Canberra Centre Masthead

If you book it, will you turn up?

Emma Macdonald

There is a hidden but very real cost to our hospitality industry when bookings turn to no-shows.

Have you ever been guilty of reserving a table at a restaurant only to get cold feet/distracted/a table somewhere else, and never letting them know you don’t plan to show up? Or the work function booking for 20 ultimately shrinks to seven – and you sheepishly turn up with less than half the planned contingent?

As we head into the New Year, spare a thought for the city’s restaurateurs and hospitality workers who are spending an increasing amount of their time and effort ensuring the bookings they receive are actually followed through.

Industry stalwart at Molto Italian in Kingston, Carlo Tosolini, said that 20 years ago, a reservation was a far more solid proposition than it is today.

“Things have changed over time. People have more choice now, they book and don’t show up, or they don’t book and need a table. We have to try and be accommodating.”

“If someone has booked a table for six on a Friday night at 7pm, and we don’t hear from them when we try and confirm it, do we hold the table for them when it is 7pm or do we fill it with people walking in then and there and wanting to eat with us?”

Running a small business, which requires enough staff to cover service and enough food to feed customers, is hard enough without factoring no-shows into the mix, he says.


John Leverink’s The Boat House would appreciate notice if diners can’t get there on the night.

John Leverink, the owner of Pod Food and The Boat House, said there was no worse feeling than setting up for a large table, including rostering extra staff to ensure everyone was enjoying an optimal experience, only to have it shrink drastically at the last minute – or worse, cancel entirely.

“I guess I would like people to be a bit more understanding about what it takes from our end to ensure that they have a great dining experience,” he says. “We do need to know in advance who we are catering for, and we adjust our rosters accordingly. So if we have a reservation that falls through, we still have to pay the wages and cover the food bill and just hope someone calls us with a last-minute request for a table to try and cover our losses.”

“If you make an appointment to see a doctor or book a plumber, you don’t then stand them up. But we find in the restaurant scene, that somehow, we are considered less important than other services.”

Both operators have watched their productivity in recent years effectively reduced because of the amount of time it takes to book and confirm bookings.

“We do an awful lot of chasing up these days, on top of everything else we need to do, including the wages, managing staff, being on the floor,” said Carlo.

But both men agree that Canberra is not ready for a credit card booking system like they use in Sydney and Melbourne – whereby a no-show means you pay a cancellation fee.

“People really don’t want to give their credit card details for a booking. It scares them and definitely puts them off. Canberra is a small town, not a city of a couple of million people, so all we can do is ask for confirmations,” says Carlo.

John agrees; “we often think about a credit card system here, but I don’t think we are ready for it”.


Akiba’s owners Michael and Peter Harrington encourage communication with diners.

The brothers behind the hugely popular Akiba in the city, and Sage Dining Rooms in Braddon, Michael and Peter Harrington, don’t support the notion of a cancellation fee – which they feel would undermine the goodwill built up between restaurants and clientele.

“Large functions you can require a deposit, but even then if they cancel you could be within your rights to charge them but then you know they will never come back so you have to weigh that up,” says Michael.

“You have to look at the long game and try and ensure people want to eat with you.”

While Akiba is doing a roaring trade and can fill any gaps in bookings through a steady stream of walk-ins off Bunda Street, Sage operates a more high-end dining experience, requiring bookings.

Despite the time and effort it costs to follow up with people to get confirmations once they have made a booking, it’s better than the cost of a table left empty over dinner service.

Michael said that with most restaurants operating on a 10 percent profit margin, losing a table of four could present a significant financial sting.

“If the table cannot be replaced at the last minute, there is an impact to the atmosphere of the restaurant as well as the financial losses given that staff costs and all our overheads still need to be covered.

“We find that if we sincerely request people let us know of any changes to the booking then that establishes a relationship and both parties are usually in good communication with each other.

“What we would like is for people to treat us like they would their friends if they were going to dinner at a friend’s house. Just let us know if you’re not coming or if numbers change in as much time as possible to reduce the impact of the effort and expense which goes into preparing your meal.”

All of the restaurant owners said they always appreciated people notifying them of cancellations.

“We just need the communication from the public,” said John.

Even 10 minutes’ notice could mean the difference between filling a table with a last-minute booking, or seeing all that effort go to waste.


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

  • Katie

    It’s the same for all private businesses, plumbers and doctors have just been smart enough to set up billing for it. As a makeup artist I have had to take a retainer fee for bookings now after having too many last minute cancellations, including one where I received a text message as I was about to knock on the clients front door. >_<

  • Virginia Cooke

    As I run a couple of Meetup groups, I like the online reservation systems such as Dimmi as I get a confirmation email and reminder. Some cafes don’t even have a contact number to make a booking, so you have to message them on Facebook, and then they may not get back to you. And if you do call, it’s never a good time as they can’t hear you so could get the reservation details wrong. I run a Meetup group, so I prefer to do ‘last minute’ bookings for dinners and lunches where people find themselves at a loose end, so they’re more likely to turn up to booked events as it’s top of mind. These days, no one seems to plan a long way ahead.

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