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Should you charge COVID-positive guests a fee for missing their reservation?

restaurant reservation
Photo: Shutterstock

Question:

When we reopened after COVID lockdown, we had limited capacity, partly to spread out tables to make guests feel more comfortable and partly because we didn’t have enough [staff]. We instituted a $25 per person cancellation fee if guests are no shows or if they cancel within 24 hours of their reservation. Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of attitude from guests who say that they should not have been charged because they tested positive for COVID or were exposed to COVID. What’s the best policy for that?

– General Manager, Fine Dining

Answer:

A reservation is a contract between the restaurant and the guest. You reserve a spot for them to enjoy your food and beverages, and they commit to showing up and spending money.

In a perfect world, it always works. And we all know that for a variety of good reasons on both sides—such as VIP walk-ins, campers, staffing shortages or maintenance issues for restaurants; traffic, illness, childcare or changing plans for guests—it is rarely a perfect world.

We all know guests who abuse reservations. For example, they may book tables at multiple restaurants for the same time to give their dates a choice; they may show up for their reservation with a larger party in tow and expect to be accommodated; they may arrive long after their reservation time and be incensed that you’ve given their table away. For so many guests like these, I love the idea of them sharing your burden with a cancellation fee. It may help train problem guests to be better actors.

However, things happen. In my opinion, a guest with a legitimate reason to cancel their table should not be charged a fee. Doing so is penny-wise and pound-foolish as you may be able to capture their cancellation fee, but you may miss out on a longer, more lucrative relationship with the guest. And a guest who suspects they may have COVID is a legitimate reason—you wouldn’t want that guest dining with you anyway.

Chef/Owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon of Kalaya agrees. She says, “I initiated the $20 per person reservation fee before COVID because we were incredibly busy and seeing a bunch of no-shows on the weekends. Once we were allowed to open our dining room after COVID, I relaxed the policy to allow people who were exposed to someone with COVID or tested positive to be able to get their deposits back. It’s the right thing for the guests involved, our staff and any guests who might otherwise be seated near these folks. This was a no-brainer, and I’m very happy that it has worked out, as we don’t want to serve anyone who isn’t feeling well.”

My advice is to nuance your policy to empower managers and reservationists to use their discretion to waive the fee. For a no-call, no-show or last minute, “Sorry, we’re not going to make it!”charge away! A remorseful, responsible guest trying to do the right thing? Waive the fee. A good barometer and sales strategy is to offer the cancelling guest a table for a future date.

More on honoring reservations here.

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