An online booking system doesn't just give customers the control they crave, it also offers a solution to the bane of the hospitality sector – the no-show. Glynn Davis surveys an increasingly crowded field
Customers' increased use of technology, coupled with hospitality operators' need to intelligently counter rising levels of no-shows, has highlighted the importance of third-party online booking tools. But it also raises the growing issue of how much customer data and analytics the tool providers share with their hospitality clients.
Henry Seddon, managing director of software company Access Hospitality, says the sharp rise in the use of booking systems over the past 18 months has been an inevitable result of the pandemic. Judging by research conducted by CGA for Access, it also looks like they are here to stay.
The research shows that the number of UK customers who are confident in pre-booking restaurant tables has increased from 75% to 87%, and 68% predict that they will still be using technology to prebook, order and pay in five years' time. It's an indication that consumers are willing to engage with technology in the long term.
Seddon says his company's Collins hospitality booking and reservation system is used by more than 3.5 million visitors each month to Access's DesignMyNight.com sister site and various booking partners, including Time Out and MatchPint.
We take hundreds of data points to determine if somebody is a higher risk level
Like many booking systems on the market, the Access Collins reservations and enquiry tool is packed with functionality. It includes fully automated bookings, the ability to join tables in real time, comprehensive floorplan management, check-in, an automated wait-list, as well as three customisable views for service. The technology is cloud-based and easily accessible on any device. Automatic queuing is supplied through Access Collins LiveWait, which manages the queue with live, up-to-date waiting times, and sends interactive and automated SMS messages to guests.
As demand for such products continues to grow, a very competitive marketplace has sprung up. Among those vying for the booking-tools trade are the Fork, ResDiary, Resy, OpenTable and Tock. Lucy Taylor, vice president of EMEA at OpenTable, very much sells her product's proposition on its global reach. Not only can it be integrated into a restaurant website to act as a booking engine, but it is also very active on Google in promoting restaurants to potential diners.
"We can tap into a global network – it's our unique differentiation," she says. "We're a discovery tool where it's very easy for the diner to discover new restaurants. We help restaurants fill gaps. We work with thousands of restaurants – from local ones through to large ones – who all have gaps to fill."
OpenTable can also work with restaurants to create bespoke marketing campaigns. Taylor says: "The breadth of opportunity is huge. With our experience we can help them with their marketing. The larger ones maybe do not need this. It's important for us to personalise it for them to allow the smaller players to compete with larger brands."
The richness of the personalisation is to some extent determined by the level of integration with the restaurant's existing systems, including its electronic point of sale (EPoS). "There is not one type of integration, in reality. Yes, there is a huge amount of rich data sitting in the EPoS that would allow a better understanding of the customer, and we'd be able to provide a better service with this," Taylor says.
One of the benefits of Collins, according to Seddon, is that it can be integrated with other Access products, enabling booking, EPoS, order and pay, peer-to-peer and customer relationship management (CRM) to work seamlessly together, powered by Access Workspace.
Service is not enough
The basic level of integration required for many of the booking tools on the market is very straightforward, according to Nick Kokonas, chief executive of Tock and owner of five US restaurants, including Alinea in Chicago. He believes restaurateurs are invariably attracted to simplicity when choosing a solution. "They want it easy and cheap," he says.
This, though, can create a problem, Kokonas adds. "Most hospitality professionals concentrate primarily on food and service; they love providing both. For the most part they are not technologists or accountants or marketing professionals. They tend to believe if they have the best food and service that they will thrive. Unfortunately, it's often not enough."
Kokonas says what they really need in their armoury is a booking tool to help them create a direct relationship with their customers – "one that provides a serious CRM solution and aggregates their revenue analytics from their PoS system and overlays it on the time each person spends in the restaurant", he explains.
It is the degree of the sharing of data and analytics from many widely used booking tools to their restaurant clients that he has doubts about. "None of the other systems allow restaurants to actually see the analytics of their booking site, which is hosted on the IT supplier's domain. So if you navigate to a restaurant's booking page hosted by OpenTable, say, then it is opaque to the restaurant; they have no idea of traffic, demographics, conversion rates, etcetera," he points out.
At the heart of the Tock solution for each restaurant is an easy-to-reference database. Kokonas has a database of approaching 600,000 guests across his five venues, and he can use it for marketing purposes – predominantly via Google and social media.
"For every individual, I know how they made the booking, when (to the millisecond), their zip code, demographics, where they sat, how long they sat there, exactly what they ordered, who dined with them, their allergies, aversions and preferences, and on and on. That means that I can hone my operations while also creating magical hospitality experiences next time they come in," he explains.
The customer data is presentable in report format across the various parts of a restaurant's business. Data related to pre-service, post-service and customer feedback, for instance, can be made available to relevant individuals within the organisation. "This information is what you need to actively market to people," Kokonas says.
