the cinema and the theatre, or providing a deposit on our accommodation, prepaying for our airfares, or buying tickets to the football. And online shopping, which has grown fast in the past year, requires pre-payment. Even if you order a home delivery, you expect to pay upfront. But for some reason, we have been reluctant to prepay for a meal at a restaurant.

Whilst we expect to pay for theatre tickets, we have been used to just showing up to restaurants. Habits are hard to break – but it’s time to rethink about how we pay for meals. And COVID has helped to change this.

In an industry hit hard by the impact of COVID-19, with reduced tables, occasional local lockdowns and social distancing, restaurant no-shows are a massive problem for pubs and restaurants. Sadly the “no-show” rate – that is the number of people who book a table and do not show up and don’t bother to cancel – is quite high in Australia. No-shows hover around 20–25% of pre-bookings. These are disappointing, financially damaging and demoralising. No-shows are a burden on the restaurant industry.

Running a restaurant is not easy. Apart from all the operational, human resource and event management issues, there is a need to invest in food and wine supplies. Pre-production and mise-en-place are a significant investment. There needs to be some security in ensuring a return on this investment.

Most restaurants are now taking credit card details to secure a table. Some are taking pre-paid deposits. And many now charge a cancellation fee, unless they are given reasonable notice (this is common in other services such as medical and dental appointments, accommodation, conferences, hairdressers and child care). Some may say that this is not in the spirit of hospitality – but restaurants are businesses and have to make a profit to stay around. So it is in our interests to support them.

No-shows have always been an issue. But they are exacerbated by online booking. It is simple to click and book. There is no longer a human face or voice associated with the booking. It’s simply an app. Some of the booking groups such as TheFork have introduced a penalty programme to identify regular no-shows. But it is still a problem.

So, bookings secured with credit cards and pre-paid deposits will become the new normal, as they are for most entertainment. This does, however make anonymous reviews a little challenging!

By Jeremy Ryland

Main Image by Ryutaro Tsukata from Pexels

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