OpenTable: the end of the reservation dance
Luckily, when it comes to food, I have help.
We've been signed up for OpenTable since early 2004, and it's our first reference for any dining-out decision. This browser-based system allows the user to check out restaurants in advance and make reservations online.
For us, this is heaven: we can decide what time we want to eat, see which restos have availability, view their menus, and--click!--reserve a two-top.
How perfect is that? No trying to remember the name of that Cambodian place, you know, with the great lime-chicken soup. No falling back on the same restaurants over and over because you can't think of anywhere new. And best of all, no need to call half a dozen restos and do the reservation dance: "So do you have anything for 8:30 instead? Well, how about 9? 9:30?"
The system generates an email with confirmation, directions and parking details. You can send an invitation to others in your party. You can even arrange for flowers to await your date on the evening, if you're into that kind of thing.
When you show up for your meal, you're automatically awarded dining points (100 is the usual amount, though some places offer 1,000 if you book an off-peak time) that add to an overall total you exchange for a gift certificate ($10 per thousand points) redeemable at any resto on the system. A small incentive, but a nice one.
And OT's international scope means we can see what's going on in other cities. So if we're planning a trip to NYC, or Montreal, or London, we can scope out the options and book ahead. It pleases me to know there's a table at Union Square Cafe with my name on it.
Of course, OpenTable isn't a one-way street; it would be crazy to have all that customer data floating around uncorralled and unused. For the restaurants themselves, OT is a great business management system. It allows them to track the flow of traffic, create marketing campaigns and--big savings--have the diners themselves, rather than an employee, take care of the reservations.
Another feature of the system is its function as a customer relationship management tool.
Both the OT website and a piece in April's Boston Magazine note that the wealth of diner data allows restaurants to keep track of what customers have ordered on past visits; whether they're regulars; when they celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. This info can then be used to provide (according to BoMag) "exceptional customer service," making people feel welcome, remembered, special.
Maybe most restaurants don't yet feel the need to employ this aspect of the system. Maybe we're not eating at the kinds of places that include personalization in their philosophy of the customer experience. Or maybe maitre d's take one look at us and assume we're not worth the bother (always a possibility).
But in three years of booking through OT, we have yet to meet the waiter who acknowledges our return, offers us the cocktail we ordered last time, comments on the availability of the dessert we enjoyed so much.
The BoMag piece especially concerns me, as it gives the impression that a high level of CRM happens as a matter of course at every resto. Will this lead to a flurry of frustration, as people who sign up for the system with visions of VIP treatment find themselves handled like any other anonymous diner? And how will that affect their perception of the (blissfully unaware) restaurant?
For us, at least, there is a place where the waitstaff know us; where the owner will come over and discuss the origins of the week's special; where they ask when we'll next be coming in for breakfast.
But that's Tu y Yo. We walk over there every other week. And they don't even take reservations.