Practice Makes Perfect: How a Soft Opening Can Boost Your Business

After months of investing your time, money, and energy to bring your vision to life, you’d probably do just about anything to ensure your business grand opening is a success. But even with meticulous planning, unforeseen challenges are bound to arise. So, how can you and your team prepare for the unexpected?

By hosting a soft opening.

In simple terms, a soft opening is essentially the dress rehearsal of your grand opening. While the stage, costumes, and setting remain the same, the guest list and scope of services are typically smaller. This gives your team a valuable opportunity to test operations without the stress of a grand opening. So by the time your big day arrives, you’re poised and ready to become the hottest new business in town.

What does soft opening mean?

Hosting a soft opening means your business is open by invitation only so that you can test out operations and train your staff in a real-world setting before opening your doors to the public. During this time, businesses typically invite friends and family to experience their products or services on a smaller scale. 

Soft opening meaning can look different for different businesses. For example, soft opening restaurant businesses generally offer a limited tasting menu while keeping everything else—like seating cadence, drink service, and timing—as they would be on opening day. This ensures everyone knows their roles and responsibilities, making the “big day” much smoother and more successful.

What is the purpose of a soft opening?

Now, you may have a lot on your plate, but learning what is a soft opening is well worth the effort. Here are just a few reasons why small businesses are increasingly hosting soft openings:  

1. Build up word of mouth. 

Nothing generates excitement quite like an exclusive, invite-only event. With the right influencers and quality photography, social media will be buzzing with people eager to check out what you have to offer.

However, timing is crucial when it comes to creating headlines. Schedule your soft opening too close to your grand opening, and you might not have enough time to address any issues that arise. But if you schedule it too far in advance, people might lose interest. The sweet spot is typically 3-7 days before your grand opening, as this provides adequate time to make necessary adjustments (based on customer feedback) while keeping the anticipation high.

2. Iron out the kinks in service.

Think of a soft opening like a pre-season game for your entire team. It’s a low-pressure environment to test out your roster and practice a few plays to see what’s working and what’s not before the real season begins.

In order to get the best result from your soft opening, you’ll also want to make sure everyone possible is on-hand to play. Sure, you probably don’t need everyone working the floor during normal business hours, but soft openings are typically busy, and this gives everyone a chance to engage with customers and make sure things are running smoothly.

3. Get feedback from friends and family. 

One of the biggest reasons small businesses have soft openings is to gather feedback that will make their grand opening even more successful. Worried your friends and family might sugarcoat their experience to protect your feelings? A pregame pep talk can help. Start by thanking everyone for coming and supporting your new venture. Then, make it clear that the purpose of the evening is to gain valuable feedback to make your grand opening a major success.

Let’s say you’re starting a new restaurant and you’ve invited your friends and family to sample the menu. To encourage useful feedback, you could place comment cards directly on their tables with specific questions about the food, service, and ambiance, Don’t forget to include an area for suggestions and encourage anonymity, so that all of your guests feel comfortable being as honest as possible.   

4. Allow staff to offer feedback.

Sure, friends and family can provide valuable feedback from a customer perspective. But your team has a different yet equally valuable perspective to share. With decades of combined experience, some members of your team may even have ready-made solutions from previous employers that could make your operations much more efficient.

To ensure everyone has an opportunity to voice their opinions, host a soft opening forum (ideally with snacks to celebrate and keep morale high) after the event. Or provide anonymous feedback cards so that everyone feels comfortable sharing their suggestions.

5. Get a small influx of revenue.

Depending on your business, a soft opening can also be a great opportunity to make a bit of money ahead of your grand opening. For instance, clothing boutiques may offer complimentary styling appointments and a limited-time discount to encourage soft opening shoppers to make a purchase.

However, if you’re soft opening a restaurant, you’ll need to decide whether you’ll offer a complimentary tasting menu or provide it at a discounted rate. While the temptation to boost revenue after investing heavily in your restaurant may be strong, it’s crucial to consider your guest list when making this choice. Why? Well, if you’re exclusively inviting close friends and family, it might not feel right to charge them.

On the other hand, if you market your soft opening to the public as an exclusive opportunity to sample your menu before the official grand opening, charging for the tasting menu could be a savvy strategy to generate revenue before your launch. Be both creative and careful with your soft opening ideas so that you make the best first impression.

Remember, these events usually offer a substantial discount on food since the main goal is to gather feedback and test operations. And if bumps do show up along the way, your customers will be a little more gracious if they’re not paying full price.

If you’re still keen on generating some cash flow, it is completely fair to charge full price for drinks. So put your full cocktail menu on display and let your bartenders get some practice in before the big day.

Who is invited to a soft opening?

