Study finds no-reservations policy can mean significant lost traffic

ITHACA N.Y. Nearly 60 percent of patrons dining out for business reasons will avoid an establishment with a no-reservations policy, a virtual convention among large casual-dining chains, according to new research from Cornell University.

The report from the school's Center for Hospitality Research prompted its authors to recommend that casual chains rethink their no-reservations stance to capture more of the lucrative expense-account market.

As part of the study, researchers asked nine questions to 131 randomly selected adults who ranged in age from 22 to older than 55 who were in the lobby of the Cornell Statler Hotel to gauge their reactions to seating policies among casual-dining restaurants.

The researchers found that 55.5 percent of those surveyed would pick a restaurant that takes a reservation when dining out for business reasons. Only 2.6 percent reported that they would frequent a place for a business meal with a waiting list, and 5.6 percent indicated they would choose an establishment with a call-ahead seating policy. Fifty-seven percent said they would never pick a restaurant for business purposes if it did not accept reservations.

To determine the prevalence of no-reservations policies among casual chains, the Cornell researchers looked at 63 casual-dining brands in Nation's Restaurant News' Top 200, an annual ranking of chains by systemwide sales. They found that 32 percent take reservations with certain restrictions; 28 percent accepted call-ahead seating, whereby patrons call to put their names on a waiting list before heading to a restaurant; 32 percent used a waiting list for walk-ins; and 8 percent used a combination of various methods. Among the chains that accepted reservations, nearly a quarter offered the service exclusively for large parties.

The researchers also looked at 200 casual restaurants that have participated for the past five years in the school's monthly survey of wait times. They found that casual-dining customers typically wait about 21 minutes before getting a seat. But wait times reported in the surveys have varied from a low of six minutes to a high of 50 minutes.

The study was a follow-up to a 2003 Harris Interactive survey that found 48 percent of frequent restaurant patrons regard waiting for a table as the most stressful part of dining in a full-service restaurant.

Customer grumbling about the inconvenience of a first-come-first-serve policy has prompted a few chains to begin accepting reservations. The converts include P.F. Chang's, Houston's and Darden's Seasons 52.

Written by Sheryl E. Kimes, a professor of hospitality facilities and operations, and Jochen Wirtz, associate professor of marketing, the Cornell study recommended that casual-dining operators change their policies.

"Based on the results of this survey, casual-dining operators should seriously consider offering reservations or an easy-to-explain, call-ahead seating policy," they wrote. "We say this because of the dim view our respondents took of waiting lists.

"We suspect that casual restaurants cannot entirely abandon the waitlist," they continued. "There will always be walk-ins, and there will always be customers who prefer not to plan ahead. Perhaps the critical point here is that the restaurant should take whatever steps are possible to give customers more control over the length of their wait."