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Christa Quarles
OpenTable's CEO Christa Quarles Eric Millette © 2015 Eric Millette, All Rights reserved

OpenTable’s New CEO Talks Mobile Payments, Premium Reservations, and More

Apr 01, 2016

OpenTable is one of the few Web 1.0 companies that has managed to survive while fending off dozens of competitors and several waves of panic in the internet world. The 18-year-old restaurant booking giant went public in 2009, only to be acquired five years later by travel booking juggernaut Priceline for $2.6 billion, marking Priceline's largest acquisition to date.

Now, OpenTable says it seats more than 18 million diners per month via online bookings across more than 36,000 restaurants. In November, OpenTable named Christa Quarles as its permanent CEO after she served as interim CEO as well as chief financial officer before that.

Quarles, a former executive at Disney and the neighborhoods-centric social network Nextdoor, is ushering in OpenTable into mobile payments, personalized recommendations, premium reservations, and more. Fortune sat down with Quarles to hear more about her plans.

Fortune: Can you share more about what you are working on at OpenTable right now?

Christa Quarles: We want to empower great dining experiences, meaning before, during and after their experience at a restaurant. Before is about reshaping how diners discover restaurants. During the dining experience, we will continue to innovate on our how we allow diners to use OpenTable to pay for their bills. We continue to believe that mobile payments is somewhat early, but we want to be there. We all have the uberization of the restaurant experience in our head and what it should feel like. After the dining experience, it’s about changing what our review structure looks like. We currently have 35 million dining reviews; there's a lot that we can do that we hadn't necessarily been doing.

We are also focused on helping restaurants drive and grow their businesses. And lastly, one of the biggest things we’ve discovered being a part of Priceline is taking the global traveler and converting them into becoming the global diner. So you're in any city or market around the world, and we want you to be able to pull out your phone, and say, "Hey, I'm in Tokyo." "Hey, I'm in Berlin," and "I need to go up to dine tonight and how can OpenTable help me?”

And that's the piece we really haven't spent as much time talking about, and nor have we really articulated, frankly, the benefit from being part of the Priceline group. Google just did this pretty exhaustive survey of travelers for their traveler marketers, and they looked at what's the number one activity that travelers want to do in market. First is dining, second is attractions. And so, when you think about being in New York instead of going to the Empire State Building or Central Park, they want to go to a hot restaurant in New York, and that's sort of the way that travelers nowadays want to understand and enjoy the culture.

What are new ways you are trying to help diners discover restaurants on OpenTable?

One of the things that we're working on is really this idea of creating the ultimate recommendations engine for restaurants and dining. So, we've all experienced that moment where you wanted to go to a particular restaurant, and you couldn't get into that particular restaurant. And so one of the things that we can do is to create a recommendations engine, looking at things like menu data, prices, cuisine type, specific trendiness, and location to recommend similar places based on people’s individual preferences.

Another area where we can make smarter recommendations is if I am in a market that I am visiting. So if I am a traveler going to Europe, how do I find restaurants catered towards my preferences and experiences?

I think with mobile, getting restaurants near me is super helpful but also giving our users more ways to discover restaurants is important too.

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What about payments? Is OpenTable’s payments service growing?

We are. And the thing that's important for payments is that it’s a two-sided marketplace. So it's about both getting the restaurants to be in a position to accept payments, and then getting the diner to opt in. One of the things that we've found is that it’s easier to get the diner to opt in at the time of the reservation. Because the whole point of OpenTable Payments is take out the moment at the end of meal, where you are asking, "What's the damage? What's the bill?"

We're really focusing in on a couple of markets, but we believe we are early in the mobile payments evolution. I think when we look out a couple of years, we'll be really glad that we have made that investment.

How many active users do you guys have now?

The way we look at it is the number of connections that we make, and so last year we made nearly a quarter of a billion reservations across our platform. Since the start of OpenTable, we have made over a billion reservations.

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Where are the areas you think future growth is going to come from?

Going global is big. Right now, we are in eight countries officially, and what we haven't done is really harness this traveler connection. We haven't marketed the concept of being able to book globally everywhere. People are doing it naturally, but I think we can do a lot better job of making it much easier for people to find the restaurants that they're looking to go to.

And what does experience need to look like?

So the thing that I always go back to is the first thing you do when you go in to check into a hotel; the first question you go to ask the concierge is, "Where will we go to dinner tonight?" And you shouldn't have to do that. We should both know that you're in the hotel and that you're in a new market and here is a recommendation, and there's a lot of signal that can be given from the hotel that you're staying at.

So, if you can imagine that you're staying in a luxury hotel in the swanky part of town, you probably have a certain kind of expectation for the dinner. When you check into your hotel, we should give you five recommendations that are within walking distance that are going to fit the parameters that we would guess would be interesting to you. We would start pushing marketing messages to the diner based on your location and preferences.

What are other ways you are trying to improve the experience for the diner?

We are making sure that we can get reviews in the system. For example, we are working with Instagram to pull in photos from restaurants into the system. We did our first test in Atlanta. We pulled in 75,000 Instagram photos, and then we used data science to remove all the selfies and photos that didn’t include the food and restaurant.

These photos then show up in the restaurant’s OpenTable profile and help people figure out what to eat.

What other partnerships are instrumental to OpenTable’s growth?

I think Google is probably the biggest and most obvious partner. If you type in the name and restaurant in the the search box, there will be a button in the box that says "Make a Reservation," and it goes right into OpenTable.

There's definitely no shortage of competitors that are coming after OpenTable. How do you view the competition?

Food and tech has been a really exciting new venture market. The way I look at it is a lot of what we see in the competition are features of things that we're doing. And so I think that some of the things we see out there are absolutely appropriate for a subset of our restaurants.

We're testing things like Premium Reservations in New York right now. You can pay money to have a reservation. This is not going to work for every restauranteur. In fact, Danny Meyer has said things like he doesn't want that hospitality model for his restaurants, but for other restaurants it works.

We’re saying, let's be in a position to have the restaurant make money from their popularity from it. And so we think there's a really cool opportunity to expand on what I call the hot restaurant product. But then there's also the other end of the spectrum, which is restaurants who have too few diners, and what's interesting there is even the hot restaurants sometimes don't have enough diners at Tuesday at 5:30. So there's peak periods of supply and demand, and so we're spending a ton of time looking at this concept of how do I pay more to get more? I always call it around here the mythical "Need Diners Button."

We're looking and experimenting with a lot of these kind of marketplace dynamics and tools to help drive new diners into different experiences.

What’s the biggest challenge for OpenTable?

The biggest thing for me is really making sure that I get all the people that I need to help drive this business. I've been the CEO for seven months, and I realize I can't do it all myself.

At the end of the day, I actually think our biggest challenge is just getting in our own way. Not moving fast enough, not going fast enough. I think as we go global, there are some competitors in different markets.

I think Google is always sort of a friend and a foe. We're always watching. We love what Google does, but we've seen Google do different things over the years. But I don't believe we're going to see Google putting software in restaurants anytime soon.

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