Wondering exactly who you should be inviting to your soft opening? While the guest list is ultimately up to you, most businesses invite the following groups:

1. All your staff 

Although it’s not necessary to schedule your entire team to work during your soft opening, everyone should be in attendance—even if it’s solely as guests. Having your entire staff in attendance ensures everyone is on the same page and allows you to collect more diverse feedback. To streamline team communication and minimize repetition, gather the feedback you received into a soft launch learnings document and send out any critical reminders before your team’s first shifts.

2. Friends and family 

In addition to being a comfort during an understandably stressful time, inviting your friends and family to your soft opening is a great way to thank them for supporting you as you worked tirelessly to make your dream a reality. 

Insider tip: Make sure everyone’s siblings are on the guest list. Why? Nobody is quite as honest or ruthless with feedback as siblings, which means you’ll be ready for even the most critical customers who come on opening day. 

3. Some local businesses

Community is key to the long-term success of any business. Inviting neighboring businesses to your soft launch allows you to nurture relationships within the community while creating a local buzz ahead of your grand opening. To take this a step further, create limited-time discounts or coupons for these businesses to hand out to their customers. This gives them an unexpected perk for their loyal customers and incentivizes them to check out your new digs, making it a win-win.

4. Influencers 

Inviting local influencers or sports teams to your soft opening has the potential to take your grand opening to the next level—but it could come at a cost. While some influencers will happily accept a free meal or product to promote your business, others will charge a fee for this service. To ensure your money is well spent, spend some time finding influencers with followers that fit into your target demographic and make your event as Instagram-worthy as possible.

Consider renting a red carpet, setting up a branded backdrop, and hiring photographers to emulate the excitement of a big movie premiere—or, have one of your social-savvy employees post live throughout the night with videos and updates.

Although this does involve a bit of an investment on your part, word of mouth drives $6 trillion of annual consumer spending, so don’t be afraid to spend a bit of money amplifying your message.

What’s the difference between a soft opening vs. a grand opening?

Although both events demand similar prep work and execution, each has a unique role to play in your business’s grand debut.

1. Soft opening

Think of your soft opening as an exclusive sneak peek of what your grand opening will offer, just on a smaller scale. While the guest list and offerings may be limited, a soft opening allows you to test out operations, gather feedback, make adjustments, and boost brand awareness ahead of your official grand opening.

2. Grand opening

Your grand opening is the eagerly-anticipated day you finally get to open your doors to the public. Unlike the soft opening, the grand opening is an opportunity to showcase everything your business has to offer. The ultimate goal? Establish a strong presence in the community, make a positive first impression, and attract as many customers as possible, setting the stage for your business’s long-term success.

Plan your soft opening with confidence.

Launching your business with a soft opening isn’t just a good stress-test of your team and operations. You have the perfect opportunity to verify your tech choices are working and all your systems are speaking to each other. With Homebase, you can schedule and time track your team in one place, so that running payroll for your soft opening is a breeze. And when you need to share that big thank-you with your team, the inbuilt messaging will help you reach everybody at once.

Manage the details in a single app so you can focus on what matters most: celebrating your business and getting ready for the big day.

What is a soft opening FAQS.

What does soft opening mean?

A soft opening refers to the practice of launching a business in a limited capacity before the official grand opening. In other words, it’s a trial run with fewer guests and less stress—giving you the opportunity to iron out any kinks before launching to the public.

Why should I have a soft open?

Small businesses should have a soft opening to test out operations, train staff, identify and address inefficiencies, and create buzz before your grand opening—all of which will help ensure it’s a raving success.

What are some soft opening ideas?

Soft openings can be as simple or extravagant as you’d like. Here are a few soft opening ideas to get your creative juices flowing:  

  • Partner with a local charity and donate a portion (or all) of your soft opening proceeds to a cause that resonates with your local audience.
  • Book a local artist or band to play at your soft opening to create an intimate, memorable evening for your guests.
  • Create a goody bag filled with local products and promotions to hand out to your guests. Whether paid for or donated, collaborating with other businesses in the area is a great way for both parties to attract new customers.

How long does a soft open last?

The duration of a soft open depends on the type of business and its goals. For instance, a restaurant’s soft opening would likely only last a day or two while a clothing store may extend their soft opening for a few weeks to ensure everything is running smoothly before their grand opening.

What is the difference between a soft open and a soft launch?

Although the terms “soft open” and “soft launch” can be used interchangeably, they do have slightly different meanings. A soft open usually refers to opening a physical space (like a store, restaurant, or hotel) to the public on a limited basis before the official grand opening. A soft launch, on the other hand, involves releasing a digital product or service (like apps, websites, or software) to a limited audience to test functionality ahead of its public launch.

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