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Fri 23rd Nov 2018 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: More choice for a good night’s sleep, getting a handle on reservations and away from it all
Authors: Glynn Davis, James Hacon and Ann Elliott

More choice for a good night’s sleep by Glynn Davis

In my opinion hotels exist to fulfil one primary function – a good night’s sleep. However, it seems the objective of delivering a peaceful stay is becoming lost as hotels feel they have to provide myriad other facilities, whether for differentiation and/or generating additional revenue.

A recent business trip to Barcelona highlighted this. On checking into the Editions Hotel I indicated I only required one thing – a quiet room. This resulted in the extremely helpful staff serving me a free drink while they switched me out of the room I’d been assigned and made me up another. I enjoyed two gloriously peaceful nights.

I suspect the room I’d been moved from was near one of the hotel’s bars, which operate until the early hours and are a feature of Editions properties. I found out even though the hotel only had 100 rooms there were four bars. This has caught me out in the past. A stay at The Standard High Line in New York had me requesting a higher floor as I knew this was a trendy hipster hotel and wanted to be well away from the ground-floor bars and restaurants. Unfortunately there was also a rooftop bar, which had a DJ working the decks until god knows what hour.

Even though I’ve made a point of avoiding the hipper venues for business trips and going for what appear calmer alternatives, this is no guarantee of a quiet evening. A stay on the second floor of the historical Metropole Hotel in Venice looked a sensible bet until the dreaded DJ set up his kit late in the evening and, as the hours ticked by, the volume rose ever higher. The event didn’t seem a necessary addition to this particular hotel as clientele ran for cover at the first sight of decks being set up in the bar, with the opportunity to have a chat over a nightcap ruined.

These undesirable situations have led me to make a note of my preferred rooms in certain hotels that ensure a peaceful night. If these rooms are unavailable, I’ll go elsewhere or choose another night when the rooms are available.

We can’t be far off hotels allowing guests to select specific rooms – beyond their top suites – when booking online. This is clearly common practice with airlines, which use this to drive extra revenue. Hotels could operate a similar system by making floor plans available. It is certainly starting to creep into restaurant bookings.

OpenTable now has an option that allows diners to book certain seats in restaurants. Operators can categorise tables on their floor plans as “standard”, “bar”, “high top”, “outdoor” or “counter” for customers to choose. This is a simple way of using technology to give customers flexibility to design their evenings and plays into the trend of younger customers wanting greater freedom and control over their activities and their desire to use technology as an interface when dealing with the leisure and hospitality industry.

When combining these floor plans with customer feedback and 3D views of restaurant interiors, diners can eradicate some of the potential pain points of their meal out. All areas of the leisure industry, including hotels, will inevitably adopt such solutions because it makes the whole booking process much more efficient and less likely to lead to a disappointing experience, including the dreaded bad night’s sleep.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Getting a handle on reservations by James Hacon

More than 60% of telephone calls to restaurant groups go unanswered – that’s an incredible statistic and one many companies don’t know or track. We’ve worked with six groups in the past year with a remit to develop sales strategies and we have yet to find one that is tracking at more than 40% answer rate on telephone calls. In this competitive market place, we are increasingly working with our clients to think more strategically about sales-driving initiatives beyond marketing.

This prompted me to work with the team at Zonal, which owns liveRES and IOVOX, to host a round table to discover how operators are maximising pre-booked reservations. We welcomed 23 brands to the breakfast event and gained fascinating insights.

Late Bookings
For the most part the sector is seeing an increased percentage of business coming from walk-ins, almost certainly linked to increased choice and availability for consumers given the incredible growth the sector has seen. Of the casual dining brands present, the largest percentage of pre-booked covers was hovering around 35%, while the lowest was little more than 10%. 

The operators felt for the most part they didn’t have a firm handle on pre-booked yet, whereas the bar and late-night operators seemed much further ahead, with pre-bookings accounting for 40% to more than 50% of total business, driven by a much greater focus on selling packages, securing groups and filling profitable booths.

