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Online reservations: A nonnegotiable for millennials

After spending an evening at a recently opened casual Cajun restaurant in St. Louis, I was asked by the owner for my opinion on his operation. What ensued was a classic, “you kids can’t really think this way” discussion.

Let’s paint the picture: This man has plenty of restaurant experience, having opened two successful concepts prior to his current venture. He sold his stakes in the two earlier restaurants, so he hasn’t operated a restaurant in the past few years—years when digital and social media have grown to be so crucial.

For obvious reasons, the points where we differed in opinion involved the reliance on the Internet and the tools, social and otherwise, available through it. The biggest debate of our discussion: the importance of online reservations, especially to millennials. More specifically, I said he’d lose out to competitors if he didn’t get on OpenTable (or Yelp SeatMe or another easy-to-use reservation site, though OpenTable is the go-to for all millennials I run with).

He couldn’t seem to grasp that a lack of an online-reservation system is a turn off, and in fact a deal-breaker, for some consumers. But it’s pretty simple. Big data has shown time and again that millennials want convenience and immediacy. So, obviously, waiting for a table is not in the cards. But spending time on a phone with a hostess to make a reservation is also an inconvenience. It’s much easier (and can be done while multitasking) to quickly pull up an app and hit a few buttons.

The need for online reservations also is supported by millennials’ desire for frictionless service, which we’ve been hearing about so much as of late. Younger diners don’t necessarily want tons of interaction with a real person, again prioritizing quick and convenient service.

His counter-argument was that dining out is about the experience. “How can you have an experience without interaction?” he griped. Other than saying it’s an “unnecessary time-suck” and that I “don’t like talking to people when I don’t have to,” I didn’t have a set answer. I instead made another point in favor of online reservations, saying that many millennials use the location feature to search for openings at any nearby restaurants, so it’s a bit of an old-school form of geo-targeting. Apparently, this was not enough to convince him that he should pay the high surcharges to get himself on OpenTable.

But a prime example of the need for online reservations popped up a week later: Chicago Restaurant Week is coming up, so my friends and I are making plans for the restaurants we want to hit. After compiling the must-dine-at list, we started making reservations—all via OpenTable. There was a restaurant on our list that isn’t on OpenTable. So did we pick up the phone to make a reservation instead? No. My friend skipped that restaurant and picked another from our list.

I immediately called to tell him this story (okay, to gloat about how I was right). The next thing I heard, he had a meeting scheduled with the OpenTable team.

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