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What's the best way to cancel a guest's reservation?

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We have a new, small, busy restaurant. I had unexpected call outs (one COVID, one random) so had to cancel a bunch of tables. Our reservation system sent a cancellation, but I had some guests who were upset and seemed to expect compensation for the inconvenience. Is that fair/necessary?

– Owner, Small BYOB


It's hard enough to run a restaurant under the best conditions and with COVID not going anywhere soon, things are far from perfect. While there will always be some guests who have unreasonable expectations, I find most guests to be patient with current staffing challenges and unpredictability. If it is communicated well. In your case, it was not.

First, it must have been painful to cancel reservations rather than running short-staffed but capturing the revenue. I think it was a responsible decision to limit your capacity rather than delivering a guest experience that would not have been up to your standards. That might have done more harm than good for a new restaurant in terms of cultivating future business.

That said, relying on your reservation system for cancellations without a personal touch created additional problems for you. Like many problems in hospitality, this one seems to be centered around a communication gap. Your guests had a reservation, maybe a hard one to get, and were looking forward to dining with you. You decided you could not accommodate them. Fair.

But where things broke down, it seems, is that rather than explaining your situation and offering alternatives, your guests received a surprise notification from your reservation system saying, “Your reservation has been canceled,” with little, if any, additional information.

I would have been mad, too.

Compare the approach you took with my advice, which would be to call or text each reservation to explain your situation and:

  1. Offer them a table for another night when you’ll be ready to accommodate.
  2. Suggest other venues that would be able to take a party of their size for dinner that evening.

That method would keep me excited to dine with you. I’d be sympathetic to a new restaurant with staffing challenges rather than resentful that the burden is on me to change my plans.

More on managing reservations here.

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