Online restaurant reservation company targets Tampa Bay
By Tilde Herrera
SARASOTA - Twenty-four hours a day, diners can make a reservation at Ruth's Chris and Fleming's. And when they dine, these steakhouses have the ability to keep tabs on the way guests like their filets cooked, their favorite table, and the number of times they've visited, thanks to an online reservation company called OpenTable.
The San Francisco-based business has set up shop in Florida, with big plans to expand into the Tampa restaurant market this year. For diners, the Web site offers convenience in making reservations online instantly and at any time, while its software can help restaurants with guest relations, dining floor management, and marketing tools to boost repeat business, revenue and exposure.
"A year from now we'll have 60 restaurants in the Tampa market at least," said Mike Dodson, OpenTable's vice president of sales. "We have an aggressive growth plan."
The company opened its Florida office in Miami one year ago. To date, some 90 restaurants across the state have signed up, including three in Sarasota and two in St. Pete Beach.
In late 2004, the company hired an account executive to target the Sarasota, Bradenton, Tampa and Orlando markets specifically.
"In the next 90 days, you're going to start seeing an accumulation of restaurants (in this area)," said Denise Hall, the executive covering this southwest region. "I expect to see a handful come on board in the next month."
For consumers, the system can save time since one no longer has to call multiple restaurants for a reservation. Diners choose a region on the company's Web site and enter the time, date and number of guests. The search engine takes the information and compiles a list of restaurants with availability.
There is also a link to the restaurant's information page giving all of its statistics, which is helpful if the establishment lacks its own Web site.
Diners may also search by type of cuisine, neighborhood within a region, and price range. Notes, such as dietary restrictions or special occasion instructions, may be included with the reservation. The Web site also works well for those searching for dining accommodations in an unfamiliar city.
The system also offers additional convenience, Dodson said, because about a quarter of OpenTable's registered members make reservations between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m., when many restaurants are closed.
"When people are thinking about where they want to go, they want instant access to the reservation system," he said.
Since OpenTable is a real-time program, the reservation is confirmed for the diner and the restaurant simultaneously and within seconds, Dodson said.
This gives the company an edge over competitors.
"We are really the only company doing a real-time reservation confirmation," Dodson said, instead of allocation models used by other companies.
For restaurants, the system serves as a computerized reservation book that compiles contact and historical information for customers, such as the frequency of visits, food allergies or service preferences. This information enables restaurants to give their guests special service.
"It's very easy, anybody can use it," said Pierre Vilay, a manager at St. Pete Beach's Maritana Grill. "It's a good system for reservations, tracking customers, and it allows for proper seating."
OpenTable's retail price for the initial set-up and installation is $1,295, along with a monthly lease subscription rate that starts at $199. The package includes the software, hardware, touchscreen terminal - a complete set-up for a restaurant host stand, Dodson said. Technical support is also available.
The monthly fee may go up depending on a restaurant's needs, Dodson said. The average restaurant pays $278 per month. Extra perks may include an additional license on a second office computer so that the restaurant can fully network their establishment.
Restaurants who sign up for OpenTable join a list of more than 2,400 restaurants online at a Web site that has been accessed by 1.5 million people. Last month, OpenTable sat its eight millionth diner.
"What happens is that as soon as you go on OpenTable, it puts you on the map nationally," Dodson said.
Restaurants would immediately see some online business, he said.
"It may only be 10 guests or 30 guests (per month) but once the network of restaurants online grows, restaurants will see a bigger increase," Dodson said.
"It only takes 10 to 15 diners to pay for this monthly fee," he said. "These restaurants get a significant return on their investment," Dodson said.
Online reservations account for about 30 percent of reservations at some restaurants, he said. About 20 percent of Maritana Grill's reservations are made through OpenTable, according to Vilay.
OpenTable started in San Francisco in 1998 and launched its Web site with 10 restaurants the next year. In 2001, the company started aggressively targeting four markets: Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.
"We wanted a concentration of great restaurants in a market so people would come back again and again," Dodson said.
The company's reach extends across hundreds of U.S. cities, as well as Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Singapore, according to spokesperson Wendy McCarthy. It took OpenTable three years to seat its first million diners; the company now seats about a million diners every two months.