Data shared by Zonal and operators all pointed to a considerable trend towards late bookings, with exponential growth in customers looking online for availability within 15 minutes of their preferred time. This points to people using a mobile phone to check availability or make reservations on the way into a town or city in which they plan to dine. 

This is something I’ve seen reinforced in recent surveys and focus groups, where customers have told us they lack loyalty to a particular brand and often choose the location first with a shortlist of brands they would consider. This represents one of the biggest challenges for brands and venues as many operators traditionally turn off reservations well ahead of service. 

This way of working definitely affects business levels. Site-level operators may believe they will get the walk-ins but that’s a risk and consumers are telling us they won’t try to walk in if a brand’s website shows “no availability”.

Upskilling
Upskilling and educating general managers and venue teams was the biggest challenge raised during our breakfast session. Many had come across issues of managers closing out swathes of availability in the diary at busy times due to staff shortages and, at times, well before last orders, perhaps to try to cut labour at traditionally quieter trading periods. 

Many operators have changed settings on their diaries to require overrides by an area manager for block-outs, while others are retrospectively following up with sites to understand the reasons behind them to ensure there was acknowledge someone was aware. 

On the other hand, some brands feel it’s better to fully trust their managers on-site and focus on training during operations meetings instead. Some of the important areas to cover are to ensure diaries are being used live during service rather than working from print-outs, checking guests off tables, placing guests on the right tables and ensuring walk-ins are added to the system. All this makes live availability online possible and supports reporting on opportunities to maximise flows in the future.

Reservations management
Many attendees in the room felt they didn’t have their reservations system set up most effectively. There was also a clear split between restaurant and bar operators as to who was responsible for the system. For restaurant groups, it tends to be left to receptionists or managers on-site, whereas almost all bar and late-night venues have someone ensuring diaries are constantly managed to maximise availability. 

This also flowed through to reservations processing. Many of the casual dining groups had no central reservations function, while a few were in the early stages of testing it and only one had a dedicated team. The bar and late-night venues all had dedicated people to manage reservations – either on-site (but not working the floor or door) or based at head office. 

One 40-venue group said it had 200 people answering the phone, three-to-five on each site and a large head office function. Another had two-to-four full-timers on-site but no-one based at head office. One large London pub operator had yet to set up central reservations but had hired a “revenue manager”, inspired by hotels, with someone actively managing the diary, availability and forward business patterns.

A constructive way to soft-launch central reservations is with an overflow from unanswered sites in-store. This will give you the much-needed data to build a business case, test technology and ramp up the operational processes.

It was also interesting to see many operators had contracted out central reservations to a third party, with most subsequently bringing it back in-house having proved the concept or feeling it didn’t work as well as they hoped. One operator staunchly supported using an external provider and championed the positive effects of having results-driven team members answering the phone as they work much harder to get someone in rather than someone without incentives.

Operational impact
One key central reservations challenge is getting buy-in from site operators, which also requires clear, consistent, company-wide processes regarding how the diary is set up and used. Many who successfully completed this said it was a tough process but general managers saw it as one less headache and had seen bookings increase. One benefit in answering more phone calls is a fall in no-shows. Customers regularly tell us they try to call to cancel a booking but at peak service their calls go unanswered so the table remains empty.

Turning to technology
Of course central reservations teams are not the only answer to low call-answer rates. Several other options are available, not least installing a pre-recorded message telling people your opening hours and letting customers know it’s easier to book online. I know you’re reading this thinking it won’t make any difference, but it does. By installing this message, we have seen significant ratio shifts towards online with two different clients. Further investigation also revealed a trend of people ending the call at this point of the message, clearing the line, which is fantastic.

