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Reopening venues ponder ‘to fee or not to fee?’

They might be baby steps, but the on-premise industry across the country is certainly beginning to reopen as COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

As we know, each state is moving at a different pace with restrictions, meaning bars are able to open at different capacities according to their location. But despite differences in capacity and specific allowed behaviours, what everyone seems to understand are the health, safety and hygiene measures to implement. 

What remains up for debate at the moment though, is the best strategy for reopening. Should a venue accept bookings only? Should there be a booking fee? What about a fee for cancelling? Or a minimum spend per visit? These are all questions relating to how businesses can best bounce back after the hardest fight the industry as a whole has faced. 

And to each of these questions there’s no ‘right answer,’ because there is no blanket strategy that works for all venues. What they do have in common however, is how to navigate the fine line of what’s best for the customer and the business. 

Sydney bar and restaurant Low 302 in Surry Hills recently caused a stir about these very questions, taking to their Facebook page to describe how their business was affected by a group not showing up for their booking. The booking was during the stage of restrictions that only allowed 10 patrons in venues, which was Low 302’s first weekend of opening. 

The post began by calling out the customer’s name, Aimee, and said: “We thank you for making a booking at Low for four people. Right now that is 40 per cent of our entire capacity.”

“The thing is Aimee, you didn’t show up for your booking. You didn’t have the common courtesy to call us up and cancel. We had people on a waiting list who would have been happy to take your reservation.”

“Maybe you have no idea the financial impact this has on a restaurant right now. Maybe you don’t care. You have single handedly set the worst of precedence for our entire industry at this most difficult time. Furthermore you have put us in the position of having to now ask other bookings to pay a deposit when booking. Something we really wanted to avoid having to do.”

The post ended with this iconic line: “Aimee, there is a special place for you to burn in hospo hell.”

In this case, offering bookings for patrons was a way to know what business would be like that night, rather than leaving it up to chance for walk-ins. Of course, if a booking doesn’t show up, that idea goes out the window. 

This is where the booking fee and cancellation fee idea comes in, and was a hot suggestion in the comments of Low 302’s post. Having some kind of fee not only discourages people from just not showing up without warning, but also helps recoup at least some losses from what could be seen as guaranteed business. 

This opens up a new issue about treading the line between what’s best for customer and business. Although having a fee could help businesses somewhat, could it discourage customers?

This is something restaurants have dealt with even before the pandemic. Restaurateur Jerry Mai wrote in Hospitality that they had strict booking policies where they charged a small fee for groups of six or more. 

“The policy isn’t uncommon in the industry, however we found we were losing large bookings as people were reluctant to secure a booking with their credit card details,” wrote Mai.

While many bars may currently be operating similarly to restaurants (seated customers, table service and drinks served with food), there are still obvious differences and this divide will only grow as restrictions continue to ease.

There’s also the fact that bookings may not fit into the usual operation of bars and their regulars. If a strategy doesn’t align with the venue’s values, it likely won’t work. That’s why Sydney’s Burrow Bar isn’t currently doing bookings.

Co-owner Chau Tran said they considered taking bookings and it might be something they implement for a small section of the bar later on, but not right now.

“When it came down to it adding these restrictions and features would completely change our style of service and the operating model,” Tran told Bars and Clubs.

Burrow Bar has a call back system to let waiting customers know when a table frees up. In the meantime, Tran also encourages patrons to try a takeaway cocktail, or visit a nearby venue that also accepts walk ins. This works well for the Burrow Bar’s clientele of both the general public and industry peers.

“Burrow Bar has always been an equal access venue. There’s no preferential treatment. You should be able to drink at the rate you want, and enjoy your night like an adult. But most importantly, it’s supporting everyone that is operating as well. We want to help other bars in the area and we want the industry to get through the other side as well,” Tran said.

Another question for reopening, is whether to introduce a minimum spend. The answer to this differs and again, is centred about what will work for a specific venue.

At one Speakeasy Group Sydney venue, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the answer is yes. The relatively new cocktail bar has a lush glamorous air, which their post-pandemic reopening has aligned with so far. When the 10 person limit applied, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang announced they would be offering booking packages for intimate, luxurious, two hour sittings with a $2,000 minimum spend per booking.

If you think about it, the minimum spend on a per person level is a decent deal, when you think about cocktails, canapes, Champagne and the fact you’d have the whole almost-brand-new bar to yourself. I’ve certainly spent more on lower quality nights out.

Nevertheless, some people commented on social media that the minimum price was steep, to which KKBB explained: “Sure… But we have also been closed for 10 weeks, with zero income, but loads of expenses… and when we only can have 10 people in the venue it is impossible to make a profit. if we open if for $1000, we’re literally paying for the privilege of serving you drinks. It’s a sad state of affairs at the moment. There is no profit in this – We’re just trying to keep people employed…”

It’s clear there are lots of thoughts on reopening, and there’s no one size fits all. What works for a regional pub won’t work for a small city bar, and what does wonders for one demographic could deter another. It’s all about playing to your venue’s strengths by knowing what your customers want and what your business needs, to have the best possible reopening in these crazy times.

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