It may seem very early to start thinking about Christmas but it's going to be more competitive than ever this year.

December is the most profitable time of the year for all hospitality businesses but this year will be bleak for many. With redundancies on the rise and tighter budgets than ever, attracting those profitable office parties is going to be tough and key to many's survival.

This year, the Christmas spirit will not come easily to many people. But there are many thoughtful, personal ways to use the season to build stronger links with customers. For some, it could be the start of a valuable, long-term relationship with your business.

Make this the season of list building.

Call it your database or Christmas card list - it doesn't matter so long as you grab a name, email, mobile number and basic preferences - do they want to hear about new wines, new bands, new food or football nights? Spam is when people are sent information that doesn't interest them - taking care with how you gather data at the beginning avoids this and will make your list much more responsive. Constant Contact makes it easy to run.

Chase down previous bookings.

If you haven't heard from them, phone, fax or write - this year needs much more assertive promotion. If you don't have someone on staff who is confident on the phone, ask a wine rep to do it - they know how!

Write and Send a Card.

Almost any card will do, and who said it has to be your handwriting? This is SO powerful, because it's usually unexpected. Use your booking list and some spare waiter time to get it done before December.

Promote Gift Hampers.

For corporate customers and for 'friends who have everything'. Raffle one every week to bring it to everyone's attention - the profit margins can be excellent if you include a 'secret ingredient'.

Sell your clothing and merchandise like a real gift shop.

So many lost opportunities when the display, pricing and packaging is last-minute or stuffed in a corner. These are great gifts for last-minute giving - do you have a stylish t-shirt available?

Poke some fun at the economic gloom.

A low-cost wine becomes the Recession Red, or design a Banker's Banquet package that looks flash but keeps the cost affordable. Better this than the Discount Desperation Deal.

Promote community spirit with a charity donation.

Groups such as World Vision and Oxfam have 'gifts' that builds lives - school books, a goat or a water pump. You may like to organise a group donation from your business.

Create a Wishing Tree.

Make it out of cardboard and ask customers to write a Christmas wish on it - a home-made feel makes it more genuine. Customers have an opportunity to share their thoughts, and you show that the business is about more than just sales and money.

Consider your non-Christian clients.

Depending on where you are, there may be a large number who don't celebrate the religious festival, but want to enjoy time with friends.

Share your Top 10 Best and Worst Lists for the year.

'10 life & death excuses why customers were late for a reservation', '10 Best Selling Cocktails' etc - keep it fun.

Be firm about deposits.

The booking is only confirmed when the money is paid. Many groups will also accept having to pre-pay for the entire group which cuts down on no-shows. Offer the best value in town, then make sure customers show you respect.

It really is crucial to start the process now and, don't forget, deposits paid now are a useful and sometimes much needed addition to cash flow.

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