reservationsPunters are turning to their computers, tablets and phones to book their next meal in numbers too big to ignore. It’s time to get online, says Jac Taylor.

Restaurateurs spend hours refining their offer to consumers. There’s front of house, back of house, point of sale and, of course, the food itself. But there’s one thing restaurateurs can’t do much about, and that’s the number of bookings—potential customers need to make a reservation in the first place.

There has been a seismic shift in the way Australians communicate in the last 10 years, with fewer diners than ever wishing to place a call. Considering the explosion of social media and websites, and their importance not only as informative but interactive tools, it’s perhaps a natural progression. 

Cue the rise of the online booking platform, which offers punters a way to find and make a reservation immediately without having to get on the phone. About 10% of Australian restaurant bookings are now made online, and that figure is rising every day.

In the United States, online bookings account for about 20% of diners, and there are an estimated 100 booking platforms operating around the world. The Australian market is a little more clear-cut, with a handful of major players such as American giant OpenTable (having also recently taken over and boasting 32,000 restaurants on the books here), and local leader Dimmi, who expects the numbers to rise fast.

“Dimmi represents approximately 10 per cent market share of all Australian restaurant bookings… [but]we are forecasting to get market share to 25 per cent quickly. ​If you look at the market in San Francisco, as an example, 50 per cent of restaurant bookings are done online, so there’s no reason why Sydney and Melbourne can’t do the same within a few years.” said Stevan Premutico, CEO and founder of Dimmi. 

It’s catching on

“Many restaurants have embraced a real-time online reservation system in the last 12 months,” says Mark Moran, head of marketing and partnerships at Dimmi. “There is still a way to go, but we have certainly hit the tipping point here in Australia. Internationally, we are catching up fast with the US and the UK.”

The benefits for end users are clear. “I use the app to make a booking because I do most things on my phone,” explains Dimmi fan Aaron Jones. “I’m signed in so it remembers all my details, which makes it a lot easier and quicker. You can see what restaurants are available and at what times. It’s laid out in front of you.”

This is precisely the response Dimmi was going for. “Customers want to be able to see everything in one place,” Mark Moran nods, “so they can make a decision on the spot on available tables, menus, reviews, or ratings and photos.”

Getting to grips

Restaurateurs are happy users of the systems too, reporting that funnelling everything through one central point of access on their websites, for example, saves time and labour-based resources.

Staff at OpenTable platform-user Gingerboy, one of Teage Ezard’s popular eateries in Melbourne, see about 70 to 80 per cent of their daily reservations made through their online booking widget, embedded in their website then linking up with the OpenTable system.

It’s also a helpful tool when organising event tie-ins, such as Good Food Month or Valentine’s Day. “I can set up a special event online, and articulate required information, sitting times and the title of the event,” explains Amber Biswas, from Gingerboy.

“This allows for streamlined bookings for these events, and definitely aids in not only getting these events full, but also as a useful marketing tool. I also use the online widget as a link-through to direct bookings through all of my eDMs, which has a profoundly positive impact on bookings.”

Just as the rise and subsequent integration of the internet into daily life converted the restaurant website (and social media presence) from being  a techy optional extra into an absolute must-have business tool, the numbers now suggest that an online booking platform has become integral to evolving any catering operation dependent on the general public.

“Reservation systems are affordable and the return on investment makes the ‘scary’ jump from an analogue world to a digital world worthwhile,” says Premutico.

“The owner of one of our smaller restaurants in Sydney’s Darlinghurst—a little wine bar called The Owl House, who was initially hesitant about joining the Dimmi network—said that joining was the best thing he’s done for his business. Just a few months after coming on board he said business was up 15 to 20 per cent by connecting his restaurant to the online world.”

Home is where the specials are

One question, though, that has come up in the past about these platforms is: will leading users to a website with  a ‘spread’ of different restaurants decrease return-customer loyalty? After all, sites such as Dimmi and OpenTable are tuned to deal with time-poor customers who are primarily interested in finding somewhere to eat in a specific location at a specific time.

That means, of course, that their dollars will go towards whichever restaurant suits them best. This is an area where smart usage (through
up-to-date administration of your account) can draw customers towards trying a new venue—yours. Taking part in site specials, such as Dimmi’s ‘flash sale’ 50 per cent off weekly deal, can bring in further new leads.

If users are focused on deals and savings, a new breed of platform seems to be claiming a portion of the market. Qantas Restaurants is a new initiative that funnels the airline’s frequent-flyer members towards more than 2000 participating restaurants in order to earn points.

Zomato, having eaten up Urbanspoon and the US-based NexTable, has moved way past its old user-review mode, now offering a booking service seamlessly integrated into its review content—look up a restaurant, read a review, press ‘book online’. However, look a little closer at these examples, and you find that both of these services are powered by Dimmi—they’re simply wearing a different ‘skin’. 

Keeping them on-site

On the flipside, and fortunately for those wishing to keep their loyal customers closer, major platforms do offer that aforementioned widget to embed in a restaurant’s own website, making the most of the platform’s power and usability without leading the customer off-site at all. And it seems again that end users and industry are in agreement when it comes to enjoying this feature.

“The immediacy of the call to action is imperative,” Amber from Gingerboy emphasises. “It is convenient, and people like the ease behind it. It also means people are spending longer on our sites, so after making a booking, they may be more likely to go and look at our menu or our upcoming events, for instance.”

OpenTable diner Luke Martin adds: “I understand why people are annoyed by being redirected to another site. It seems pretty easy to have a booking site turn up as a pop-up or a frame on the restaurant’s website (and thus ensuring branding is uniform) so I’m a bit surprised that more places don’t take advantage of this.”

Time and dedication

Considering the range of websites, apps and platforms now defining the market—and the microscopic points of difference between them—it can be a daunting prospect to get a restaurant into the online booking game. But most agree that it is worth the work, as long as you take the process seriously.

Once you get set up, it’s important to maintain your online presence. “Set up some dedicated time training with the professionals, and ensure there is someone within the company [that] looks after the online bookings system. A person dedicated to this task is important,” says Amber, from Gingerboy.

“Collectively, there are millions of restaurants searches in Australia hitting these sites every month,” adds Mark from Dimmi, “and you need to be ‘present’ in order to capture the booking. This is really simple and you can be up and running in a day. Best of all, it is a performance-based model so you only get charged for actual diners.”

“At the end of the day,” he continues, “we are in the business of opening up a restaurant to as many potential customers as possible and giving them the tools to manage it efficiently. This allows them to focus on food and service and doing what they do best.”


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