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Are We Becoming Increasingly Inconsiderate?

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It might have been my dentist; or perhaps a fine dining establishment.

One or the other was the first, fifteen years ago, to phone to confirm an appointment (or dinner reservation).

At the time, it seemed a little odd, but only mildly annoying.

And that's how it began - a trickle of occasional calls to see if I was really going to show up.
Years later, that trickle of calls has become a flood. Today it seems everybody, in every business or trade, feels the need to telephone patrons and patients to remind them to be where they said they'd be.

When I go to my dentist's office, for example, there are two people at the reception desk. Invariably, one of them is on the phone, calling people to remind them of upcoming cleanings, fillings or root canals.

At one level, I get it. My Dad was a dentist in a small town on the Atlantic coast. People did cancel appointments. As a hedge, he always kept a few people on a waiting list, expressly to fill those gaps. But people rarely just flat-out failed to show up. Again, maybe it was because he was in a small town, not Toronto or Montreal -- after all, he might have easily run into the no-shows on the street, in church, or at the next Rotary Club luncheon. Awkward.

And I also get the dilemma restaurants face. A good restaurant serves fresh food, not something dragged from the back of a freezer and shoved in a microwave or fryer. No-shows are not only costly in terms of revenue, but often a waste of the catch of the day or some freshly picked berries.

I could understand people bailing out on a root canal; but do people really bail out on a chance to savor fresh grilled swordfish at Toronto's Scaramouche or truffles at Ottawa's Beckta? Apparently they do, not only at those two fine restaurants, but at establishments from one end of the country to the other.

According the leading on-line booking service, Open Table, four to six percent of the people who book at North American restaurants simply don't show up. Four to six percent doesn't sound all that bad, but the restaurant business operates on notoriously thin margins. Two or three missing tables a night can mean the difference between profit and loss.

In terms of the economy, this is not trivial. In Canada restaurants generate revenues of $75 billion annually and employ approximately 1.2 million workers; in the U.S. it's a $799 billion industry employing more than 14.7 million. Even if you factor out fast-food and casual dining, the numbers are consequential.

For some restaurants, the situation can occasionally border on the ridiculous. Canadian Restaurant News, a trade publication, late last year featured the plight of Vancouver chef and restaurateur Darcy MacDonnell, who in one 24-hour period experienced 97 cancellations and no-shows at his establishment, The Farmhouse.

MacDonnell was so incensed he started a "respect the restaurant" campaign on social media.
So what is going on? Are people simply becoming more forgetful? Are they busier? Or has just plain rudeness run amuck? And is it getting worse?

MacDonnell says he's noticed it getting worse. He told Canadian Restaurant News that he even knew of cases where groups would book four or five restaurants and then wait until the last minute to decide which one they felt like going to.

Open Table thinks it's enough of a problem that they've instituted a "four strikes and you're out" policy, banning you if you commit four no-shows in a given year. They also just this past week launched a media campaign, including a video, trying to bring attention to the issue.

So if you find the calls from your doctor, dentist or your favourite fine dining establishment annoying, understand they are in response to the oafish behaviour of your fellow citizens.

And soon it might not just be a phone call you receive, but an invoice. An increasing number of medical professionals are billing for missed appointments and restaurants are toying with the idea as well. We will all be paying for no-shows, directly or indirectly.

Robert Waite writes frequently on business, travel and travel-related issues. He examined the ever-controversial practice of restaurant tipping in a previous Huffington Post piece.

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