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It’s the summer of reservations

June 28, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC

Basketball season, family game night, (Great British) baking shows—these are things we know to be competitive. Now, add scoring a table at your favorite taco spot to the list.

As reopening continues, getting into places may seem more difficult than ever. Reservation and wait-list management platforms such as Resy and OpenTable are thriving as they help businesses accommodate changing capacity restrictions and new levels of demand.

According to Alex Lee, VP and general manager of the Resy and American Express Global Dining Network, Resy has seen huge growth in the past year and a half, with a record number of new restaurants and users joining the platform, despite pandemic stay-at-home orders.

And it isn’t just restaurants. At many other types of establishments, the days of taking for granted that you’ll snag a spot as a walk-in are gone. The 14th Street Y, a fitness center in New York’s East Village, is among the gyms that have gone reservation-only. The Y uses its own online system to keep track of sign-ups, and guests can reserve a spot up to five days in advance.

Now that travel has ramped up, this shift toward reservations is one that both locals and tourists alike need to plan for, rather than making last-minute decisions about where to dine and what to do. But the tradeoff for this loss of spontaneity is shorter wait times and greater efficiency for both consumers and businesses.

More than managing demand

Waitlist.me is a wait-list and reservation management platform that doubled in size in 2020. As CEO Brian Hutchins puts it, “What the pandemic has done, not only for Waitlist Me but lots of technologies, is it’s accelerated the future.” Waitlist Me serves a variety of businesses including salons, nail care, pharmacies, boat rentals, and dispensaries. 

Hutchins credits the company’s recent growth to a series of macro trends, including the move toward contactless services and the rapid rise in automation. Waitlist Me capitalizes on such trends by offering features like QR codes that allow for self–check-in and automated alerts sent to patrons’ phones to let them know that their table is ready. He adds that the everyday consumer now has a valid reason to want to avoid spending time in lines.

“Having lines and crowds kind of sucked before, and now there’s other reasons why it’s dangerous,” he says. “In addition to me hating waiting, I also don’t want to get sick.”

Resy data proves it out: Places where patrons never needed a reservation before are now requiring them. The company experienced record growth from March 2020 to March 2021, despite in-restaurant dining being limited. During that time span, more than 50% of Resy newcomers had never used a digital platform before. Lee says that the company expects this trend to continue.

Platforms like these do a lot more than just coordinate seating. Resy, a hospitality technology platform founded in 2014, offers features like wait-list functionality, customized SMS text confirmations, and guest feedback tools.

Hutchins points out that the pandemic has helped accelerate the pace at which businesses are adopting new tech. They had to adapt quickly to accommodate customers’ new preference for doing things for themselves, whether that was joining a wait list, checking in to a restaurant, or paying without a human intermediary.

“A lot of these restaurants had to get tech-savvy really quick,” Hutchins says. “There’s probably not a time in our lifetimes where so much has changed so quickly.”

Post-pandemic dining

Debby Soo is the CEO of OpenTable, the largest reservations service platform in the U.S. Based on OpenTable data, May 25, 2021, was the first day that overall seated diners in the U.S. exceeded March 2020 levels.

“Reservations have never been more important,” Soo says. “We’ve had restaurants that were historically just pen and paper come to us and say, ‘Hey, we really need this.’”

This is a product of factors including capacity restrictions limiting dining space, higher-volume demand as the economy reopens, and, as Hutchins pointed out, the desire to avoid long lines and non–user-friendly technology.

According to OpenTable’s State of the Industry dashboard, as of June 13, the number of seated diners at restaurants accepting OpenTable reservations was up 67% year over year in Texas, 70% in California, and 80% in Florida.

“You also have to think, restaurants have all of this outdoor dining and seating that they didn’t really have [before],” Soo says. “So players like OpenTable with a huge consumer network really come into play here because we can help fill all of your seats if you want, or if you can, depending on restrictions.”

As more places require reservations, no-shows are also a factor to consider when assessing demand. But according to Susan Davenport, a founder and co-owner of Tazza Kitchen, an eatery with six locations across Virginia and the Carolinas, this hasn’t been a problem. Tazza Kitchen has taken some preventive measures, though, such as using Resy’s automated text confirmation feature.

“We are mindful to not take large-party reservations during high-volume times to avoid the impact of no-shows,” she says. “We also send texts to remind guests of the reservations, which makes it easy for them to cancel if needed.”

Tazza Kitchen restaurant location; interior of restaurant with empty tables and natural light
Although Tazza Kitchen has relied on Resy to manage demand and keep track of customers since 2017, the platform became especially useful during the pandemic.
Courtesy of Tazza Kitchen

The system is also helpful when it comes to contact tracing and mass-messaging. “It allowed us to have contact information for our guests in case we needed to close for some reason. We were able to contact everyone,” Davenport says. “It also allowed us to communicate all COVID protocols in response emails or confirmation emails.”

Eric Beveridge is the manager at Bartlett’s, a restaurant in Austin that started using Resy this past May. Beveridge says Bartlett’s primarily relies on Resy in an effort to better understand and keep track of customer habits, such as the average length of a restaurant stay, rather than its main purpose of reservation management.

“We’ve been super busy, constantly full and constantly on a wait because we’re at 50% capacity, and it’s really helping us understand what customers want,” Beveridge says. “We figured out that because they haven’t been coming in in a year, now they’re staying a little bit longer.”

Although Tazza Kitchen has relied on Resy to manage demand and keep track of customers since 2017, the platform became especially useful during the pandemic.

“For a while, we weren’t even open inside, and then once we opened up inside to a very limited capacity, that’s when reservations became very important,” Davenport says. “We weren’t taking any walk-ins, and we were limiting table size and group size. So I think there it was very helpful to safely manage the situation.”

Now that restaurants like Tazza Kitchen are allowing walk-ins again, they’re learning to balance plans confirmed in advance with diners who show up ready to eat. Resy takes some of the burden off management to juggle both types of diners.

“It’s probably not as critical for us now as it was during the pandemic, but we’ll always use a third-party reservation system,” Davenport says of Resy. “It just doesn’t make sense to do in-house, especially at the volume that we do.”

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