COVID-19 Restaurant Resources

How Restaurant Reservation Software Can Help with Reopening

By Katherine Pendrill

Restaurant employee on an iPad standing in a restaurant

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is for sure: dining in restaurants will look very different. Between physical distancing regulations and mandatory capacity limits, restaurants and customers alike will need to rethink the entire restaurant experience – especially during the early days of reopening.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes to dining out is the spontaneity of it all. Instead of guests wandering in off the sidewalk in the middle of an evening stroll, now they’ll have to plan well in advance. As a restaurant owner, you’ll have to know who’s coming for dinner and when.

Fortunately, restaurant reservation software can help to make that planning a whole lot easier – for both customers and guests. Reservation software not only gives you a way to control the flow of diners in and out of your restaurant, but it also provides an easy way to keep an eye on capacity.

In fact, restaurant reservations and the technology that supports them is so valuable that states such as Minnesota and Delaware have made reservations mandatory to reopening. Even in states and provinces where reservations are not required, public officials and organizations such as the National Restaurant Association recommend adopting a reservations-only model or call-ahead seating.

While restaurant reservation software is becoming essential to reopening, the technology is still new to many restaurateurs. In fact, TouchBistro’s 2020 State of Restaurants Report (based on a study conducted prior to the pandemic) revealed that while one-third of operators had plans to adopt restaurant reservation software in the future, 57% were still relying on phone calls and walk-ins to make bookings. That means a big shift has to happen soon.

If you’re one of those restaurant owners who is new to restaurant reservation software, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about reservation systems ahead of your restaurant reopening, including:

  • What restaurant reservation software is
  • The benefits of reservation software in the wake of COVID-19
  • How a reservation system can keep staff and customers safe as you reopen

Let’s dive in.

Woman wearing a face mask hanging an "open" sign in a restaurant window

What Is Restaurant Reservation Software?

Traditionally, accepting and managing restaurant reservations has been a pretty low-tech operation. Diners simply call up a restaurant to see if a table is available at a specific time and then their booking is recorded in a log book.

Though simple, the old phone and log book method is not without its challenges. On the one hand, limiting reservations to phone calls means that diners can only reserve tables when someone is there to answer the phone. And even if a diner is able to get through, coordinating seating times and tables by hand becomes increasingly complex as more reservations pour in – something that can lead to errors and unhappy diners.

These challenges are precisely why restaurant reservations software has become so popular. Reservation software allows customers to book tables online and helps restaurants manage these bookings. Everything is done digitally so customers can change or cancel their reservations through the same online portal, and restaurants can send emails or SMS text messages to confirm bookings. In other words, you can manage every step of the reservation process, all in one place.

10 Benefits of Reservation Software for Reopening

While reservation software has always been beneficial for restaurants, it has become an especially powerful tool in the wake of COVID-19. Not only does reservation software help restaurants better manage the flow of diners, but it can also play a role in protecting public health.

1. Online Access

One of the biggest challenges that restaurants are facing is a lack of foot traffic caused by stay-at-home orders and physical distancing regulations. As diners stay in their homes and off the streets, restaurants without an online presence have become largely invisible.

Restaurant reservation software helps to make restaurants visible again by meeting consumers where they are right now: online. Though diners may not be walking through their neighborhood for a bite to eat, they are Googling it. With platforms like TouchBistro Reservations, you can accept reservations through your website, Google, or TouchBistro’s web and mobile discovery apps. Adding online reservations not only helps you show up in local restaurant searches, but it also gives diners more ways to discover your venue – all without stepping outside.

Closeup of a person using a smartphone

2. Digital Waitlists

Health professionals agree that the transmission of COVID-19 primarily occurs when an individual comes in close contact with someone who has respiratory symptoms. As a result, crowded restaurant spaces, such as waiting areas and bars, present a major challenge when it comes to mitigating the spread of the virus.

Restaurant reservation software can easily solve the issue of crowded waiting areas by moving the experience online. With reservation software or dedicated waitlist apps, guests can add themselves to a restaurant’s waitlist remotely, allowing them to wait for an open table in their home, car, or another area.

3. Booking Management

By this point in the pandemic, it’s become clear that there will be no grand reopening for restaurants. Though every state and province has issued different rules for reopening, most have put caps on capacity to better allow for physical distancing. For restaurants that are used to packed dining rooms, this presents a new challenge of how to monitor capacity and avoid exceeding these limits.

One of the biggest benefits of restaurant reservation software is that it gives you a precise way to monitor venue capacity. For instance, most reservation software has tools like flow control that allow you to manage the number of covers or parties that can book reservations at a given time.

Similarly, you can use software to set maximum capacity limits, which caps the number of guests that can be seated in your restaurant at any point throughout a shift. As guests leave, the software updates to show your current available capacity. Using these tools, along with your table availability, you can ensure that you don’t exceed government-mandated capacity limits and risk your diners’ safety.

4. Floor Plan Management

Another challenge created by COVID-19 is the changes to your restaurant floor plan. Even in states that have lifted dining restrictions, there are strict limits on how close diners can be. For instance, Georgia permits just 10 diners every 500 square feet, while restaurants in Alaska must keep tables at least 10 feet apart. These new layouts mean that restaurants must figure out how to make the most of the few tables they have left.

