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OpenTable + ChatGPT, a Q&A
"It could very well be a significant or important piece of traffic and demand for restaurants." — OpenTable CEO Debby Soo
If ChatGPT, the viral chatbot from OpenAI, was a real person, I don’t think we’d get along. Sure, they’d be helpful, but also a bossy know-it-all; the type of person that steps in at the wrong moment to steal your thunder, like the colleague that talks over you in a work meeting or a friend at the bar who won’t stop shouting but isn’t saying anything particularly interesting or helpful.
But it sounds like the bot’s about to start speaking my language. Last week, ChatGPT announced a handful of new partners, including OpenTable. The reservations giant is among a limited set of internet-based companies now connected to ChatGPT, and it’s teaching the bot some new tricks that could change the way we discover and book restaurants.
OpenTable CEO Debby Soo was excited when ChatGPT launched, she told me. So OpenAI’s partnerships lead approached her about linking up, it was an easy and fast yes. (Her tech team agreed.)
“Internally, we had engineers and data scientists just so excited to work on this. It's incredible how quickly we got it out,” she said in a recent interview.
OpenTable built a specific API to connect to ChatGPT to give it access to the right data. Soo said her team spent plenty of time testing queries and searches — “geeking out on it,” she said.
I can’t help thinking about that other bot, though, the one that went creepily off the rails as it professed its love to a New York Times tech reporter. Soo assured me the OpenTable and ChatGPT teams worked through potential negative implications and appropriate responses. “We’re learning as we go just as they are. We want to make sure this is a partnership that benefits restaurants.” she said.
The 25-year-old reservations giant may have been early (by today’s standards, at least) to the restaurant technology game, but its legacy and market dominance only strengthens its position here. It works with well over 50,000 restaurants, and even though it has formidable, younger, and successful competition, OpenTable is sitting on lots and lots and lots of useful data.
Soo has been in charge at OpenTable since 2020, and in those three years, the restaurant business has metaphorically flipped upside-down and back again. We all want to book tables now; OpenTable data from last year found walk-in traffic dropped 8 percent and online bookings grew 9 percent over a six-month period as compared to the same timeframe in 2019. And, in a favorite evergreen talking point that every OpenTable executive has told me every time we’ve spoken in the last decade, Soo said, “We want to be where our diners are.”
Maybe this is where we’re headed. Now that ChatGPT can take us a lot of places — including to dinner — where should we go? Here’s more of my conversation with OpenTable CEO Debby Soo, talking through how AI might someday help us all get a great table.
Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Expedite: Tell me about this deal and what it means for restaurants, because there are some serious ChatGPT evangelists out there telling anyone who will listen that this new technology is about to change everything.
Debby Soo, OpenTable: “We've partnered with chat GPT, as the only partner in restaurant tech, we've created a special API for them to train their machines on. Right now it’s available only to a small set of ChatGPT users, so it’s a limited audience. It will roll out to more people over time. It has access to our content, our availability data, and to our database of restaurants. And you can ask it things like, ‘What’s the best place in San Francisco for mother’s day brunch?’ or ‘Romantic dinner for three on the Upper West Side1.’”
And that’s “best” as rated by OpenTable?
“It goes through things that we've written on our blog, looking at restaurants that have been booked, the ones that are the most popular — it's going through all of it to figure out the best and most appropriate answer for the diner. Before the plugins, it’s been trained on data prior to 2021, so this is a refresh that includes OpenTable content in addition to real-time availability from our restaurants.”
I remember a long time ago when the OpenTable app came out [in 2008]. It marked such a big change in the way people searched and booked reservations. Do you think that something like this could eventually be on that scale, fundamentally changing usability?
“I think we're in really early days. And, as you said, there are some evangelists who believe that this is going to turn everything upside-down in a really good way. I think when we look at this partnership and this opportunity, what's compelling is there's clearly an audience here. And there's clearly a use case. And we want to be where our diners are, where people are searching for the best place or whatever they're looking for their next meal. We look at this partnership in service of our restaurant partners. It's our responsibility to first provide amazing software for our restaurants, but also, OpenTable has a huge diner network, and it's also our responsibility to fill seats for restaurants.
“Is it going to be even bigger and change the way people search? I'm bullish personally, I think yes. It's pretty cool. What it's able to sift through and give a relatively intelligent answer on — I do think that there are great use cases for this type of integration and functionality. It could very well be a significant or important piece of traffic and demand for restaurants.”
Can a restaurant see that someone booked using ChatGPT?
“They see it came through a partner channel. We break out the amount that came through the restaurant widget, the amount that came through our site or app, the amount that came through partners. We haven’t made the decision yet whether to break that out specifically within partners, but if it becomes big enough, that’s something we could do.”
And to be clear, a restaurant doesn’t do anything extra here, they’re in it because they’re in your database?
You sound really excited. What else are you looking forward to? What’s next with this?
“We've talked a lot about the consumer side and how this helps people find the restaurant that they're looking for. But there are also implications in terms of how we run our business here. If used properly, this is an incredibly powerful tool to help us be more productive, be more efficient, work smarter, in a lot of different areas within OpenTable.
“Content writing is one — not that we would use ChatGPT to write content — but could we use it for our recommendations and lists as a really powerful helper? Support is another one. We publish a lot of information about things like how to set up your books and how to maximize turn times. Are there ways that we could feed this repository of information into ChatGPT so that when a restaurant is calling or chatting in for help, instead of waiting for a person, maybe the first line of defense is something like this? I don't see it as a substitute for human effort, I don’t think anything can substitute for that. But I am very bullish on it as a tool that we can all use to make us work faster and smarter.”
A specialized request if I ever heard one!