The future of reservations
Debby Soo on restaurant discovery, technology, and revamping the biggest name in bookings
Welcome to the next edition of The Future of Hospitality, a six-part series sponsored by OpenTable that uncovers some of the best ideas, best applications, and best practices for building the F&B businesses of tomorrow.
About a year ago, I had a theory: spontaneity would return to restaurants. We’d eschew reservations in favor of walking in and making last-minute plans, the type that were impossible to make during the first years of the pandemic. This was partially selfish; I missed spontaneity. Another part was rooted in reality. People would surely tire of interacting with restaurants on the internet. We missed face-to-face connection, we missed IRL hospitality… right?
Nope, I was absolutely wrong. We did miss all of those things, of course. Many of us still do. But we’re hooked on the convenience of booking ahead. Reservations have never been more popular. And even though the sometimes laughable difficulty of scoring a seat inside any buzzy restaurant is well documented — just last week, Bon Appetit declared “scoring a reservation is still a contact sport” — we’re all playing along.
Earlier this week, OpenTable CEO Debby Soo told me that dining via online reservations has increased 9 percent compared to before the pandemic, while dining via phone bookings and walk-ins has decreased by 2 percent and 7 percent, respectively. And dining is basically flat year over year. Amid serious economic uncertainty, inflation, supply chain challenges, and labor shortages, “I think flat is pretty good,” she says.
With Soo at the helm, OpenTable (which has been around for more than two decades) has spent the last three years working to update its image. It’s a topic Soo isn’t shy about addressing, and one she says she’s proud to have made progress on.“If you don't have the restaurants, you're not going to have the diners,” she says. “The conversations I have with restaurants, both on and off our network, have a tone that’s drastically different from when I spoke to them three-and-a-half years ago.”
Rehabbing the brand is one part of Soo’s refresh. The company has embraced new(ish) discovery methods; it’s the first restaurant reservations platform to integrate with TikTok.
Restaurant challenges are OpenTable challenges, Soo says. Then she reminds me of a particularly Expedite-friendly detail: the company has a new, majority female (!!) executive team. “I mention that because the purpose and the ethos of the company is very different,” she says.
It’s not lost on me, the female founder of a newsletter that’s long featured women in the restaurant technology industry, why this change is worth celebrating. Here’s the rest of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Expedite: I appreciate your candor when you share that the company’s purpose and ethos are different under your leadership. What does that mean?
Debby Soo, OpenTable: “When I started, there was equal attention paid to our restaurants and to diners. We've been working really hard for the last three-and-a-half years to make sure that we are listening to restaurants, building what they need us to build. We launched 45 new features this year, primarily on the restaurant side of the business. We’re continuing to invest in things that help fill restaurants, our CRM, our email marketing capabilities, all of our tech integrations to help restaurants do what they do best, even better.
“It's been hard work to move us to a restaurant-first mentality, what we do, how quickly we do it, how much we listen, how flexible we are — all of it. It takes time. To see now the fruits of our labor has been, for me, at least one of the best parts of the year. I think what we’re doing is working, and people are noticing. They say OpenTable feels different.”
What are restaurants asking for?
“They're asking for more diners, especially during shoulder times. That Wednesday 5:30 slot is tough to fill, even at the most elite, most popular, hottest restaurants we speak with. They’re asking how we can help to fill their seats.
“They’re also asking for specific features. When I speak to someone like [NYC fine dining restaurateur] Angie Mar, who was very much not happy with OpenTable three-and-a-half years ago — we’ve won her back — she wants to know about guests coming into her restaurant, and that’s the kind of support we want to give restaurants that need it.”
I got a prompt yesterday from the OpenTable app to add a photo to my profile so restaurants recognize me when I walk through the door.
“That’s exactly right. And our Pro product has enhanced capabilities that support this kind of thing; we can pull diners’ LinkedIn photos, Instagram handles and number of followers. Restaurants are googling guests before they come in — but now we do that work so they don’t have to. Though to be clear, diners are in control of their data and have a choice on what they do and don’t share.”
Are they really still doing that? I remember the New Yorker article, it must’ve been 10 years ago now, about Eleven Madison Park googling guests and how big of a deal that was. Do diners care? Do they notice?
“I think it's pretty nuanced. Uploading a profile photo maybe wasn’t as popular for anyone 10 years ago — but now we get asked to do it as consumers all the time. Certainly restaurants love it, but we need to make sure that diners know exactly what the purpose is. It’s to help restaurants provide better hospitality.”
