Reservations Tug-of-War

By Glenn Withiam, Director of Publications, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | June 10, 2009

As customers gradually change the way that they make reservations, moving from telephone calls to the Internet, restaurant operators may feel caught between implementing new reservations technology versus maintaining the tried-and-true. Based on the findings of a survey taken by Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research, it seems that customers also feel conflicted between the two.

The study, "How Restaurant Customers View Online Reservations," surveyed 696 restaurant customers regarding their perceptions of online reservations as compared to telephone reservations. The data was reviewed and analyzed by Sheryl Kimes, the Singapore Tourism Board Distinguished Professor of Asian Hospitality Management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

Internet vs. the telephone
In short, despite the growing popularity of the Internet for reservations, customers haven't given up on the telephone just yet. It's no secret that the number of electronic reservations has risen at a rate that is nearly hyperbolic. OpenTable.com, an electronic reservations service, recorded a 100-percent increase in reservations from April 2007 to April 2008, from 35 million to 70 million diners. While the economic recession may have slowed this growth, the fact remains that many customers expect to find your restaurant on the Internet.

At the same time, Kimes found that while many of the respondents appreciate the convenience of being able to make restaurant reservations online, they also like the personal touch of telephone reservations. About one-third of the 696 restaurant customers in the survey had made an online reservation. Those who made reservations online tended to be younger than those who stuck with the telephone, and online users also reported dining out more frequently. Those who made online reservations considered those reservations to be significantly more convenient than telephone reservations, and the online users also thought that websites gave more information about a restaurant than what they learned with a telephone call.

Despite all the advantages that they saw in Internet reservations, the online users also felt that they had a better personal connection with the restaurant when they made telephone reservations. They also reported feeling that they were treated more carefully when they made a telephone reservation. It's worth noting that the respondents saw no difference between the two methods in terms of control or reliability of reservations. The only difference was convenience and service orientation.

A balanced strategy

Kimes suggests that restaurateurs might want to maintain a strategy of offering reservations via both methods, at least for the moment, given the trade-off of efficiency and service perceptions between telephone and online reservations. A restaurateur who wants to encourage customers to try online reservations might emphasize their convenience factor, and also make sure that the website is full of information about the restaurant.

The expense of maintaining online reservations may be offset somewhat by the information that restaurants can gain regarding their customers. In any event, Kimes points out that a key to ensuring a successful reservations process is to make the electronic process as straightforward as possible. Meanwhile, some customers will still want to be able to contact a restaurant by phone. Given that this is a way to make a personal connection with guests, restaurateurs must make certain that the telephone reservations process is not only efficient, but also cordial, just like in the old days.
 
Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research. The study, "How Restaurant Customers View Online Reservations," is available at no charge from the university website.
 

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