Another success we’ve had with clients is using an automated booking system as an option when people call. There is a myth customers want to speak to a real person but most research suggests they just want to make a booking. One case study highlighting success in this area is Mitchells & Butlers, which has rolled the IOVOX solution across its estate and is now receiving 86,000 covers per week from this technology, helping to alleviate missed calls and helping on-site teams concentrate on serving customers. Casual dining giant PizzaExpress has had similar success with the technology.

What struck me most from our breakfast is there are clearly many ways to skin this cat but it seems obvious to me it is something brands need to consider and work on. In a period where success will come through growing market share, it is vital you plug those leaks to capture and convert every potential drinker or diner.
James Hacon is managing director of Think Hospitality, which advises multi-site brands on growth, brand and development strategy, as well as investing in early-stage concepts with a bright future

Away from it all by Ann Elliott

I’m on holiday in South Africa at the moment, far away from the frenzied political world of Brexit, and that’s something of a relief. I have no real clue what’s going on, what the options are or how our agency should be preparing for different potential scenarios – if at all. Like most people, I suspect, I just want things to be sorted and life to revert to some sort of normality so it’s interesting being in a country used to uncertainty, upheaval and change with, potentially, more to come in the near future.

In South Africa, as in the UK, life goes along as normal. Just like the UK, there is a strong backbone of tourism supporting the economy alongside a resident population who want to eat and drink out as they have always done. On the face of it, not much has changed since we last came here a few years ago but underneath I sense a renewed feeling of optimism, hope and belief in the restaurant and leisure sector and evidence of increased investment.

One place that embodies this sense of positivity is Babylonstoren. Its website states: “Dating to 1692, the fortunes of this historic fruit and wine farm took a turn ten years ago when it fell under the gaze of former magazine editor Karen Roos. Her passion for the Cape Dutch style led to an authentic yet contemporary restoration that projects the farm into the future.”

There is a strong focus in our sector of providing customers with memorable and engaging experiences they want to share and talk about. This has always been the case but the rise of social media has brought this element of a brand’s offer much more to the fore. Babylonstoren is proof that providing such experiences encourages exceptional customer retention and loyalty.

Babylonstoren is a farm, garden and vineyard, all of which hit the senses from the moment you arrive. Ducks, chickens and donkeys run freely, bringing life and movement to the place. It is ever changing in colour, smell, feel and texture. Tours are run 365 days a year, twice a day, by gardeners who bring the history and background of this garden to life –especially to non-gardeners such as myself. 

The venue has a greenhouse cafe and an award-winning restaurant, Babel. A few years ago Babylonstoren opened a wine-tasting barn, where a sample of three varieties of wine and half a colourful and tasty meat platter costs about £6. Again, the team was knowledgeable and enthusiastic and the whole environment was busy, colourful and lively. It was hard to leave. In fact, the venue has also added more rooms to the six (I think) it used to offer so guests really never have to leave!

Back to the website: “Above all, we’d like visitors to ground themselves again – to enjoy the mountains as much as we do, pick their own fruit and vegetables, play pétanque, swim in the farm dam, enjoy an hour in the spa, eat a simple, fresh dish at one of the restaurants, walk up the conical Babylonstoren Hill, await sunset with a glass of wine in hand and then slip in between sheets of crisp linen and drift away.”

Babylonstoren has also added a healing garden and scented garden, extended the shop, garden and car park and runs workshops. It has opened a shop selling products made from plants grown in its garden. It is the most awesome place and one I would return to year after year if I could. The whole experience stays in my memory long after I come home. Every single element seeps into my mind and body so I can vividly recall it when I want to have that feeling of restorative peace.

This is a farm where one person’s vision and determination has shone through. Roos has employed people who communicate that vision with passion and enthusiasm – and has continued to invest. The attention to detail is phenomenal and the quality of all produce is exceptional. There are surprises and discoveries everywhere. It all fits. It’s all aligned. Everything, new and old, has been thought through to create the experience Roos intended. It’s worth a visit just to walk, eat, listen and learn. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliotts, the leading integrated marketing agency in the hospitality and leisure sector – www.elliottsagency.com

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