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Feeling festive? How businesses are readying themselves for the season

20 November 2018 by
Feeling festive? How businesses are readying themselves for the season

Christmas and Valentine's Day are crucial dates in the hospitality calendar, a chance to attract guests with special menus and generate record-breaking revenue. So how are businesses readying themselves? The Caterer partnered with OpenTable to discuss how operators can get the best out of seasonal holidays. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports

roundtabke
roundtabke

When do you start planning for big set piece events like Christmas and Valentine's Day?
Nathan Evans (NE): Christmas seems to get earlier and earlier. You can never underestimate when it comes to executive and personal assistants realising that the busiest days of Christmas get booked quite quickly. The earlier you can get your Christmas menu and marketing material together, the more chance you will have of picking up the large parties with the big budgets. This year, our Smith & Wollensky Christmas menus were ready in June, for the first time. Vivek Singh (VS): All the work on the menus and the decision over whether we're staying open on Christmas Day at any Cinnamon Collection site happens in May. By June the microsites are set up and ready for people to press the button on their booking when they come back from their holiday by September. That's how organised we've become. Emma Williams (EW): !caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_021](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/KiKbPFwuToC8gerEvTLZ) Adrian Valeriano (AV): It comes down to visibility and engagement. You do need to get the message out early on, but you also need to know how to keep that message in the front of people's minds. What's interesting when we look at behaviour on our network is how the length of time diners are leaving for booking for Christmas Eve is actually really small. On average in London people are booking 24 days in advance for Christmas Day. Do you use social media to market - seasonal events? Do you post pictures of Christmas dishes?NE: Twitter and Facebook are a bit like - yesterday's chip paper. It's Halloween and bonfire night before Christmas - there's a much shorter lead time. Ben Walton (BW): You've got to start dropping them in, but you don't want to hammer it too much. It's a tricky balance. Ben's Canteen is not a destination place, so if we don't market it enough and we leave it to the last minute, we don't have enough bookings. But if you push too hard, people are a bit cynical and wonder why you're pushing Christmas in a heatwave. James Chiavarini (JC): It depends on your clientele, too. Being in Kensington, Il Portico has a pretty conservative database of customers. If you start telling them about Christmas in October, you're going to put them off. If you're a neighbourhood or family restaurant there has to be that element of trust - they don't want to look at it as a commercial exchange. ![caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_033](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/oDok4BHOQXutaguLjCDB) Dining out on Christmas Day saw a 43% increase in 2016, according to OpenTable. How do you decide whether to open?VS: We had really long conversations 12 or 13 years ago about whether we should open for Christmas lunch at Cinnamon Club. Now there's no question; it is our biggest lunch of the year. We serve about 400 people, which we never do for any other lunch. If you don't open for that kind of revenue, where do you bring that revenue in to offset it? It took about four years to get to that level. But if you do experiment with opening on special occasions like this, take a two- or three-year view on it. There is no point trying once and then giving up. Francesco Mazzei (FM): There are a lot of issues around transport in London. Sartoria \[in Mayfair\] is closed, but Radici \[in Islington\] is open because we're fully booked all the time. People can walk there and have one more glass of wine. What are customers expecting from their dining out experience at Christmas?AV: They are becoming much more adventurous with their food choices. There's a good majority who still want that traditional British festive menu, but the fastest-growing alternatives are Italian, Indian, and French. ![caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_070](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/hOVkBXi9R2SL3MoRIkbd) FM: People expect a special menu. We try to make sure it's not expensive, because they will spend to celebrate anyway. A £45 menu will be seen as good value, but by the end of the meal they'll have spent £100 each because they'll order the good wine and brandy. VS: Put a special menu on, even if you're still going to serve Á la carte for walk-ins. If you don't, anybody who's planning in advance and looking at your website will think you're doing nothing and just go away. So even if it's just a holding menu, put something up there. EW: A lot of people are spending their own money because corporate budgets have gone from Christmas parties. They're trying to find something one person can organise. It's about making it as easy as possible, by providing a link for everyone to pay separately, for example. It's also not just about the restaurant side of things. We have live music and drinks packages for the key party nights, because while - we want to turn the tables in the restaurant, we don't want to lose guests out of the bar. ![caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_091](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/4uDn6GZcTZKQnXV22egI) Is Christmas the most important time of - the year?NE: Absolutely, and for us, being an American restaurant in London, Thanksgiving is also huge. It's the last Thursday in November and outside of the two big Fridays in December, it's our biggest day of the year. JP Morgan has taken the whole of the ground floor for three years on the trot. JC: Christmas has the potential to be either feast or famine, which is why it is so stressful. January is around the corner, in February you've got half-term, and if the year starts off with bad, weather, you really want to hit the ground running in December. You've really only