For the past couple years, most talk about OpenTable has centered on its threat from competitors. But perhaps a healthy dose of competition is helping to drive change at the company that's still the leading provider of restaurant reservations in the country.
— Kristen Hawley
The first Skift Restaurants Forum will be held on Monday, September 24 in New York City. Join us, our stellar lineup of speakers, and 250+ industry professionals to discuss the future of the industry.
OpenTable launched in 1998, well before the types of restaurant technology we’re familiar with were viable businesses. In its 20 years, the company has evolved to meet a changing industry while weathering plenty of change itself, from a 2009 initial public offering to its 2014 acquisition by the Priceline Group (now Booking Holdings).
Christa Quarles was named CEO of the company in 2015, and is now tasked with leading the high-profile company (with 47,000 restaurant customers globally) into what’s next. “There used to be one way way to run a restaurant in 1995 and there’s a very different way to run a restaurant in 2018,” she said. The challenge: continuing to innovate at the speed that the market dictates, especially among increasing pressure from competition.
The company has made progress on all fronts, moving to a cloud-based table management system run off of an iPad and revamping its consumer- and restaurant-facing software. It’s also changed its marketing message, positioning itself as “the ultimate restaurant recommendation engine.”
OpenTable’s new ownership is showing, too, as travel guides and lists have become part of the OpenTable offering, more readily aligning its message with its travel-focused parent company, whose other brands include Priceline and Kayak.
Quarles will join us on September 24 in New York to discuss all things OpenTable. As a preview: a look at where the company is today.
Skift Table: So what’s new at OpenTable?
Christa Quarles: Some of the really exciting options are on the diner site. We’ve rolled out seating options so you can pick your seat at the bar or on the patio. We’ve rolled out lists, giving the ability to discover restaurants more readily — especially when you’re not in your hometown, when you’re traveling, I think that’s exciting for the diner as we’re on this path to creating the ultimate restaurant recommendation engine.
On the restaurant side, we’re doing a whole lot more with point of sale integrations, trying to create better understanding of the value we’re delivering inside of a restaurant but also to help create better operations. Is the customer on the entrée? Are they on dessert? We’re speeding up and doing what we can to create more butts in seats in the restaurant industry.
Skift Table: We’ve heard from a lot of people that restaurants are starting to embrace tech even faster and more readily than before. Do you agree?
Quarles: Yes, we’ve seen this. Some of this is demographic evolution, too. I think as you have more digital natives coming into leadership positions within a restaurant, there’s a lot more desire to say, “OK, how do we use technology to augment what we do in the restaurant?”
Thankfully, that’s always been OpenTable’s position: How do you use technology to not replace, but augment what you do in a restaurant? And so we continue to make data be the foundational pillar of how we’re driving availability in the restaurant. So if that’s optimizing your book by maximizing the number of seats and tables and two-tops and ten-tops in your restaurant and being thoughtful about how we play that game of Tetris is very valuable to a restaurant. We can bring technology to bear there. [That extends] to updating the CRM [customer relationship management], so if you’ve got a good read on a lot of diners coming into your restaurant, you’re better able to offer hospitality, you’re better able to suggest a wine list to the wine-lover than you ever have before.
All of that helps make your restaurant better and more competitive at the end of the day. Frankly, it gets people coming back, which is ultimately what your goal is on the restaurant side. So we do see that trend and it’s exciting because I think it plays right into where OpenTable has its strength.
Skift Table: What’s the biggest challenge to your business right now?
Quarles: I think the biggest challenge to our business is what’s happening in the restaurant industry overall. It is hard to be in the restaurant industry. There’s more competition than ever before, so how do you stand out? How do you distinguish yourself?
Our goal is to create products and services that allow restaurants to stand out and create hospitality moments that differentiate them from the competition. And so we’ve got to keep pace with the challenges that our restaurants feel so that we can be a preferred partner.
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