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Reservations systems like OpenTable are introducing new features to combat the restaurant industry's struggles.

Here’s how restaurant reservations are changing in the wake of COVID-19

OpenTable, Yelp and Resy are rolling out new features to help restaurants and customers adjust to the new normal of eating out

Before COVID-19 hit, diners booked tables at trendy brunch spots through OpenTable and Resy, or tapped Tock to pay in advance for an exclusive chef’s table experience. But as restaurants reopen dining rooms in this pandemic era, they are forced to make drastic adjustments to meet social distancing requirements, and restaurant reservations systems are changing right along with them.

These booking systems are expanding their platforms to include reserved seating for bars and wineries, as well as virtual waitlists and new capacity monitoring tools to ensure restaurants minimize crowding. Like the foodservice industry, they are evolving to meet the demands of the post-COVID-19 customer. 

“With restaurants serving less people and experiencing more cost, these [reservation] services will have to earn their keep by helping manage traffic flow or restaurateurs will take to doing it themselves, as many already have,” said Gary Stibel, analyst at New England Consulting Group. 

New York City-based, American Express-owned reservation platform Resy, for example, has added several new features to help restaurants and consumers transition to a post-coronavirus industry. The reservations platform — which works with high-profile operators such as Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and New York’s Estela — recently added a mobile waitlist and capacity monitor to help restaurants navigate the new normal.

With the new waitlist feature, guests can virtually add themselves to the restaurant’s waitlist if they’re within close proximity to the restaurant geographically. This, Resy says, will help prevent host stand and bar area crowding and help guests socially distance while waiting for a table.

The capacity monitor meanwhile lets restaurants set a specific capacity if their local state or city government only allows 25% or 50% seating limits and will automatically disable reservations upon hitting that upper limit.

“I think these features speak to what is an evolving restaurant landscape,” Ben Leventhal, CEO and co-founder of Resy said. “Capacity guidelines and social distancing guidelines are all things that are clearly part of our post-COVID reality, so we want to make sure the software reflects that.”

The virtual waitlist feature is not new to the industry, though more reservations platforms are beginning to implement it. OpenTable has had a similar service since 2017, and Yelp has offered a virtual waitlist since November 2018, and anticipates that as dining rooms open up, more operators will begin to favor a waiting list-type of service over a traditional reservations system.

“We think more full-service restaurants will move from a traditional reservation concept to a more casual waitlist concept because it's both easier to manage, which cuts cost and also utilizes tables better, leading to increased revenue,” Guang Yang, Director of Product Management at Yelp said. “We’ve also seen some of our customers, such as Chili’s, use Waitlist to manage curbside pickup, takeout and the in-restaurant dining experience.”

As some guests continue to feel uncomfortable with dining out, reservations systems are taking advantage of the curbside pickup popularity. Resy, for example, just launched its Resy at Home feature in May, which lets customers order food for contactless pickup through Resy’s reservations widget, at no additional cost to the restaurant. 

During the pandemic, restaurants that easily pivoted to new options like curbside pickup or offered different menu items than their standard fare like family meal bundles or groceries performed better than those that did not, and those new restaurant options are starting to become part of the reservations systems as well, like Handcrafted Hospitality, a Ft. Lauderdale-based restaurant group that set up a takeout grab-and-go menu as well as well as groceries and large format cocktails when they were forced to close their dining rooms.

“We’ve had tremendous success with that,” Marc Falsetto, the founder and CEO told Restaurant Hospitality earlier this week.

Of course, during the pandemic, reservations platforms were suffering financially as dining rooms closed across the company, including Booking Holdings, the parent company of OpenTable which saw a 19% decrease in revenue for the first quarter of 2020, and Booking Holdings CEO Steve Hafner, told Bloomberg that he predicts that one in four restaurants will close when all of this is over. To combat these losses, OpenTable expanded their platform, including grocery store reservations, which launched last month, with the option for restaurants that were selling wholesale grocery items during the pandemic to join as well.

On the operator end, business owners can set reservation timeslots for customers and set aside specific times for senior citizens. While the new feature appeals to a much smaller potential client base (currently 10 grocery stores and restaurants use this feature in San Francisco, with 100+ clients overall), OpenTable said that it’s part of a new suite of options designed for a post-pandemic industry. 

“I think reservations are becoming increasingly important especially for places that didn’t use them before for capacity management,” OpenTable COO Andrea Johnston said. “We’re in this for the long haul. People are thinking about things a bit differently. That’s why we’re providing the solutions […] like how to check in without a host and what does that look like, not having a physical menu and what that looks like.” 

Anticipating a new reality is why OpenTable began opening up their reservations system to bars, wineries, and breweries. Previously, bars were only allowed to join OpenTable if they also served food, but now they’re placing fewer limits on clientele to help the hospitality industry as a whole navigate post-COVID crowds.

“We’ve got our software that works just as well for bar and wineries as restaurant,” Johnston said. “Anyone that wants to use this and be marketed on our OpenTable platform, we’re open to it.”

Bouldin Acres, an outdoor beer garden in Austin, Texas is one example of an unlikely OpenTable client. Although they had not taken reservations prior to the pandemic, they realized that the beer garden needed an effective way to manage crowds as dining rooms began to reopen.

“When we decided we had worked out a way to safely reopen we realized we needed a solution to seating and managing guests in an effective and organized manner,” Bouldin Acres general manager Jason Gonzales said, adding that they use the wait list feature for walk-ups. “We are not requiring reservations, but we are encouraging it.  Reservations really helps us with the flow of the day, and we are operating completely differently than before the shutdowns happened.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi


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