‘Play Tetris’ – Capacity Management Post Lockdown

Some of our latest course modules have been developed to help operators navigate the changing landscape of service and hospitality. Our Director of Learning and Education, Martin Hilton, shares his experiences and how we can learn to adapt.

I was lucky recently to enjoy a staycation break with my family in Cornwall and being a career long hospitalian I am always more interested in the restaurants, bars, the menus, drink lists and designs than the beach, and this year was no different. Indeed given where the industry is with the events around us and having worked very closely on our COVID Secure programmes ‘Ready to Serve’ I was intrigued to see how the different operations had implemented the guidelines and how confident guests were going to be in visiting.

Overwhelmingly my anecdotal evidence concurred with that published by our colleagues at CGA. In large the COVID Secure guidelines had been implemented extremely well and practices were firmly in place to manage social distancing, cleaning, sanitising, and protecting guests and team. Where practices were less demonstrative in their COVID secure activities, it was also evident that these businesses were not establishing the confidence that the passing guests needed to see and indeed were as a result distinctly quieter. Again, this confirms the research collected in this area.

‘Play Tetris’ – Capacity Management Post Lockdown

Despite schools having returned the week previous the town we stayed in was packed, thus bearing out another research fact confirming that the staycation was very much in full flow. As a result of the high volume of people and of course, the reduced capacity of covers available due to social distancing; table reservations were like gold dust. If you hadn’t booked online the previous week, you had almost next to no chance. The evening meal experience was, as a result, starting much earlier in the evening with folk vacating the beach earlier to get showered and readied for their evening out so that they were able to trawl the town hoping to be one of the lucky recipients of a chance booking or walk up. A lot were left disappointed and the escalated dress code in the takeaway queues was a sight to be seen.

All good news for the town’s restaurants and pubs then? Well, yes and no! Yes, at the peak of the evening session all tables in the town were taken and all establishments were full, but I couldn’t help feeling continually frustrated by the lack of capacity management and smart hosting taking place. I overheard many a walk-up enquiry being met with the answer, ‘I’m sorry we are fully booked tonight’ only to cast a cursory glance over a sea of empty tables. As this experience continually repeated itself, I realised that there was in many establishments a fundamental lack of understanding of capacity management and effective hosting. ‘Play Tetris’ I kept thinking to myself, hoping to somehow transmit my thinking to the team member dealing with the enquiry on the door. “Play Tetris”. 

If you’ve played or can remember playing Tetris, it is a game where you have to squeeze blocks and shapes together to complete lines. As you fill a line (achieving full capacity) it flashes and disappears. If you don’t fill a line the lines start to build up and encapsulates an array of blank spaces, lost opportunities to place a block and fill it, and once gone they remain lost.

I find this a tremendous metaphor for capacity management and have used it frequently in my training on the subject over the years. An empty table or indeed an empty cover remains a blank space until it is filled. If we place two guests on a table for 6 covers, we have just blocked 4 covers. If we allowed a table of 4 to be unfilled until the booking later that evening, we may have missed an opportunity to seat up to 8 covers (2 lots of 4) before that booking was due to arrive. The impact on revenue management is ginormous and effective booking and hosting will have a significant impact upon both sales and the guest’s perception.

One of the tricks to unlocking the potential here is to help colleagues that are involved in the guest booking process, either online or via telephone, to understand that the majority of guests are happy and able to adapt their booking request by at least half an hour, either way. When guests decide what time to seek a booking, in most cases an arbitrary or approximately desired time is suggested. “Shall we go for 7.30?” In some cases, of course, the guest may be bookended with other appointments or restrictions, perhaps the time of a theatre (unlikely currently) or cinema show or the time the babysitter can stay until, but it is always worth asking the question if it enables us to either slot their booking slightly earlier or slightly later to enable us to manage our blocks. If we have availability earlier, by bringing their booking request forward we might be able to take another booking or a walk up after the booking or by moving it later we are able to create a block earlier. A positive and friendly suggestion confirming that we can gladly accept the booking request but an earlier or later time is always worth asking and is often met with a positive response; we can still accept the original request if the guest is unable to move.

A great second trick is to help colleagues understand that there is always a win-win negotiation to be had with late bookings or walk ups. Many operations are getting good at this by using placeholders on the table advising the guest that they are free to sit there until the booking arrives at the stated time. This sets the expectation for the guest who can then choose to accept or find another solution. The same trick can help at the entrance. To manage bookings and tables effectively and to start the hospitality experience positively, a host at the entrance to the restaurant or pub to greet and welcome the guests is a godsend and a good host will also help to increase revenue.

A good host will always try to accommodate walk up requests and whilst the guest may initially have been expecting a table for the evening, they may be completely happy with a shortened stay (certainly some of the holidaymakers I witnessed would have been delighted with any length of stay!). So if the host can squeeze them into one of our blocks for an hour and the guest is clear and happy with that solution as opposed to being told there are no tables available, then a win-win agreement has been achieved. If the shorter stay isn’t suitable, maybe we could book them in for a different evening and even if this is not suitable, the guest leaves with a positive impression that the establishment has tried everything to accommodate them.

This practice of effective hosting and capacity management has, I believe always been crucial to optimising success, but given the current situation of establishments dealing with reduced covers, restricted opening times and a requirement for table service in all operations, it has now become business critical.

Teach your teams to play Tetris!

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