‘Guests like to be known’: restaurants luring diners back via personal reservations

<span>July restaurant in central London.</span><span>Photograph: Safia Shakarchi/The Guardian</span>
July restaurant in central London.Photograph: Safia Shakarchi/The Guardian

Booking a table at your favourite restaurant no longer involves simply contacting the establishment and giving your details. Now it often involves the restaurant contacting you too – sometimes several times over.

Online booking platforms used by hundreds of restaurants in the UK now send out reservation confirmations, reminders, requests for feedback, future deals and news. Some send certain customers a “personalised booking link” after their visit, to encourage them to come back. “I hope you had a great time on your last visit … and that you’ll come back to see us again soon,” reads one example, sent on behalf of Som Saa, a Thai restaurant in east London, via booking platform SevenRooms.

“If you’re keen to explore more of the menu and already have a date in mind, you can always book a table through our direct booking link here. Hope to see you soon, Som Saa team.”

Som Saa co-founder Mark Dobbie said: “In a city like London, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd sometimes, so it’s helpful to be able to remind people we’re here.”

July, a recently opened restaurant in central London that uses SevenRooms, has also been sending out personal booking links. “So far it’s been going well,” said co-founder Julian Oschmann. “About 10% of our first-time guests use it to make another booking.”

We learn a lot from the customer feedback we receive. We look at it as a team to see what we can do to improve.

Mark Dobbie, Som Saa

SevenRooms introduced what it calls “marketing automation” in 2019, but said restaurants are increasingly moving to personalise their communications to customers. Guests might be invited to book again at certain moments, including after their first visit, if they haven’t visited for a certain number of days, or if they didn’t rebook after cancelling. A restaurant might also encourage them to book again if they bought a specific wine, or hit a spending threshold, the platform said.

“Restaurant operators have realised that personalised retention marketing performs better than other tactics,” a SevenRooms spokesperson said. “Restaurants want to know and understand their guests, and guests want to be ‘known’ by their favourite spots.”

Inflation and the cost of living crisis led to a 6.7% decrease in restaurant spending in 2023, according to Barclays data. And among those who are still going out to eat, there is a trend, particularly with younger customers, to book more than one venue before deciding which of them to go to. Booking platform ResDiary reported a 60% increase in no-shows for reservations in 2023, at 8%, compared with 5% for 2022. No-shows led to an average annual revenue loss of £3,600 per venue, it said. Sending reminders mitigates cancellations.

Feedback emails are also valuable. “We learn a lot from the customer feedback we receive,” said Dobbie. “We look at it as a team, weekly, and discuss if there is anything we can do differently to improve. We have a response rate of about 15% of tables. The vast majority of those are positive, I’m pleased to say.”

These communications can also help restaurants tailor offers to particular guests. “You can, for example, tag a guest who was super-interested in the rare riesling list, and when that has been refreshed you can specifically let them and other riesling lovers know there’s something going on that you might be interested in,” said Dobbie.

Ben Floyd, owner of Lumière restaurant consultancy, recommends his clients correspond with customers. Unless a dish or a venue goes viral, he said, social media sites like Instagram don’t drive much custom. “With booking platforms, you can remind people you’re there, and [be] more targeted about marketing.”

Restaurants saw an average of £727 in revenue from every automated email campaign, said SevenRooms data.

But too many emails, from booking links to newsletters, may turn potential customers off, although diners can opt out of communications. “Continually bombarding week-in, week-out with offers is annoying,” said Floyd. “There is a line.”