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Aug 31, 2014 03:34 PM

Irrationally far-in-advance bookings: an increasingly general trend

I'm noticing a phenomenon that started with restaurants, particularly ones with a lot of "media hype" around them, but seems to be migrating to all walks of life. It's the trend for everything to require booking weeks or even months in advance. In the past, it used to be that you could have a reasonable expectation of being able to just turn up to many things, be they restaurants, art galleries, major sights, or just about anything else, and get in, at least if you timed things reasonably intelligently. In the worst cases a week's advance booking usually was plenty. No longer.

The "system" has got to the point in a lot of areas wherein you may have to book for anything 3 months, even a year in advance, to have any chance. This is an irrational situation, in my view. It makes an absurdity of any kind of reasonable planning, obviously eliminates even the possibility of sponteneity, makes no allowances for contigencies (illness, accident, transport difficulties, or anything else), and essentially requires that you lead a completely fixed life with absolutely planned daily schedules and utterly regular patterns, extending years into the future. I very much doubt if more than a tiny fraction of people have that sort of predictability, and even fewer probably want it.

That this problem is occurring suggests a serious failing in organisations' ability to cope with volume of demand, and it would seem, lack of originality in coming up with creative solutions that permit reasonable flexibility. Can anyone suggest any reasons why 1) volume of demand for *anything* has leapt to such a disproportionate extent; 2) places (but particularly restaurants in a Chow context) don't seem to be able to find the imagination to come up with reasonable solutions? (It will be noted that while of course, for some, cynical market manipulation is probably a factor, I don't believe this is the only - or even the prevailing - reason for the problem).

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  1. ...the reason...

    try 'the Internet' - there are now companies who book up every available reservation at popular places and, for a fee, will sell their reservation to you.

    some places use the non-refundable fee for a reservation. that doesn't sit well with 'normal' people.

    the successful 'we booked 'em full' companies put down the fee. it's not like they're likely to have to cancel, and if they do, they've made more than enough money on the other thousands of reservations sales to 'cover' the loss.

    2 Replies
    1. re: PSRaT

      In addition to the "we're so hip and cool and exclusive and everyone who's anyone wants to eat here that you are required to book 3-6 months in advance, and then we require you to confirm by Email 3x, by Voice Mail 2x, and on the phone at least once (if you can even reach a live person) and then you are required to show up an hour before your reservation so we can confirm that you're even allowed to dine here and even then, if celebrities walk in, your reservation is toast" syndrome.

      1. re: PSRaT

        This is the worst with event tickets - specifically for concerts. No more the days when a committed fan could wait in line for hours to be first in line - those companies buy up the tickets in bulk and then resell them.

      2. I think it's as much as anything about the fact that dining in some restaurants has become a major event, rather than a way to consume dinner. People buy theatre and concert tickets weeks and months in advance and then plan around those things, and the experience at a lot of high end restaurants is meant to rival those experiences in specialness, rather than being something you just do because it's Friday and it's date night, and there's nothing playing at Cineplex that you want to see.

        Think about the stories you hear about entire concert tours for major artists selling out in 10 minutes, months and months in advance -- that might be 20K fans per venue for arena tours, which means in 2 nights, about as many people see Beyonce as can dine at French Laundry in a year. I think Beyonce seems like it would be a fun time, but I'd way rather have dinner at the French Laundry.

        There are restaurants who are trying different solutions -- only opening reservations a month in advance at a set time, selling tickets at varying pricing levels to even out demand, holding what amounts to lotteries for the seats, opening more restaurants, just demanding ever increasing prices until they find out exactly how much the market will bear. But those all have drawbacks, too.

        There isn't really a perfect solution to 'more people want to be in our restaurant than we can possibly serve.' Most of the ones that have been tried either inconvenience people or cost them more money, and those are really the only additional barriers a restaurant has available to tamp demand down a little.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Jacquilynne

          Interesting. The "dinner-as-event" does seem to be a new phenomenon. In the past, when people wanted a "dinner event", they threw a party and invited others. Is this a reflection of social atomisation?

          It should be said too, that the capitulatory option of taking no bookings at all creates a different irrational situation: instead of irrationally far in advance bookings, you're faced with irrational waits (over 2 hours, possibly more).

          However, there *are* other potential solutions to the bookings problem. Of course as you suggest the "pure capitalist" solution is simply to bump the prices up until people squeal. But here are a pair of less-risky models:

          1: Block release. Simply make 1/4 of your available bookings open a month (or more) before, release 1/4 more with a week to go, 1/4 more with a day to go, and have 1/4 seats available for people walking in. This spreads the booking frenzy out. Notice that because people know new windows are going to open, they won't be that panicked about calling at the first possible moment, because they know it's not really a crisis if they miss. And furthermore this allows the people with really fixed times, who need to get in at a certain time, on a certain day, appropriate priority, because they *will* be the ones who call first, rather than chancing it until later. And you can always take your chances with showing up on spec, so even if all bookings are taken, hope is not yet lost. Obviously the system can be tweaked using various ratios and release schedules.

