Skift Take

Although some travel companies have succeeded in finding suitable restaurants for clients via OpenTable, the fact they've had to resort to the platform is a sign of how difficult planning travel has become during the pandemic.

One of the major casualties of the pandemic has been restaurants. More than 10 percent of U.S. restaurants as well as roughly an equal figure in the United Kingdom have closed since the start of the pandemic, and one executive has described the sector as being in free fall.

The mass closure of restaurants has also presented numerous challenges for other industries, including travel. Finding places to take groups of travelers to eat has become more difficult, so many travel agents and tour operators have turned to restaurant booking platform OpenTable to find suitable dining locations. The app has emerged as a crucial tool for many travel companies as many restaurants are grappling with labor shortages that have made responding to customer inquiries tougher.

“It has become a real game changer,” said Laudie Hanou, the vice president of California-based Sita World Tours, which started using OpenTable earlier this year to arrange meals for small and large groups. “It allows us to zero in on a specific region and (select a) cuisine — such as Indian, Italian or Asian. It streamlines the tour operator’s requirements in an extremely efficient way.”

The platform became a game changer out of necessity when many locations implemented capacity restrictions for restaurants, a development that sparked a decline in walk-ins and steered a large number of U.S. restaurants toward relying on providing take-out service. In addition, some restaurants have required reservations for all seatings, which has made platforms like OpenTable more appealing to customers. The company estimated online bookings for restaurants were 42 percent higher in June 2021 than in the same month pre-pandemic.

“It is not uncommon for restaurants and tasting rooms to inform callers that booking online is the only way to make a reservation at their establishment,” said Sarah Elliman, the co-founder of CellarPass, an online reservation system for winery tours that has a booking partnership with OpenTable. “Staffing shortages have made it difficult for restaurants and tasting rooms to dedicate staff for answering phones and returning mails.”

It’s uncertain how many tour operators and travel agents have used OpenTable to make reservations for their clients as a company representative told Skift it doesn’t have a formal program in place to reach tour operators. But OpenTable has provided travelers dining options in not just the United States — SITA has used the platform to make reservations for meals in many of the countries it conducts tours, including Germany, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom.

And many travel professionals will continue to turn to OpenTable to make group bookings. Although numerous locations have lifted capacity restrictions for restaurants in recent weeks, such establishments in several other destinations — including Hawaii — are still operating at limited capacity per local mandates. And Elliman has strongly called on companies using the platform not to ignore those limits.

“We do not recommend making multiple reservations in effort to get around the capacity or group size limitations,” Elliman said, in contrast to one industry executive who said some tour operators had made five to seven individual reservations just to get a group into a restaurant. “It can put the restaurant at risk of being non-compliant with its local operating regulations.”

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Tags: opentable, restaurants, tour operators, travel agents

Photo credit: More groups, such as this one in Barcelona, are turning to OpenTable due to the difficulties of finding suitable restaurants Amutratel / Wikimedia Commons

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