With the hospitality sector gearing up for reopening after a long, hard winter, the last thing it needs is scores of guests not showing up for bookings. While some operators have put in place additional measures to confirm tables, the big unknown is whether people’s desire to escape their houses for a drink or a meal outside is strong enough to counter the discouraging effects of any less than clement weather.

Come rain or shine – hopefully the latter – Hickory’s is to reopen its 12 sites from Monday (12 April). All of its sites have quite large outdoor spaces, which it will try and utilise even harder than normal, managing director John Welsh tells MCA. Most venues already have a heated veranda area and the business has invested in parasols and additional sheltered areas, with capacity now greater outside than previously due to additional furniture.

However Welsh points out that trading outdoors is subject to all sorts of complexities, with the very nature of the unpredictable British weather meaning there are massive challenges around managing stock – especially perishable items, not to mention staffing levels. “It is so hard to forecast how customers will behave,” he adds.

Hickory’s has decided not to take bookings further than 24 hours in advance for its outdoor spaces – and only for people wanting to eat a meal rather than just drinks – with its central reservations team following up with guests on the day to confirm attendance, rather than the usual 48 hours in advance. The business will then revert to its standard booking process once dine-in resumes the following month.

Welsh hopes this will lead to a reduction in the number of no-shows, which he says were a problem last summer, with between 50-100 people failing to turn in each venue each day during the first “giddy” weeks after lockdown. “We learnt from the first reopening last year that it pays to be more cautious,” he says. “We want people that are really dedicated to turn up on the day, hence why we are going for the 24-hour approach, alongside the weather issues,” he says.

“Last year we took bookings a couple of weeks in advance but in hindsight it was probably a bit of a mistake,” he says. “We were able to replace a lot of those no-shows with walk ins […] but financially there will be an impact because we’ll never be as full as we would have been. It could be the difference between making a profit and breaking even,” adds Welsh.

Matt Snell, chief executive, Gusto Italian says he is fearful of the impact of bad weather on sales and particularly on whether bookings then don’t show up – that said it will be implementing different protocols for booking confirmations that it first put in place last summer. Snell tells MCA the business “suffered terribly” from no-shows in the month after it first opened last summer.

As a result Gusto upped its communication levels with guests. Previously they would have received a confirmation email on booking and then 24 hours in advance of booking, but this changed to a confirmation text in addition to the email and a phone call 24 hours in advance. “There was some labour cost for us but we felt that more than returned by making sure that we knew whether guests were coming or not,” he says.

It will be putting this in place when it reopens three of its 12 sites next week, particularly given the unpredictability of the weather. “With reopening, with it being outdoor the chances of no-shows are much higher, we are really nervous about it, so we have gone back to those protocols,” he explains.

Snell says it is only reopening its outside spaces where it can do a minimum of 50 covers. And in the event that the weather is really bad, its decision as to whether to open will be guest-led, he says. If 75% of guests or more cancel on the morning of their booking then Gusto will not open those sites.

Like Welsh, Snell says the complexity around serving food outside in all weather conditions is huge – particularly when it comes to the risk to the potential waste of perishable items. He also believes that outside-only trading impacts the casual dining sector to a much greater degree than the pub sector due to the level of staff needed. “The risk to casual dining is huge,” he says.

But despite the fears over the weather, Snell says he is feeling positive about trading going forwards. He said all its outside spaces were fully booked for next seven days from 12 April and that forward bookings for dine-in were looking great, with parties already booking for Christmas. “We have already hit 50% of our targets for pre-bookings and we are still seven weeks out,” he says of the first week of trading when dine-in reopens.

Positive signs ahead

Simon Potts, chief executive at The Alchemist is also feeling optimistic about his business going forwards with the success of the vaccine roll out and having a roadmap to work to. He says the business had ridden out the storm this far and had done a significant piece of reworking of balance sheets. “We have a healthy outlook for the next couple of years based on a fairly pragmatic and sensible set of numbers. It has obviously been a huge year of upheaval and stress and strain but the forward-looking stuff feels a bit more settled,” explains Potts.

The cocktail bar and restaurant operator is to reopen seven of its sites with a full offer on Monday, while six further sites will open with a drinks-only offer. Its 10 remaining sites will stay closed until 17 May. Potts tells MCA that the business is applying the same logic it always does for outside guests. It will not be taking bookings for outside seating but will take them as it normally would for indoor dining in May.

He says The Alchemist already has around 40,000 people booked in from 17 May onwards, including some bookings for larger groups and parties from 21 June. “I have been surprised by the appetite of people for big bookings,” he adds. While the bookings for those parties have been taken in good faith for now, when the green light is hopefully given by the government for hospitality to fully reopen then it will look to take deposits for those bookings at that stage.

Potts explains that while he is keen to reopen all of its sites, he doesn’t view the staggered opening as the worst thing in the world. Instead it gives those staff who have been furloughed for months the chance to get back to work – it will be bringing 30% of its staff back from Monday – and gets the business into shape for when it fully reopens. Responding to comments from other operators that staff may not want to return from furlough, Potts says while there have been some that don’t want to come back, he says the numbers were no different from the normal staff churn he would expect.

D&D London’s operations director Michael Farquhar tells MCA the business will be opening just over half of its venues next week – all those with outdoor terraces. He says D&D “have been overwhelmed with bookings and we are looking forward to some amazing busy weeks”. Interestingly he adds that although it has some bookings from indoor dining from May, they are not as strong as the forward bookings for its terraces.

Farquhar says that although no-shows are a concern, it has started confirming reservations for next week already and feels confident that its terraces will be full. “We have kept a few tables in each venue for walk-ins, so that everyone gets a chance to enjoy our new terraces menus,” he adds.

The deposit debate

Last summer Tom Kerridge hit out at guests who didn’t show up for bookings and suggested that there would be more interest from operators in asking for deposits when taking bookings. But despite research at the time from CGA’s Consumer Pulse survey that suggested more than half (58%) of consumers would be happy to pay a £5 per head deposit, the appetite from the sector is definitely lacking.

Welsh says that while Hickory’s has had conversations about whether to introduce them, it has “done its best to stay away from it”. “Culturally it doesn’t feel right – it doesn’t feel hospitable,” he explains.

Snell believes that by asking for a deposit “we are putting a roadblock in their way”, and fears customers will just try another restaurant that you don’t have to tie yourself to financially.

Potts is keen that The Alchemist is seen as being the most welcoming it can be and believes asking for a deposit goes against this. “People have had enough of being told what to do – we don’t want to impose rules and regulations on guests,” he says.

While for D&D, although Farquhar says it does not take deposits, it is taking credit card confirmations for all of its bookings and has a 48-hour cancellation policy in place. “If guests no-show we will charge the nominal fee per guest,” he says.