The curse of reservations…

Some years ago the organisation of a birthday drink at The Lamb pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London for a group of around 10 friends was a carefree process simply involving me telling them to turn up at the allotted time. I’ve a feeling that replicating the event today would be less easygoing and require me to book some tables.

This is exactly what most people seemed to have done on an early evening visit to The Lamb on a recent Saturday. One group secured two tables even though half of the party had not turned up one hour into the booking and we asked to ‘borrow’ part of the table until their late friends eventually (maybe) put in an appearance. The impression was that they had over-booked just in case!

My assumption had been that a quick drop into the pub before dinner at the nearby Noble Rot would be no problem because even if the place was busy a table would be freed up at some point and we’d make a grab for it – as you do. This was not going to be the case because we found each departing party was only leaving because they were going to be usurped by an incoming booked group on that particular table.

It’s clear that the sensible ones on this occasion had the foresight to book, which I understand, but in a wet-led pub where very little food is being served it takes away the relaxed drop-in characteristic that is a key differentiator between pubs and restaurants. Many pubs in London are becoming almost like restaurants in requiring a booking otherwise the chances of getting a table have become severely diminished.

On one late-afternoon visit to the Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico I was met with an empty pub and a card on each table indicating the time the tables were booked. Some of these were two hours away so no problem for me on this occasion but there would in due course be the same table hopping and problems encountered as at The Lamb. This scenario is being played out at many pubs.

The first come first seated/served element is being removed from the pub and there is a great risk because more people will get dragged into booking tables just in case they make a visit to a venue. Multiple bookings at various pubs is clearly the way to go as this will enable drinkers to secure themselves a table however their evening pans out and thereby cover all eventualities.

It won’t take much for pubs to look like train carriages on the main line services where booked tickets automatically come with a free reservation. Many people assign little value to their booked seat and instead sit in a more preferable spot on the train. And many people will have actually taken another train entirely.

While such a laissez-faire approach to reserved seats on trains is not a particular problem this freewheeling approach to reservations presents a massive headache for the restaurant industry. It continues to face issues with no-shows and people booking multiple venues and other thoughtless behavior. Research from Zonal and CGA found the hospitality industry is losing an incredible £17.6 billion per year from no-shows. As many as 14% of people admitted they had not turned up for their reservation.

Clearly the financial downsides for restaurants having no-shows is markedly more acute than for pubs but I’d still argue that the move towards boozers filled with booked tables will ultimately lead to growing numbers of people feeling that the serendipitous dropping into the pub is no longer a good idea and the once-valuable walk-in drinker will be a thing of the past for pub operators.

Yes, I fully understand that much of the table booking activity is down to policies introduced as a result of Covid-19 and this had been a sensible move when Track & Trace was in place but today for those pubs that are predominantly wet-led I’d suggest they need to tread carefully with their table booking procedures. It just might be alienating more customers, like me, than it is benefiting.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.