To get back to filling restaurant seats, which is obviously an ongoing challenge — every restaurant I’ve talked to in the last six months has talked about influencer marketing and working with influencers. Are you doing any of that?
“We have integrated with TikTok. And we have dipped our toes in with some influencers, but not very many. It’s a big part of our marketing efforts and plans next year to partner with specific restaurants to help shoulder the cost of working with influencers, making sure we’re picking the right ones. Because that is a real way of driving discovery and demand for restaurants.”
So are network effects still a thing? You said you believe if you don’t have the restaurants, you won’t get the diners, but I feel like restaurant discovery has changed a lot.
“The network effect is very much still alive, kicking, and doing well. We see that when we add restaurants in a certain city of a certain caliber, diner interest increases and reservations increase. What we have seen, though, post pandemic, is that while a lot of the reservation activity has moved online, it's moved faster toward diners going directly to the restaurant’s website. I think that behavior took off during the pandemic when people tried to figure out who was open or who was closed — the restaurant website is the source of truth. Google sometimes didn’t get it right. Sometimes we didn’t get it right. Restaurants are becoming savvier and their own marketing efforts — TikTok, Instagram, websites — are an important source of bookings. But there's this huge discovery piece, when you don’t know where you want to eat. We can help you figure that out.”
Speaking of demand and discovery, how are you feeling about — and dealing with — the newest third parties? Every time I think there’s no way to pull more revenue out of the restaurant-diner relationship, someone comes in and starts scraping off the top — charging for popular reservations, for example.
“This really sucks for restaurants. There’s probably a better way of saying that, but the feedback we hear from restaurants is that it’s super disruptive. For the type of restaurants most susceptible to reservations getting traded, those restaurants are most likely going to be the type that really wants to know who the guest is. Even if everything goes smoothly in that situation, it’s not great. But often, things don’t go smoothly. A diner who has paid for a 7:30 Friday reservation on a reservations-scraping site shows up, only to find out the reservation isn’t actually until 10pm. The restaurant has no idea of what’s going on, but now they have a very angry guest on their hands. It’s messy, it’s disruptive. We do not allow third parties to do this, we do not condone this. We do everything we can to block it — we have a team dedicated to tackling fraudulent reservations, bots, what we see as security threats.
“We also have a mechanism in place for restaurants to do a credit card authorization. We actually do the authorization — meaning you have to give us a real card. It’s been a selling point for us, and restaurants have come back to OpenTable over this, that’s how serious it is.”
I know this is a serious topic, but I’m laughing because I’ve had a card on file with one of your competitors that expired two years ago.
“The whole point of requiring a credit card is to have some way to keep the diner accountable!”
You and I talked about artificial intelligence almost a year ago, and you were really excited about its potential then. Anything new to share now?
“Our integration with ChatGPT was just the very beginning. Our Pro customers will be able to use AI to help respond to online reviews. We can help them write responses in a way that’s context-specific with an appropriate tone as a starting point for restaurants. It’s in beta; restaurants that use it say it’s been a huge time-saver.
“We’re also using AI to help our engineers become more productive. We’re in a competitive space, we need to get features out that restaurants need, and restaurants’ needs change quickly. We’re looking at chatbots on the support side, helping restaurants get the support they need, using them to help our own support agents pull up information and data quickly. And we’re looking into introducing chatbot functionality on the consumer side that makes it easier to find the right restaurant with free-flow language instead of searching for certain terms.”
What else are you excited about?
“I'm really excited about the mission of OpenTable. And I'm even more excited that we're starting to see that mission really come to life, to help restaurants thrive. I'm seeing great momentum. It shows me that we're on the right path.”
Huge thanks to OpenTable for sponsoring this six-part series, which highlighted the trends, challenges and opportunities shaping the restaurant industry. Expedite is about embracing and inviting the next big thing and these interviewees had the answers.
Previous editions include: The future of restaurant growth with Caroline Styne; The future of hotel technology with Marriott VP of restaurants and bars, Joanne Liu; The future of restaurant work with High Street Hospitality founder and co-owner Ellen Yin, The future of attracting diners with Lettuce Entertain You CMO Jennifer Bell, and The future of sustainability, with Alpareno Group’s Mo Alkassar and chef Niven Patel