The growing issue of data-sharing is not a problem for Zonal, according to Olivia FitzGerald, chief sales and marketing officer: "We're completely white-label; we work with lots of brands and believe they should promote their own businesses. We do not capture the data; we simply process it. We don't have the relationship with diners – this belongs to the brands."
The company typically works with large operators that, FitzGerald says, would rather diners find them by typing their name into Google instead of being on a discovery mission for a certain cuisine. "These big brands do not need to give away data," she says. "They want the data – not only the contact information, but insights into frequency and product choices – so they can personalise the relationship across a joined-up customer journey."
The Zonal proposition helps with this as it typically has the EPoS at the heart of the solution. The booking system is integrated into this, as well as the stock-management application and the reporting platform, along with various dashboards. "We'll take data from all the touchpoints and gain quick business insights," FitzGerald says.
This integration into the EPoS enables a much easier acceptance of deposits from customers when taking their bookings. Taking some money up front has become an increasingly important deterrent against no-shows. Zonal and CGA have calculated that the no-show phenomenon costs the hospitality industry £17.6b a year. Care certainly has to be taken with insisting on a deposit. CGA's research found that while more than four in 10 customers (43%) have no issue with the practice, and 31% do not like it but would not let it affect their opinion of the venue, 18% said it would give them a negative impression of the venue even though they would proceed with the booking, while 9% would make a reservation elsewhere instead.
Much effort is going into addressing the problem. At Tock, there are three reservation types: free ordinary reservations, deposit-required reservations to minimise no-shows (even a£5 deposit pushes the no-show figure down below 3%), and fully prepaid reservations for special events or unique experiences, such as chef's table, special menus and pop-ups.
Meanwhile, OpenTable has initiated a ‘four strikes and you're out' policy that suspends the accounts of diners. "We're educating diners and helping them to cancel rather than being a no-show. In real time, we can then resell the table on our network," says Taylor, who adds that a new capability involves identifying potential no-shows from previous behaviour.
Such a predictive capability is part of the Allora.ai room-booking solution. Developed for the hotel industry by Frank Reeves, chief executive of Avvio, Allora aims to minimise the level of room cancellations. "We take hundreds of data points to determine if somebody is a higher risk level," he says. "For instance, we know couples cancel more than families. The weighting is dynamic, and we're 70% accurate. We'll focus on these high-risk guests and maybe recommend an upgrade or offer them an early book-in time."
The system's capability comes from Allora's use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand guests when they are on a hotel's website. "We recognised the need to move on from one-size-fits-all hotel-booking engines. It's about paying attention to guests by tracking their activity on the website and recognising them when they have visited the site before. We get to understand them and personalise the journey," Reeves says.
As it takes seven days and six visits to a website before a domestic customer books a five-star hotel, Reeves says an intelligent approach is needed in recognising the customer's ‘intent' to book: "Maybe lean in to show them a review when they next visit the site. Get to understand them from their visits, and when they return after having booked, don't just put up another room booking pop-up, but instead look to propose an upgrade and try to upsell them."
Reeves adds that all data is held by the hotel, as Allora is a direct-booking solution. He says the system also shares the insights it has on the vital booking pipeline, which includes all the individuals who are part-way through the journey to making a booking. Such a solution can be invaluable, as hotels shift away from online travel agencies to drive greater volumes through direct bookings. But Reeves warns that hoteliers must first recognise that technology involves more than just a website acting as a digital brochure.
For restaurateurs there is a need to recognise that the future will be more experience-led, according to FitzGerald, and that booking tools should be able to deal with a broader range of products than simply seats at a table. "It might involve booking a round of crazy golf alongside a meal, so there needs to be the ability to book different things," she says. "Customers expect this to be easy and with no friction in the process."
This flexibility is very much a focus for Kokonas. He says Tock allows restaurants to take bookings differently by day of the week, time, seasonality, even a single day. "If there is a big football game on TV, then the restaurant or bar could create an experience and sell it on Tock, right next to the ordinary bookings," he says. "The idea of selling special elements is taking hold, even for casual restaurants. It also reduces no-shows, can reduce food waste, and creates happier customers."
‘It's a game-changer for a small business like ours'
Independent Cotswolds-based restaurant Henne implemented a guest-experience management solution from Superb. According to co-owner Nick Fenton, it has proved invaluable on a number of fronts, including by providing early notification of dietary changes and requirements.
He explains: "Superb supplies us, in advance, with all dietary advice and needs of each customer. This isn't just great for guests, as we can completely tailor our restaurant to suit them and there are no delays when they arrive, but also – with only one chef – we get plenty of time to plan and make arrangements for their food.
"With a small staff and small menu that relies on local, seasonal goods, advance notice is vital to us providing a top-class experience."
The data collected on customers is also helping Henne to create bespoke experiences for guests. "We can now, for instance, see which wines a guest enjoyed on a previous visit, so we can create appropriate pairings with their food on the next visit."
The solution also allows the restaurant to take deposits in advance, which helps it avoid potentially costly no-shows.
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