How Long To Hold a Table For A Reservation No-Show

It’s inevitable: a reservation no-show is a common feature of every restaurant’s business. Though the world of dining out and restaurant booking is currently changing, reservation no-shows are still going to happen on a wider level without exception. 

So how do restaurants deal with them? It’s easy once you know. 

We discuss how long your restaurant should hold tables — particularly keeping an eye on ghost reservations and prospects for your restaurant’s business. 

Face The Challenge of Reservation No-Shows

Restaurateurs taking bookings have dealt with no-shows all their professional lives. The post-pandemic period will be no different, as restaurant owners will continue to battle challenges both old and new — including figuring out how to reduce the chance of no-shows.

The damage can be devastating, threatening to chip away at your restaurant’s profits. Guests failing to show up for a table booked late in the evening are painful: you lose money, quickly realising there is little chance of reselling their table that late in the workday. 

That’s not all. A booking made months in advance then cancelled at the last minute is super frustrating; it can cost restaurants a lot of money.

Keelan Higgs, a prominent Irish restaurateur, voiced his concerns about holding reserved tables: “All that time the booking is there means we cannot accept anyone else — we are refusing potential customers.” If a guest booking of six or eight cancels, your restaurant’s bottom line can go down by £500 — as easy as that. 

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Figure 1. COVID Outdoor Restaurant by Travis Wise via Flickr (creative commons 2.0)

Battle With No-shows During COVID-19

Living with the COVID pandemic today, restaurants simply can’t afford to run operations with empty tables. Showing up on time is important. 

After a tough year for the hospitality sector, some restaurants are asking customers for a deposit to book tables. A pre-payment in advance (e.g. £10) will come with a restaurant booking. After table service is over and stomachs are full, the restaurant will take the pre-payment off the final bill.

Customers have happily responded well to this mandatory fee. In London, a BBC business report found that customers found this method “more than fair enough”. But this fails to cancel out no-shows entirely: restaurants will still have to hold tables for what eventually turn out to be ghost reservations. 

Hold Tables for Fifteen Minutes (Maximum)

So how long should a restaurant hold a reserved table? Depending on your trade the answer will vary…

If you get the familiar gut feeling that a certain guest (or group) isn’t going to show — hold it for a moment. Give them their fifteen minutes, recommends the National Restaurant Association of America. On the brink of declaring a party a ghost reservation, it’s probably best to hold a table for a quarter of an hour — maximum. No more, no less. 

But this depends wholly on your restaurant’s turnover, and location is also an important factor. Consider whether your venue is in a city or town, as well as what type of eating culture you serve and what time of day customers eat. Then you can calculate when you’re busiest and what you risk when holding a table.

If your restaurant receives many walk-ins, definitely consider a shorter hold-time for tables. Probably ten minutes is the max in this situation. If a group of customers is already standing looking for a table (ready to spend their money in your restaurant), never keep them waiting; always tell them their wait should be around ten minutes while you find them a place to sit.

Fifteen minutes can be a lifetime when a party is waiting at the host stand already willing to pay. But — as long as you sufficiently explain beforehand that late reservations risk losing their tables — seating walk-ins is a fail-safe solution.

Alternatively, some in the industry have recommended a maximum of thirty minutes arguing that as long as the restaurant is “open and concise about their terms” this should suit guest needs adequately. If no parties are waiting at the door, then waiting for thirty minutes is O.K. — that is, if the guests eventually decide to show up.

Generally speaking though, both scenarios raise a vital point: Restaurants could simply define a reservation policy and make it their business to penalise no-shows. 

Draw Up your Restaurant Reservation No-Show Policy

Every restaurant should have one. When it comes to online bookings, don’t be shy: specify your restaurant’s terms and conditions. A written policy will drastically help reduce the cost of no-shows.

But make sure your policy manages to sound inviting — straight to the point. Always aim to be hospitable and polite. Here are some guidelines. 

  • Detail terms clearly and concisely (use bullet points)
  • Indicate that on the day of dining you hold tables for a certain time (e.g. 15—20 minutes)
  • Indicate how far in advance cancellation is required
  • Display your restaurant’s penalties (e.g. non-refundable charge) if guests decide to miss a booking without prior notice
  • Explain politely some scenarios that may occur — i.e. busy periods
  • End on a high note, such as a short description of your special offers

Creating and displaying a booking policy is a simple way to let customers know what they’re in for. Legally speaking too, a visible policy will help you out in the long run: administer a penalty for a no-show and you’ll be safely covered.

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Figure 2. Restaurants in Barcelona by Jorge Franganillo via Flickr (creative commons 2.0)

Be Open and Honest with Customers

Dining out should be a two-way street. At one end of the table, restaurateurs offer first-rate custom providing food and beverages to diners; on the other, guests arrive in good faith honouring their reservations.

But if this social contract is absent, extra effort is required. If your restaurant still struggles with no-shows then it’s time to start an open dialogue with customers.

Customers are likely to act better if you’re open and honest about the cost of their decisions including the effects on your business. Explain to guests the impact no-shows are having on your restaurant. Chat with them or initiate correspondence: send a quick message via social media. 

Here are a few things to communicate.

  1. Empty bookings cost money

A recent article interviewed restaurant owners across the globe, revealing the industry’s anxiety over no-shows and the subsequent effects no-shows have on a restaurant’s bottom line. In London, chef Marwa Alkhalaf represented everyone’s concerns when asking customers to be sensible. “[S]how up on time,” she said, “and cancel your reservation if you can’t make it. With fewer tables we really can’t afford to keep a table empty.” The lesson is clear: guests need to know that empty tables mean lost revenue for the restaurant. 

  1. COVID-19 already makes things difficult

With a swath of once-prosperous restaurants closing all over the world, it’s no mystery to customers that the industry is struggling. But guests need to know what this means to you —that when your restaurant reopens, it’s make or break. So be clear that now more than ever empty tables can threaten to reclose shutters just as fast as they opened.

  1. A no-show smothers staff morale

A reservation no-show isn’t just about money; they’re also about the soul. No-shows impact staff confidence. One journalist showed how no-shows are having a “significant impact on team morale” too. So make this clear to customers; chances are you’ll gain their sympathy.

Overall guest communication is effective, and research has shown that this works. Carbon Free Dining — a green industry organisation — illustrated that if clientele understands reservation etiquette, fewer customers will cancel. So as the saying goes: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Remind Customers About Upcoming Bookings to Avoid a Reservation No-show

Many guests don’t show up because they forget to cancel — not out of spite. Either that or they forget they had made the reservation in the first place. When this happens, your maître d’ or member of staff should call on the day to remind customers of their booking. Alternatively, a staff member could send a reminder email two days ahead. 

A brief message the day before is helpful — a quick email for instance can help jog the guest’s memory. Even a quick back-and-forth over the phone could help you cater to your guest’s needs, such as seating preference or culinary tastes. You may find that they’re dining out for a special occasion.

But all this relies on staff capability. What happens if a maître d’ misses a reservation made months in advance? Then who reminds the guest?

Historically speaking, to avoid a reservation no-show, a phone call was the only way a restaurant could remind guests of upcoming reservations. Nowadays, an online booking system can do all the hard work for you. A digital reservation system sends automated customer reminders and makes a big difference, allowing guests flexibility while confirming their reservations — both those that honour their bookings and those that wish to cancel (thereby reducing no-shows). 

Find out how the Carbonara App — a free reservation service — makes use of reminder features via SMS (also free), notifying both guests and restaurateurs of upcoming reservations to reduce the chance of no-shows. 

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Carbonara App — a free reservation service for restaurants

Learn more to avoid a reservation no-show and check out: