OpenTable: Cyber reservations service descends on C'ville
While relatively few area restaurants have begun using OpenTable, the growing online reservation service appears to have given some tech-savvy foodies the upper hand in securing a table for Charlottesville Restaurant Week.
"Fifty percent of our Monday night reservations for Restaurant Week came through OpenTable," says Hunter Long, a front desk agent at Keswick Hall, where Fossett's is once again a participant in the semi-annual food event. "And I would say that fifty to seventy percent of our reservations for Friday and Saturday night came through the service."
What's more, Long says that reservations for the week-long, Hook-sponsored event sold out nearly two weeks in advance.
(Note to Restaurant Week-goers: even without OpenTable, the C&O and Brookville have also sold out, and Orzo and l'©toile may be close to filling all tables for the January 24-31 event. Still, that leaves 12 more participating restaurants to choose from, including old favorite Bang! and newcomer The Bavarian Chef.)
Long says Keswick has been using OpenTable, founded in 1998, for about seven years, but says the service's popularity has been skyrocketing in the last year or so. Indeed, the company now boasts 175 million subscribers. "It gives the customer and the restaurant a paper trail to monitor the dining experience," says Long.
"It simplifies online reservations for the restaurant and diners," says Melissa Harris, who handles public relations for the Clifton Inn, "especially now that there are OpenTable apps, and guests can make a reservation without even visiting the restaurant's website."
Last year, OpenTable's stock soared from under $30 in January to over $80 in December, as the company now claims relationships with 15,000 restaurants around the world. However, only seven Charlottesville eateries use it: the Old Mill Room at the Boar's Head Inn, The Melting Pot, The Ivy Inn, Horse and Hound Gastropub, Downtown Grille, Clifton Inn, Tastings, and the aforementioned Fossett's at Keswick Hall.
Like mega travel site TripAdvisor, customers can post verified reviews on OpenTable that are seen by thousands of prospective diners. Diners earn "points" for the reservations they keep, and they receive discounts such as incentives for weekday and other off-peak eating. That, in turn, helps restaurateurs trying to smooth out demand while giving them a new way to reach, track, and keep customers.
Farrell Vangelopoulos says OpenTable helped her family restaurant, the Ivy Inn, better organize reservations and build a guest database with valuable customer information while providing a "measurable kind of advertisement."
While free for subscribers, restaurants pay OpenTable fees including $1 per reservation, a price that Vangelopoulos characterizes as "somewhat expensive" even though she says she's been "happy with it so far."
However, there are some reservations about the reservation service. Peter Castiglione of Maya on West Main Street says he prefers to work directly with customers and says the particulars of Maya's reservations policy would make taking them from an outside party problematic.
"We ask each reservation to call us if the number in their party changes or they are running late," says Castiglione, "and they are told that we only hold reservations for ten minutes. Also, large party reservations are always tricky. It is best to talk out the details so as to avoid problems at dinner time."
If a group shows up thirty minutes late and claims, after their table has been given to another party, that they weren't aware of the policy, Castiglione says he knows that's not true, because his employees all take reservations the same way.
"Expecting someone to read the fine print on the reservation policy when booking an online reservation is asking a lot," says Castiglione.
It also depends on the kind of restaurant. Dave Simpson, owner of the venerable C&O, housed in a quirky old building on Water Street, says his team finds it hard enough to seat folks and make them happy, never mind juggling requests from cyber-space.
Simpson also worries about over-booking.
"There's no way to talk your way gracefully out of that," he says.
However, Simpson concedes that he hasn't really learned enough about the OpenTable system, and when Dish mentions what Vangelopoulos said about a "measurable kind of advertisement,"his interest was piqued.
"Advertising has always been the great intangible of business," says Simpson.