Rethinking the WiFi Game for Restaurants

How do you rationalize which route to go for your restaurant? It depends on what sort of atmosphere you are trying to create.
By Larry Mogelonsky, Principal of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited - 8.22.2019

You would think that offering free internet access to all diners is a given. But think again, as I did when I first ambled through an independent coffee shop in my hometown of Toronto that not only discouraged WiFi usage but also barred all open laptops.

While many people, especially those in the younger generations, would forego heating or good air conditioning for fast download speeds onto their phones, the challenge for restaurateurs is that these devices occupy so much of our patrons’ time that they can negatively impact how quickly tables turn and how much food or drink is ordered.

This dilemma is doubly true for the hotel restaurant where we have an essential duty to provide for our guests. But feeding this need becomes all the more irksome when your signature outlet is a happening spot and you are impatiently waiting to clear a table to service another group while the current patrons idle there scrolling through their Instagram feeds.

Having free and available WiFi in a dining outlet is essentially inviting patrons to glue themselves to their screens instead of focusing on the meal at hand. This delays menu browsing which in turn affects how fast customers order as well as their appreciation for what’s ultimately selected. Moreover, because a device competes for attention with the server, it will unconsciously deter guests from understanding the full value of a menu item based off of the in-person conveyance of said dishes or drinks. This can result in such behaviors as no pre-meal cocktails or aperitifs, and fewer appetizers or desserts ordered, not to mention that such patrons will consume more time per table overall.

Given these deleterious outcomes, there’s a strong case to be made for purposefully not setting up an internet portal for paying customers, with some places even going so far as to strategically position their restaurants so it is out of range of the regular lobby WiFi range or in an area with weak 4G/LTE signal.

As concurrent trend taking place in downtown urban centers, many cafés (mainly independents) are banning laptops on their premises because the standard behavior here is to order a coffee then occupy a seat for well over an hour when that spot could instead rotate through several other paying customers who aren’t looking for a free offsite workspace.

To point out the contrary argument to all this, many restaurants intentionally offer ample WiFi because that’s part of the environment they are trying to create. Such outlets are typically borderline busy during peak and half-empty at every other time slot. In these cases, allowing patrons to take their time is perfectly acceptable because there’s no rush to accommodate another party.

As a more contemporary offshoot of the free WiFi debate in restaurants, many in this latter group of abundant free WiFi are now offering some means by which to facilitate charging. The more intensive method is to build plugs into the tables, while most are opting for the incremental solution of installing mobile charging stations — the incentive here being that some customers will choose a particular restaurant specifically because they can rest assured that they can charge their phones while they eat.

Still, too much focus on the mobile device will mean increased work from the staff who have to more frequently return to a table because its attention is not firmly on what is going to be ordered, along with the aforementioned reason of decreased average guest checks. There could also will be time spent by servers having to explain how to access the WiFi, passwords, etc.

So, how do you rationalize which route to go for your restaurant? It depends on what sort of atmosphere you are trying to create. If you’re aiming for that lackadaisical brunch-rolls-into-happy-hour vibe, give away all the bandwidth you want. If, however, you are hoping to foster a hot spot where reservations are a prized possession, my recommendation is to ditch the WiFi and discourage phone usage during mealtime altogether. Obviously, there is a lot more involved in crafting an eatery that’s both popular and prestigious, but this is one factor many restaurateurs don’t consider which can be relatively easy to solve.

One of the world’s most published writers in hospitality, Larry Mogelonsky is the principal of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited, a Toronto-based consulting practice. His experience encompasses hotel properties around the world, both branded and independent, and ranging from luxury and boutique to select-service. Larry is also on several boards for companies focused on hotel technology. His work includes five books, “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?” (2012), “Llamas Rule” (2013), “Hotel Llama” (2015), “The Llama is Inn” (2017) and “The Hotel Mogel” (2018). You can reach Larry at [email protected] to discuss hotel business challenges or to book speaking.

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