It's the end of the evening and the weather outside is unseasonably gloomy - not raining yet, but there's thunder in the air. Suddenly, the door slams shut and the key is turned. The few remaining occupants of the dimly lit room look warily at each other. It's time to go, but they're trapped.
An angry voice says no one leaves until the debt is paid.
Scene from a Hammer horror movie? Hardly. The setting is a city-centre high-street restaurant, and the last guests are trying to exit without paying part of the bill. The service let them down, they say. But the proprietor won't have it: pay up or you don't leave, he says.
It could happen. In fact, something similar did happen at a fashionable London restaurant recently.
Meanwhile, a hotelier in the North is resorting to litigation to claim compensation from guests who walked out early from a three-day booking. They agreed to a length of stay, but changed their minds; the hotelier couldn't relet the rooms and so lost out on planned revenue. Result: a testing court case.
You have to have some sympathy with both operators, of course, despite their heavy-handed methods. If you go to the theatre and the actors put on a poor performance, that's the risk you take by choosing that particular play at that particular theatre. Equally, if you leave before the performance ends - for whatever reason - it's unlikely that you'll get a refund.
But it's not the rights or wrongs of these individual cases that should be of concern. The real question is more general: is the boom in hospitality beginning to make proprietors cavalier in their attitude to the customer?
A few weeks ago we read Egon Ronay's comments about restaurants that turned tables in an evening by limiting the duration of a booking (Caterer, 21 May, page 6), which is a similar situation. "There will be a backlash," said Ronay, adding that customers won't return to a restaurant where they've been forced to leave early.
More and more restaurants insist on a credit card number when taking bookings over the phone as a precaution against no-shows. Hotels commonly do the same at check-in to safeguard payment in case of early retreat by the guest. It's a "you-booked, you-pay" attitude.
Arguably, it's sound business practice, but it has to be tempered by fair and reasonable behaviour. And it seems that the operator's approach, in some cases, is becoming dangerously harsh.
During a recession, the customer is king. It's important to remember, however, that in a boom the customer is also king. Operators saying "I reserved for you a room (or table) which I could have sold three times over" only has credence when operators can actually sell their products three times over.
If it's an argument that doesn't hold water in a recession, then it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. The customer who is treated with contempt in conditions of easy trading will not come back when times get tough.
Caterer & Hotelkeeper