Jack Baldwin quizzes the app experts tackling restaurant downtime
It’s a trick of the trade that airlines and hotels learnt many years ago: discounting downtime and off-peak purchases keeps customers around when they’d otherwise stay away. Two Adelaide-based app experts are now bringing that know-how to restaurateurs.
Heath Brumby and Sean Clarke have worked behind the scenes for years, developing internal apps for the corporate sector under the banner of the App Experts. “We’re lucky enough to play in the corporate space,” Sean Clarke says. “We deal with mainly internal apps. They’re not on an app store. They’re made for organisations to be more productive. Doing that, we’ve got a good pool of developers and staff we could use to put this program together.”
The two-man team is going public with their new app, Spare Tables, applying a simple idea to a big industry: use centralised technology to give restaurateurs the ability to apply an off-peak pricing, supply and demand model to their businesses—just like the airlines.
“All our restaurants have their own profile page. It shows their food, their menus and dishes. They have complete control over offering tables online and if they want to drive traffic at that earlier time —six o’clock, six-thirty—they can offer a discount incentive,” says Brumby.
Customers can search the Spare Tables app or website by area, time, pricing or cuisine. Restaurants are listed with reviews and potential discounts. The customer chooses their time and completes their details, and the booking is complete.
Clarke says the app also caters to smaller owner-operator restaurants that might not have a computerised till system or even internet. “As soon as a booking is made online the phone will ring the restaurant within five seconds and read the reservation automatically,” he says. “To our knowledge no-one else does this.”
Spare Tables is entering the space of more established solutions out there. Dimmi is one such technology, a similar mix of web and device apps aimed to increase restaurant revenue. Mark Moran, Dimmi’s head of partnerships—which include Qantas, UrbanSpoon and TripAdvisor—says that they’re behind a big push to take restaurants online. “The default behaviour a couple of years ago was still to use a pen and paper diary. We’re slowly changing that so people put everything in a digital diary,” Moran says.
“We provide the software to do that and it allows them, on quiet nights, to see they’re running at, say, 30 per cent of capacity, and what do they have to do to fill those tables.”
Mark draws the comparison to airlines and hotels as well. For 20 years, he says, they’ve taken their inventory and exposed it to the world in whatever shape or form, using special offers and extra marketing to fill seats or rooms.
“If you just have a paper diary, it’s hard to do that analysis. We capture a lot of detail about the customer when they make the reservation—that builds a picture of the diner,” Mark explains. “From there you can build good service and remarket to them by tracking that customer. That’s something that restaurants have traditionally been pretty bad at, because they haven’t had the data.”
While Spare Tables is accommodating of the traditional behaviour of restaurants, not forcing them to go online, they will be offering a similar tablet-based solution in the future. It’s likely to coincide with their push out from South Australia.
“The plan was always to launch in Adelaide,” says Clarke. “We’re locals. Adelaide is probably a harder market to make it work in. That was validation for us to go interstate, and the plan is this year to go interstate quite aggressively.”
For one of their customers at least, Amrit Kumar, general manager of Hotel Tivoli in Adelaide, there’s no downside to taking up these new kinds of marketing technologies. “It brings together industry as a whole and allows for cross-promotion, which is a vital element of a modern marketing strategy. Spare Tables offers us an exciting opportunity to increase brand awareness and reach an otherwise elusive demographic,” Kumar says.
As services such as Dimmi and Spare Tables grow and expand their user-base, the danger is that restaurants not taking advantage of the technology will be left in the dust.
“There’s a behavioural change from the consumer side,” explains Clarke. “Rather than calling to try and book a table, now you jump on your phone or computer to book it.
“It’s really important for restaurants to move in to that sphere if they want to continue to operate efficiently. A restaurant that doesn’t take online bookings is missing out on a lot of customers that exclusively search online, and that’s only going to increase.”
Brumby says that most of the restaurants they approach have recognised the benefit of the technology outright. “Our hit rate with restaurants has been quite high. Not many say no, because there’s no cost to join. My pitch is to try it; if it doesn’t work, you can exit at any time. The only time I’m going to send you a bill is if I send you a customer,” he says.
Mark Moran from Dimmi agrees. “There are probably some restaurants that believe their brand is strong enough that people will find a way to come to their restaurant. The reality is there’s lots of strong brands on the market. If your competitors are embracing different ways to talk to consumers and different ways to make themselves available to consumers, and you’re not, you’re potentially going to get left behind.”
Tips for using booking technology
Sean Clarke: “Our webpage and app are very image driven. We find as well that restaurants with very good images tend to attract more bookings. It’s worth the investment to hire a good photographer. We absolutely see it in the bookings. The Maid and Magpie hotel is by far the most popular pub we have because their imagery is amazing. It looks like a fine-dining restaurant. When you’re online, comparing that to something else, you’ll go for that every time.”
Mark Moran: “Use electronic bookings to manage your tables more effectively. Shift them around to cater to special bookings to maximise your capacity. If you scan squeeze in an extra four covers here or there, that makes all the difference.”