Online systems have been easing the burden of making dinner reservations for years now. But there’s always been something missing: What about those impossible-to-get-into restaurants, the ones where tables fill up months in advance? OpenTable is now piloting a new feature in Boston that aims to bridge that gap, rewarding frequent OpenTable diners with special access to in-demand reservations set aside by certain restaurants especially for them.
The catch? Diners will have to use their OpenTable points to book a Premium Access reservation. It’s a pay-for-play system unique to OpenTable. Here’s how the points system works: OpenTable members earn points when they make and honor reservations via opentable.com or its mobile app. Each reservation typically gives a diner 100 points, though 1,000-point reservations are available at select restaurants and times.
In the past, diners who accumulated a certain number of points were able to redeem them for an OpenTable dining cheque, for use at any number of reservations on OpenTable: 2,000 points were good for a $20 dining cheque, and so forth. But that system changed in 2015. Paper dining cheques were out, and gift cards (valid at only certain participating restaurants) were in.
Diners will still be able to redeem points for gift cards but, in Boston at least, they now have another option: redeem them for a table at one of the city’s hottest restaurants.
Scott Jampol, SVP of Marketing at OpenTable, says the benefit is twofold. For diners: “We always heard at cocktail parties: ‘Hey you work at Open Table, we’d love if you could get us in to this restaurant.’ Now there’s a way to do that.” And for restaurants: “The people who have access to premium reservations are those who dine out a lot. Restaurants love frequent diners because those people can become regulars.”
So what happens to the points once they’re used to book a VIP table? They disappear back into OpenTable’s pocket. The diner can no longer redeem them for a gift card, so OpenTable keeps the money the diner had previously “earned” by dining out.
Boston diners can use the feature by clicking the “Premium Access” category on the mobile app’s home screen and selecting the restaurant where they would like to dine. If the restaurant’s standard reservations are fully booked, diners with enough points will be able to view and book Premium Access reservations.
Thirteen Boston restaurants are currently participating in the pilot program, but Jampol expects more to join within the next week or so. And to be clear, these aren’t necessarily restaurants that are impossible to get into. In fact, all of them are already on OpenTable.
But Jampol thinks that might change. “Many restaurants will hold inventory off of Open Table for their VIP customers,” he says. “So what these restaurants have done is taken some of these tables that they typically hold and made them available to Premium Access reservations. But it would be interesting to see if restaurants not currently taking reservations at all would join the program in the future.”
So how many points will it cost you to score a premium reservation? That depends. OpenTable worked with each restaurant individually to determine how many points a reservation would cost. And points fluctuate based on the time of day and day of week. An 8 p.m. reservation on a Saturday, for instance, will probably require more points than a 5 p.m. reservation on a Wednesday.
On average, premium reservations require OpenTable members to redeem 514 points. In other words, you’ll have to dine out at least six times using OpenTable before you even have enough points to score a premium reservation.
The restaurants available in the pilot program aren’t being charged anything extra than their OpenTable membership, but that could change if the program proves success. “The idea is that we’re trying to test a lot of models,” says Jampol. “Some work, and we roll that program out nationally, and others don’t. Right now, we’re still thinking about the pricing structure for restaurants to enroll in the program.”
OpenTable expects to take a closer look at how well the program is going in about a month. If it rolls out nationally, it will likely be “more formalized,” says Jampol (i.e. restaurants will have to pay to be considered Premium).
The restaurant reservation wars have heated up since OpenTable first burst on to the scene in 1998. Now, there are a slew of instant restaurant reservations system, including Reserve, Yelp's SeatMe, and Resy, which charges cold, hard cash for premium reservations.
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