Everything you need to pivot last minute this Valentine’s Day

Heads up: Valentine’s Day is coming fast. With New Year’s Eve barely in the rearview, another one of the biggest restaurant holidays of the year is already here. With the Omicron variant of COVID still creating chaos, Valentine’s Day may be shaping up to be more like 2020 than 2021 depending on what’s happening with the virus in your area.

No matter what your plans are for Valentine’s Day 2022, you might have to change them on the fly. One major lesson of the past couple of years is that no matter how carefully you plan, pandemic-related plot twists can come fast and furious. Savvy restaurateurs will anticipate multiple possible situations for Valentine’s Day ranging from unexpected crowds to unexpected closures. The advice below can help you plan for different scenarios in an atmosphere where anything can (and probably will) happen.

Informed guests are happy guests

With the Omicron variant, safety regulations can change at the drop of a hat. You might find yourself obligated to confirm vaccination status at the door thanks to a new local rule, or you might decide to require guests to wear masks when they aren’t actively eating or drinking. Whatever the case, keep guests in-the-know about all safety precautions so they understand what to expect.

Just as your area has ever-changing safety protocols, each guest has fluctuating personal standards depending on their individual situation. Some may decide they’d prefer outdoor dining, so if you offer dinner alfresco, be sure to add those coveted outdoor tables to your floor plan. (And if you’re in a cold-weather climate, describe any amenities you offer to keep outdoor diners cozy, such as heaters, blankets, or shelters.)

Guests may also decide, even at the last minute, that they’d rather get a special Valentine’s meal to-go. So be sure to review your OpenTable profile and update it to reflect the current menu, as well as takeout and delivery options. Double-check that the right cuisine types have been selected and be sure to upload your best recent photos.

Overcommunicate to avoid surprises

Use customized booking confirmations to be in touch with guests in advance of their visit. This way, you can ensure they’re up-to-date on any safety regulations or policy changes they’ll need to follow.

An effective yet often overlooked way to communicate with guests is to pick up the phone. If you aren’t already doing it, calling guests a few days before their reservation is a highly personal way to confirm with them. It has the added bonus of nudging them to cancel if that’s what they’re going to do. This frees up space sooner for those inevitable last-minute reservations.

Don’t forget about direct messaging. Just as some guests may respond well to a phone call and others an email, some people pay more attention to direct messages. Use them to confirm all reservations and safety regulations details ahead of their visit.

Don’t let seats go empty

In the best of times, a certain amount of last-minute cancellations are to be expected. In pandemic times, this is even more of a factor as some guests second-guess the decision to dine out at all.

At the same time, there are those who second-guess the decision to stay home and find themselves on the hunt for tables in the days or even hours beforehand. This churn makes availability alerts even more important than usual. Remind people with a note on your profile or website to set an availability alert even if their desired day and time isn’t currently open because tables are likely to open up. When that happens, they’ll be notified with the option to book on the spot.

Availability alerts are one way to help fill those seats at risk of staying empty. Another tool in the arsenal is a boost campaign that targets people looking for tables at the last minute. It can help fill any remaining empty chairs and make up for the last-minute cancellations as well.

Get ready for walk-ins

Valentine’s Day isn’t typically big for walk-in guests. In most years, it’s the kind of holiday meal people plan for. But once again, this is not a typical year. Thanks to all the question marks around COVID at the moment, there may be more walk-ins than you’d think. You can prepare for a possible crowd by making your floor plan more flexible in advance. Be sure to allow for a variety of table sizes. It’s also a good idea to offer an online waitlist, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

While you’re at it, decide where to seat each party on the books. Making these decisions in advance can save precious minutes at the door. Keep in mind, this plan should remain fluid to make changes based on real-time comings and goings through the shift.

It’s also a good idea to pay extra attention to the shift overview. Use that information to make an informed prediction about the night’s flow and a solid game plan. During the pre-shift meeting go over any special requests or parts of the service that may be special for Valentine’s Day. This can make service more nimble and efficient—a must if you do get surprised with plenty of walk-ins.

Finally, use QR codes for contact-free menus. This can help servers focus on offering hospitality, not handing out and retrieving menus. It’s also an efficient way to remind guests about safety precautions and conduct contact tracing surveys if the need arises.

Attract at-home diners

Given the constantly shifting situations, some diners will decide to play it safe and dine at home. These diners can still be your guests if they choose you for takeout or delivery. This could be even more appealing to some guests if you can offer a no-touch or drive-through pickup option.

If possible, offer the same Valentine’s specials to-go as those available in the dining room. Consider adding options for cocktails or sparkling wine pairings. Even if they’re at home, people still want to celebrate.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

Let’s be real: you may have to close temporarily, and it may overlap with Valentine’s Day. Even in the absence of mandates and regulations, plenty of restaurants have been forced to close recently for a few days or longer because half of the team either has COVID or is isolating after exposure.

When you need to cancel existing reservations with a message, you can close a date range and communicate with those guests at the same time. It could be a nice touch to follow up with a phone call to ensure they got the message. You can prevent incoming reservations by using an online reservation block to close down bookings for a specific date.

It’s likely this will be a busy Valentine’s Day even if there are a few curveballs. The secret to success—and reducing stress—in these times is to think ahead and have a strategy for a range of possible outcomes. When you’ve got a plan for whatever happens, you can sail into Valentine’s Day with confidence.

Get tips to brainstorm ideas, refine your strategy, and stay on track for a successful Valentine’s Day. Download our Valentine’s Day checklist.

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