While many restaurateurs are still wary, incorporating an automated booking system could be the next logical step for restaurants. By Dominique Antarakis.
We may not think of technology as being ‘personal’. In fact, generally we think the opposite. But if knowledge is power, then knowing as much as possible about your customers—who they are, where they come from and how they behave—is one of the most powerful tools a restaurant can have.
In an ideal world, this knowledge would reside in your staff, who would be able to call your best customers by name; know which ones bounce cheques and which ones tip big; and remember customer preferences from where they like to be seated to any food allergies they might have. In reality, few people have the knack of remembering that level of detail and what happens if they leave or go on holidays? All that knowledge walks out the door with them.
An automated booking system may be the answer. They come in many shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: they allow you to capture and process an enormous amount of information about your customers, data which is then available to anyone working in the restaurant. This information can be used for all sorts of purposes. On a purely practical level, a booking system can be an efficient way to organise seating, find out which tables are booked, which are filled and which are about to be vacated—all of which can be noted at a glance by any member of the floor staff, rather than having to rely on the all-seeing host for that evening.
Lia Fraser, NSW sales manager for technology provider RedCat, says their booking system is an ‘optional extra on top of a point of sale (POS) system’ and can be fully integrated into an existing system.
Colour coding means that as information changes, any member of staff can see ‘at a glance’ whether a table is booked, whether the customer has turned up, whether they have the bill and how close the table is to being available.
An obvious benefit of a PC-based system, rather than the traditional diary, pencil and eraser model, is that more than one person can take bookings and keep track of which tables are already filled.
“Usually only one person can be in charge and it depends on how good they are in jotting down notes and how well organised they are,” says Nick Childs, lead developer at GoCentral, which provides web services and customised booking systems to restaurants.
“With an automated system, many people can contribute to the process instead of just one, and the time involved in keeping the data up-to-date is considerably reduced,” he says.
Integrated with your website, your POS system and a back-end database, there is no end to the potential for building relationships with some of your best customers. But according to Ken Burgin, chief executive officer of Profitable Hospitality, this last option is rarely taken up by Australian restaurateurs. There just isn’t the demand yet for a fully integrated web-based booking system, which can cope with taking bookings in real-time and relay this information to the restaurant, automatically updating bookings and customer details.
“We don’t have anything in Australia like OpenTable.com in the United States, for example,” he says. “These things are driven by restaurant demand and in Australia it just isn’t there.”
But with thousands of potential customers online and willing to book a table, “you can’t afford not to have some sort of online booking system”, says Burgin. “It can be as simple as having a form on your site, and an auto response sent back to the customer so they know their booking has been received and that someone will be in touch.”
There must be an angel
It seems that many restaurateurs are still wary of giving the power of booking tables over to an automated system. BookingAngel.com has overcome this problem by tapping into the thousands of potential customers browsing the web who are happy to book online and connecting them with restaurants via phone. This is still the preferred method of taking a booking for most restaurants, rather than, say, having to constantly check emails.
The customer fills in a form online, and when they press ‘submit’, a call is made to the restaurant and an electronic message relays the booking request, which the restaurant can either accept, reject or amend. This information is then relayed back to the customer within seconds, generally via email.
Maria Blanco, chef/manager at Raquel’s Spanish Restaurant in Sydney, which uses Booking Angel through their website, says the system has “been fabulous”.
“It really makes us more accessible,” she says. “If someone tries to ring to book but can’t get on to you, they’ll go somewhere else. With Booking Angel, they can always get through.”
Dean McEvoy, director of Booking Angel, says in 18 months the company has seated close to 9000 customers. “It has been well received,” he says.
“Restaurants can use their own site, or they can link with Booking Angel through the Restaurant Guide (www.restaurant.org.au).”
It’s up to the restaurant how they then capture the information on customers—the data needs to be entered as bookings come in, and they can log in to Booking Angel and access their customer statistics at any time.
Childs has found most clients are reluctant to make full use of the potential of online bookings and Fraser says while RedCat could offer a web-based version of their system, “there simply isn’t the demand for it yet”.
“We offer an online loyalty program which captures customer details and preferences, so it wouldn’t be such a big leap from that to a fully integrated online solution,” she says. “But no one has ever asked us.”