A good reservation system will sync directly with the digital floor plan in your POS, giving you the flexibility to block off tables and save alternate layouts as you adjust to new guidelines. Reservation software can also help you optimize the restaurant seating that is available. With fewer tables available, you can’t afford to have empty seats. Reservation software allows diners to book tables in real-time so any free tables can be claimed – even days or weeks in advance.

Groups of women dining at two cafe tables spaced far apart
Reservations software can help with floor plan management for your restaurant reopening

5. Custom Reservation Notes

Controlling capacity is one thing. Easing diners’ anxiety is a completely different challenge. According to a Nielsen survey conducted at the end of April, only 22% of respondents said that they would return to bars and restaurants as soon as they reopen. However, the same survey found that 28% would return to venues that can accommodate social distancing measures.

This data shows that some diners are looking forward to returning to restaurants; they just want to be assured that health and safety is a top priority. Online restaurant reservations can address these worries by giving diners a platform to ask questions and express any concerns they might have. When reserving a table online, there’s an opportunity for diners to add custom reservation notes about everything from their food allergies to asking whether staff will be wearing face masks when they visit.

6. Two-Way Communication

For diners, part of the concern around restaurant reopenings is not knowing what to expect when they dine out again. With restaurants using everything from well-dressed mannequins to stuffed animals to enforce social distancing, diners have little context for what their next restaurant visit might look like.

Similar to custom reservations notes, two-way communication with guests can help to answer diners’ burning questions. For example, TouchBistro Reservations allows you to send email reminders and SMS texts to customers, so you can communicate in real-time. This direct line of communication allows you to explain how your floor plan may have changed or inform guests about new caps on the length of reservations, so there are no surprises the day of. Some software even lets you collect feedback from guests after their visit, which can give you a better idea of how your new service is being received.

7. Reduce No-Shows

Prior to the pandemic, no-shows were already a concern for restaurateurs. But with heightened anxieties around health and safety, no-show rates are expected to become an even bigger problem. Not to mention, less walk-in traffic means restaurants will have fewer opportunities to recoup the cost of no-shows.

Though it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of no-shows, restaurant reservation software can help to keep that number low. With reservation software, SMS and email reminders and confirmations are sent to diners automatically. These reservations can even be synced with a diner’s calendar to ensure they don’t forget about their upcoming booking.

And even if a customer can’t make it, reservation software provides an easy way for them to change or cancel their booking, so you don’t continue to hold a table for them. To really hedge your bets, you can even follow the lead of Vancouver’s St. Lawrence restaurant and use your reservation software to ask for payment upfront with each reservation.

Woman and a man dining outside at separate tables

8. POS Integration

From major menu adjustments to adding online ordering, nearly every restaurant has had to adjust its business model. And with the situation changing from week to week, it can be tough to wade through all the numbers to know what’s working and what’s not.

This is where restaurants can benefit from a reservation system that’s integrated with their restaurant POS. Integrated reservation software means that all reservation information flows directly to your POS to ensure that your front of house and back of house have a complete picture of what’s going on. This is especially helpful for restaurants running on skeleton crews, training new staff, or working out the kinks of a modified service.

9. Advanced Reporting

It goes without saying that COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation. And while industry experts can estimate how many diners will be eager to return to restaurants, there’s no way to really know. To put it bluntly, most operators are going to be running blind for at least the first few months of a restaurant reopening.

With so little information available, any source of data will be a gold mine for restaurateurs as they reopen their dining rooms. A big advantage of using a restaurant reservation system is that you get that reliable data about how many people are coming in and when. With reports and analytics at your fingertips, you can monitor how the business is doing in the weeks and months after you reopen, and adjust service accordingly.

10. Record of Diners

One of the best tools in managing the COVID-19 pandemic is contact tracing. This method involves tracking down those infected with COVID-19, finding out who they’ve been in contact with, and then notifying those contacts about their potential exposure, so they can self-isolate and get tested.

For restaurateurs, helping public officials with contact tracing means they need a way to keep track of every single person who comes into their restaurant. In places like Maine, Austin, and New Orleans, restaurants are actually required to keep track of this information.

Reservation software provides a natural solution to this issue. Diners are already used to giving their name and a phone number and/or email address in order to make a reservation. If you implement a reservations-only policy in your restaurant, you can easily use the software to keep a log of every diner. Even if you’re still accepting walk-ins, most reservation software allows you to create guest profiles on the spot. Without software, keeping a manual log of diners can quickly get out of hand, and mistakes can mean putting public health at risk.

Reopening a restaurant after weeks of closure or reduced service is no easy task. Physical distancing, strict limits on venue capacity, and mandatory guest records all present unprecedented challenges for even the most seasoned restaurateurs. Though reservation software is no silver bullet, it can help to ease the weight of these new challenges. No longer just a “nice-to-have,” reservation software can be an essential part of the tricky transition to a post-COVID world.

Photo of Katherine Pendrill
by Katherine Pendrill

Katherine is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, where she writes about trending topics in food and restaurants. The opposite of a picky eater, she’ll try (almost) anything at least once. Whether it’s chowing down on camel burgers in Morocco or snacking on octopus dumplings in Japan, she’s always up for new food experiences.

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