Support Skift’s Independent JournalismMake a Contribution Now
Reserve co-founder and CEO Greg Hong will speak about applying behavioral science to experience design at the Skift Global Forum on October 14 and 15 in Brooklyn, New York. See the complete list of amazing speakers and topics at this year’s event.
For many tourists and locals it’s second nature to open a dining reservations app to secure a table when deciding on a restaurant to try for dinner while on vacation or exploring your own neighborhood. Calling the restaurant to make a reservation isn’t necessarily the norm anymore and this leaves restaurants wondering how they can provide a personalized and special experience when technology seemingly curbs opportunities for human interaction.
Reserve, a dining reservations app startup, knew that technology could be deployed to enhance the dining experience. Reserve uses verified feedback from users that only the restaurants see. The app requires reviews after each dining experience and Reserve uses them to fine-tune recommendations for diners. Reserve also curates content using restaurants’ and Reserve’s own images rather than users’ photos. Diners can split the check multiple ways without giving the wait staff a headache and the app stores payment information.
The Reserve app went live in October 2014 and is in more than 270 restaurants across New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. Skift recently sat down with Greg Hong, Reserve’s CEO and co-founder, to talk about why he thinks its partner and review model is poised to disrupt the restaurant industry and to hear why he feels Reserve’s app brings honesty and smarter technology back to dining in ways that work for both diners and restaurants.
Skift: Do you want to talk about why you call the restaurants your partners and why you think about them like that?
Greg Hong: Sure, I had a background in small business leading into Reserve and when I started talking with the restaurants I learned what kind of technology was out there for dining reservations. From the very early days back in October 2013 when we started getting the product off the ground I didn’t tell restaurants, “hey we know what’s up and we’re going to give you this app and you’re going to like it.” Instead we sat down with each restaurant and asked them what they’re looking for in reservations technology and had a dialog about what would make their lives easier.
That’s really where it all started. Having those early dialogs with restaurants to understand what their pain points were and really what came out of it is the realization that we want it to be this really lightweight technology layer that allows diners and restaurants to talk to each other and really just get out of the way.
Skift: How are you building up name recognition and how are you working to reach travelers versus locals?
Hong: I think a large part of it is, we talk about the restaurants being our partners and they talk to us and we talk to them. For them to actually have them let their diners know that there’s another alternative way to book into the restaurant is something that they’ve been happy to do. So that’s one of our biggest channels, our restaurant partners.
Beyond that though we have national campaigns. Just the other day we did a campaign with Banana Republic in the five cities we’re live in. We were doing some in-store promotion and there was some great brand overlap for us. There’s some really fun stuff that we’re doing on a local level, reaching out to businesses, letting them know about our product and our services.
Banana Republic had a “Summer’s Night Out” campaign they used to tell their customers that they could get dressed up in their clothes and go out for a night on the town using Reserve. It’s a fun way to treat yourself a little bit and have a nice night out. I think when we talked to them from the very beginning, it was about how we fully match those two together and really tell a story about the kind of lifestyle that is easy and nice for the diners and ultimately fun and exciting.
Skift: Reserve offers verified reviews but so many different sites have reviews across the spectrum that aren’t verified or reliable. Can you talk about how you’re doing that and how you’re trying to create a more well-rounded conversation about the dining experience?
Hong: The way we go about doing that is requiring reviews of our diners. The next time they come to the app or even at the end of their meal, we encourage them to rate their experience within the restaurant and that’s required before making their next reservation.
What we are doing in that sense is getting private, verified feedback from our diners each and every time they go out to eat. Really the fundamentals of what we’re doing are all there — they only give our restaurant partners what they need to understand. The reviews will either tell restaurants they did a great job or whatever they need to do to improve, and it could also offer a review somewhere in between that. I think we hear from our restaurant partners that when they hear that they got a bad review, it’s not that it affects them. They want the opportunity to make it right, to talk to their diner and reach out to them and see if there’s anything they can do to make the experience one of the positive ones.
That’s something that we hear so often from our restaurant partners, they tell us, “when people come into our business I want them to leave happier than when they got here.” That’s the whole goal and that’s where us having that private feedback is really great for diners and restaurants alike, it adds a layer of authenticity. Each diner then is encouraged to review them authentically and at the same time the restaurants aren’t scared of what might happen to that review because it’s kept private.
Skift: In terms of the behind the scenes work that occurs between Reserve and the restaurant, do you want to talk a little bit about that and how that helps you stand out and what it’s like to hand off that feedback to the restaurants?
Hong: I think the thing that’s still fundamental for our restaurant partners is they want the opportunity to be able to have that conversation that they might have over the phone, through technology. That’s really what they miss with some of their other alternatives, they don’t have the opportunity to have that dialog.
I think what restaurants are really after is again, emulating that phone call. They’re about emulating the experience of what actually happens in real life. If they can do that, they’re very happy. A lot of times, back in the day, they would have these comment cards you could fill out. It was these paper comment cards and the ideal version of that is to have someone fill it out every time, yet those restaurants had no means of actually achieving that.
They get the people that were really happy and the people that were upset. Usually when it comes to restaurants, I don’t want to just know the people that were really happy or really upset, I want to know the people that were in between or maybe the people that were upset, that didn’t want to take the time to actually let us know about it. Again, that’s where emulating the idealized version a restaurant is trying to put forth and our ability to do that though technology, really every step of the way is what’s resonating with our partners.
Skift: It sounds like what you’re doing regarding content is very different from perhaps some of your competitors. Why is user-generated content not big for you?
Hong: We’re pretty deliberate about feedback wanting to stay private. I think as we thought through it, we really want to offer a curated experience to each and every diner when they come to the app.
I think part of that is making sure that’s exactly what’s kept between us, including the photos and their descriptions that we’re adding, we want to curate that experience the same way a hotel concierge service would. We want to make sure that content is not misrepresenting a restaurant and we have a team that’s dedicated to ensuring just that. We do partner with our restaurants for that content as well.
Skift: Who are your biggest challengers in 2015 and who do you see as being the biggest threats or challenges to the traditional brick and mortar restaurant? Apps like Munchery that let people order entire restaurant quality meals on-demand have become very popular in places like New York City, for example. Could an app like Munchery be a potential competitor to both Reserve and restaurants?
Hong: I think it’s a really interesting question. Off the top on my head, I think the industry itself is just hard. You have a lot of people operating on constant margins. That’s where you see a lot of money being put behind that kind of delivery space because they’re looking for opportunities. If you don’t have to ultimately have an in-house staff or if you can eliminate having an in-house staff that, I think, is the angle many services are going after. I don’t know enough in detail to kind of really give guidance in the sense of which one I think is probably the leader in that space. I do know from what I’ve seen, from the chefs I’ve talked to, you definitely see less of this white table cloth fine dining mentality that’s out there now.
I think that’s where there are other opportunities for more delivery or alternative premium dining to be delivered in a sense. I think at the end of the day discovery is the key, though. The winner, especially the one that will capture travelers and get in front of a digital or mobile audience, will be one revolving around personalized discovery and that’s going to be the biggest challenge for everyone in the restaurant space.