got three weeks to do what you would do in a four-week period because once schools break up, that's it. FM: It depends where your restaurant is. In the West End it stops completely; everyone goes away and the crowd is mainly tourists. But our experience at Fiume in Battersea last year was that between 25 and 31 of December, people were coming in and we made good margins. It's the same with half term. I'm not saying we struggle in Sartoria, but we don't do as well because the core business for breakfast and lunch disappears by about 60%. With increased footfall during Christmas, what incentives do you offer?EW: Everyone who books a Christmas party with us gets a voucher for a bottle of Champagne in January. Of the number of vouchers we give out, about 25% are claimed, but it's still a nice incentive to bring people back. ![caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_046](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/uOeOiVwS0Wym0YaNsiAw) David Moore (DM): If people aren't coming to me with the correct sort of budget for December, I'll say that if they want to push their party to January, we can put together a price with - a 40% discount. We get good uptake on that. NE: There's been a bit of a drift. When people miss the boat or can't get the dates they want, they'll have their party in January. In December, we give every private dining room booking a £25 gift card that can be used in January to March. When the General Data Protection Regulation rules came in, we went from around 68,000 people on our database to 12,500. One of the great things about these gift cards is they have to be registered online, so we're hoping that this Christmas we'll be able to build our database back up to 30,000 to 40,000 people. BW: We went from around 9,000 down to about 1,000, but those people weren't engaged because our opening stats aren't massively - different, so I'm kind of relaxed about it. ![caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_041](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/rkfpb3H8RWe3HQ4CZqZ2) JC: If you have 1,000 people who are committed spenders, that's fine. They'll come regularly, which is probably better than having 10,000 people who will instantly delete your email. There were a lot of complaints this year about no-shows on Valentine's Day, with customers making multiple bookings and deciding where to go later. Is it essential to take deposits?DM: If you ask for a £25 per head deposit - not the full menu price - you get people to focus. Those who complain about giving you their card details are the ones who aren't going to show up. We give our bank details out for deposits so guests can drop the money into our account. There are no fees for that. For Valentine's Day we do a seven- or eight-course tasting menu with a glass of bubbles for £129 a head. We stagger arrivals from 6pm and we also sell our private dining room table to four couples who don't know each other. They sit at each corner with flowers in between and get looked after and served separately - it's not banquet-style. We sell it out every year. We have people coming back for it. FM: For Christmas Day bookings, we definitely get credit card details for a 25% deposit and we ask if they want to order from the set menu or the Á la carte. That way we know exactly how many set lunches you're going to sell and we can control the margin. All our prepayment Valentine's Day spaces at £120 a head are fully booked every year, so an early bird menu works very well for us. We offer a three-course menu for £45 between 5pm and 6.30pm. ![caterer-roundtable-pied-a-terre-2018_073](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/fiTmlsmlSCOOkHwNzBYG) VS: The token amount \[deposit\] depends on the occasion. What we ask for at Christmas and New Year's Eve is not what you would expect people to pay normally. Also the set menu price point changes in different parts of the city. Soho and Covent Garden has a very high proportion of walk-in trade that's not prepared to pay a set menu price of £55 or £119. They want Á la carte, which means £35 or £45 spend per head. It's tricky explaining to those that have pre-booked why they are restricted to a more expensive set menu. AV: There are four things we offer. First and foremost is the nature of our network, which is unique in that you can't make two reservations for the same time. We also enable credit cards for those restaurants that want to do that, and we operate a 'four strikes and you're out' policy, so if you do no-show four times across 12 months, we bar you from using the site. The biggest thing we've done is seen the need for more communication between - restaurants and guests, so on GuestCentre - we offer the ability to send text and email confirmations. They go out to guests to both - confirm and remind them of their reservation, and then allow for a two-way communication between restaurants and diners. When changes are made, it updates automatically, which also saves restaurants' time. We understand that this has been a serious problem going back to about 2008 and a lot of these things have been in place since then. At Christmas, staff are run off their feet for threeweeks solid. How do you keep them happy, engaged and still providing great service?NE: You've got to be careful about managing their breaks and get them ready for it by - offering the right advice. They're young and in London. You've got to try and keep them from burning the candle at both ends because you don't want someone ringing in sick or coming in with a hangover. It's such an important part of the year, but it's over before you know it. EW: And they know they've got a good party to look forward to in January.
From our sponsor OpenTable is the world's leading - provider of online restaurant reservations, seating more than 26 million diners per month via online bookings across more - than 47,000 restaurants. For restaurants, OpenTable hospitality solutions enable them to manage their reservation book, streamline their operations, enhance their service levels and deliver personalised hospitality. Since its inception - in 1998, OpenTable has seated more than - 1.7 billion diners around the world. [Get The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).

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