          2: Dutch Auction. The method of a Dutch auction is actually very clever. You start the booking availability on Day X. But booking isn't free, if you call at the first available moment. No, it costs, probably a significant amount. With each successive day that passes, the price of a booking drops, until, on the day of the booking itself, it's free. So again, people will follow different, independent strategies to maximise what to them is their probability-of-getting-a-table vs. cost tradeoff. And of course the establishment wins, because the costs of running the system are paid off simply through the process itself.

          Both systems have the advantage of appearing reasonably fair to the participants, not requiring too much effort on anyone's part, and critically, spreading the booking load out over the whole period, so you don't get either Harters' annoying panic-when-the-phones-open problem or the equally annoying queueing-for-hours problem.

          1. re: AlexRast

            I think I like the first best and I believe I have seen variants where restaurants keep some solace back for walk-ins. I like it as it gives disorganised people like me a shot at a table (I also don't mind the bar).

            Alinea in Chicago has they "ticket" system which I think works at the hyper popular places. You buy the ticket in advance based on the menu price, you then pay for booze etc on the day. The price also varies by time and date so if you want to eat at 6:00 it's cheaper than 8:00. You can then "trade" your reservation if you can't make it, and the restaurant has a site to do this. They open the reservation line (I think) 60 days in advance for the day.

            I quite like it as a system as it means you need to be serious and it deters multiple bookings as you need pay in full when you book and it didn't seem too tricky to score a reservation.

            1. re: AlexRast

              I'm not sure that I agree that allowing people to walk in to a restaurant that other people made a reservation for a month in advance is somehow a better model. Perhaps it spreads the opportunity around a little more to people with less set schedules, but it reduces the opportunities for people who truly are willing to prioritize the experience in their lives. If I'm willing to commit to attending the restaurant a month in advance, and will re-arrange my life to make that possible, and you aren't, why should the system attempt to satisfy you? My money is as the same as yours, and I'm apparently more dedicated to attending the restaurant (or just have a less chaotic life, I suppose).

              Mostly, though, it seems like that just ups the number of days when people have to pound the phone lines hoping to get in.

              Dutch auctions would be a fun pricing model, but I suspect people would get awfully angsty about the price variations. But wouldn't that just mean all reservations go to the people with the most money to blow? A 1% solution isn't very populist. It is possibly fairer, though, because it does privilege the people who are most dedicated (financially) to going to the restaurant.

              (Please note: I do not necessarily take this issue as seriously as this post might suggest. It is merely a great deal more entertaining than my law school homework. It also happening in the middle of my law school homework, which might possibly be having an effect on the tone.)

              1. re: Jacquilynne

                Maybe from the restaurant's point of view or, perhaps, the server's ... the "most dedicated" doesn't necessarily denote the best customer!

                Many people still prize spontaneity, and some of the most wonderful and fascinating people I know can't (or won't?) plan their way out of a paper bag, even if they make fantastic art or conversation, and have excellent palates.

                Planning does not equate to appreciation.

                1. re: Torina

                  Clearly what is required is admissions essays.

                  1. re: Jacquilynne

                    I think I wrote one when I scored a reservation at El Bulli....!

                    1. re: Jacquilynne

                      Ha! I think you miss my point ... which is that a bit of chance can lead to serendipity.

            2. Alex I agree its an odd phenomena but that said it is still relatively constrained and in some respects balanced by the rise of the no booking restaurant. There area definitely a few restaurants in any city/country that do book out far in advance but I maintain is a relatively finite list.

              I am pretty confident I will get an excellent selection of restaurants in London, San Francisco, Paris, Hong Kong or Sydney with a months notice, and a pretty good selection with two weeks notice. That said I will probably miss out on the hot table of the moment in each of these cities. In the past I had a severe case of FOMO and would even reconsider trips if I couldn't get a certain reservation.

              But I think my have been cured by a number of rather disappointing meals at these sorts of places, and more enjoyable meals at less elite places.

              I tend to read the frothing at the mouth reviews from bloggers and some esteemed critics with a bit more cynicism now. But I think what drives it is Fashion. Fashion victims used tone exclusively clothes focussed but with so much press about everything and so much more information so easily available, I would argue that the "fashion disease" has spread. It seems people are define by their experiences, in the past your clothes helped define your tribe. Now its everything - "you are what you eat" has a whole new meaning.

              1. On the other hand, there are those mega-popular places that do not permit booking months in advance, perhaps limiting it to a few weeks. I celebrate my 65th birthday in 11 months. There are places where I'd like to book now to guarantee that's where I'll be eating on the day but, no, I might have to wait another 8 months before I can even try - risking disappointment if I miss the day, or even hour, when reservations open for that day. So, I won't be going to any of those world class places. And, yes, I find it very peeving.

                1. I routinely book fishing trips 6-8 months in advance around the moon phases, so I know on 4/21/2015 I'm going fishing or to the French Laundry or whatever. Works for me.