The Ultimate Guide to Online Restaurant Reservations in 2024

Are online restaurant reservations good for your restaurant? The good news is that yes: online reservations help restaurants in various ways. 

However, many restaurateurs fear they will lose control of their table bookings, that an increase in online restaurant reservations will overwhelm their capacity. In this guide, we demonstrate that the opposite is true; that when digital, managing reservations becomes easy.

The Modern Process — A History

Table reservations began to take off in the early parts of the twentieth century. 

The mass introduction of telephones revolutionised indoor restaurant reservations management. In the 1910s, restaurants began to use telephones and transformed the popular system we all know today: using phone-ins in unison with a paper notebook to log guest details, including their phone number to report any changes to their bookings.

The master of operations, the Maître d’hôtel, has always played a critical part in this process. These are head waiters, the overseers of the overall service inside restaurants. Their duties include confirming all guest reservations that come through. Supervision is key, from the guest experience to restaurant hygiene. For a long time, without the Maître d’hôtel, restaurants would be at a total loss to appropriately handle their table bookings. 

Airline companies were the first to use computer-assisted booking technology, pioneering the use of software during the 1960s to track bookings and assign customers to flights. Sabre, the first of its kind as told in the New York Times, is still used today to assign flight reservations. It took a few decades, but eventually restaurants caught up and software developers modelled online table reservation software on the American airline industry.

What Are Online Restaurant Reservations?

In 1999 came the ability to accept online reservations. Pioneers in the software management field realised how difficult it was for restaurant customers to book tables using traditional methods. 

With online reservations, the idea of convenience was key from the offset. Chuck Templeton, the founder of the reservations management platform OpenTable, had the idea after witnessing a friend struggling to make a reservation by phone. 

For the past twenty years, restaurant customers have been able to make their own reservations via the internet. As such, with online reservations the restaurant operator no longer logs reservations themselves: an online reservation system automates this part of the process for them.

Serving up: Restaurants use guestbooks to manage guest demand (via Flickr courtesy of Lou Stejskal, Creative Commons 2.0)

Why Accept Online Restaurant Reservations?

Online reservations allow customers to make table bookings at restaurants on the internet. There are many reasons for restaurants to accept online reservations, including:

1. Smoother Staff Workloads

Online reservations automate the table booking process, so the customer does the bulk of the necessary data input. Systems ensure that table reservations sync properly, updating a reservations calendar in real-time, meaning that restaurant staff can focus on optimising their customer service. 

2. Open for Business

Automated online bookings create a 24/7 online restaurant reservations page. There are many advantages to this, including:

  • No Business Lost. Automated online bookings mean that the customer easily secures a table on their own. As such, restaurants never lose the customer due to customer unavailability — not responding to an email, for instance, or failing to call back via phone.
  • Happier Customers. Booking online is now the norm for customers. From hotel rooms to flight tickets, consumers now expect to interact with other services via the internet. 
  • A New Demographic. For those customers inclined to spend an evening scrolling online, your restaurant will have the opportunity to attract new attention. These days, consumers often discover new restaurants online. Google Maps, booking platforms, and social media each offer a new opportunity to advertise your venue.

3. Accurate Staff Management

An accurate view of customer reservations helps restaurants to regulate their shift patterns, deciding on a staff schedule based on an up-to-date digital reservations system.

4. Improved Customer Relationships

An online reservations system can collect more information from guests. This means that restaurants can understand what guests need (i.e., dietary preferences, allergies, favourite table, etc.). Beforehand, restaurants relied on the Maître d’hôtel or reservations manager to collect vital information: now it is available at their fingertips. 

5. Analysis and Results

Certain online reservation systems offer an analytics feature. This includes statistical reports to:

  • Track seated customers and no-shows. This feature offers restaurants insight into the number of booked customers that actually turn up, including the number that cancel in advance and the overall rate of no-shows.
  • Identify and manage peak times. Analytics display the times in the day that the restaurant is at its busiest. Alternatively, analytics also identify the restaurant’s slowest periods, tracking the reasons why.

Restaurant analytics can help restaurants make future decisions about their services, improving them without all the work of manual data collection. Previously, unless restaurants had a pen-and-paper handy, statistics and daily averages were completely hidden to them.

6. Better Feedback

A final bonus concerns a vital element all restaurants need: customer feedback. Restaurants can easily gather customer comments and feedback via digital channels, such as email. With an online reservations system, digital information is readily available, creating a hassle-free process for restaurants.

How Do Online Reservations Actually Work?

Booking software creates both customer- and restaurant-facing interfaces, allowing consumers to make table bookings at their convenience. This gives restaurants an easy-to-use platform to set up online reservations.

First, the restaurant decides on a reservation system’s function. The restaurant puts in a select number of tables into an online inventory, listing them as “reservable”. These tables then appear on the customer-facing end, and consumers decide on their tables and dates.      

These features, which include additional control settings, establish a fully functioning restaurant reservations system. Using the data a restaurant has already provided, an automated system allows customers to make reservations via the web. As such:

  • A system removes a table from the online inventory when a customer makes a booking
  • Then, a system updates the online system to show customers that the selected table is unavailable
  • Therefore for the next customers that same table is no longer bookable

Other available tables will remain open for reservations at the same time. Once all available tables become unavailable at a certain time, the system displays this information to the customer.

A reservations system usually follows up a customer’s booking with notifications and reminders. Receiving these notifications via email, text message, or an instant messaging service (i.e., WhatsApp), a reservations system makes it accessible for a customer to keep up to date on their reservation(s). 

On the restaurant’s side of things, staff members receive an alert within the system, which is often readily available on a smartphone remotely connected to the system. Restaurants can then view and check new reservations on a daily agenda.

Online Reservations Are Not Request Systems

Many restaurants fear that computers are unable to do the job: to sort online bookings. However, this is a false conception. This is because a reservations system is not a request system. To sum up, a reservation system:

  • Automates only the customer booking process, saving restaurants a great deal of time
  • Assembles automatically a restaurant’s in-flow of guests, allowing restaurants to stagger the number of reserved tables used in hourly increments, suited to a restaurant’s individual needs
  • Arranges a manageable reservations list for restaurants to organise and control incoming guests

An online reservations system automates the guest-booking process — and does not block the restaurateur’s control over table allocation. This means less work for restaurant teams, thus improving their workflow.

4 Ways To Customise Online Restaurant Reservations

To enhance the number of online reservations received, there are a few things restaurants can do.

1. Set Operating Hours

The most fundamental part of customised online reservations: opening hours and restaurant limits. A system provides a customisable time window for restaurants to alter. For example: 10:00—18:00 Monday—Thursday.

Moreover, restaurants can set up limitations: e.g., a specific time to ensure that their kitchen closes; the maximum number of covers they want to use, or the max number of guests during a booking period.

2. Touchpoints

Online reservations intend to make it easier for customers to book. Customising your website to fit the bill is a starting point in this process.

Touchpoints refer to the way customers can interact with your restaurant via your website. Regarding reservations, having multiple touchpoints means this: to have several buttons/links for customers to make a reservation with you.

Restaurants can place a “Make a Reservation” button in most areas of their website. Notice the language too: “Make a Reservation” is far better than just a plain “Reservation” button. An imperative call to action attracts the customer’s eye.

3. Use Social Media

Restaurants can use social media to their advantage; see our quick guide on adding a booking link to Instagram.

Simply add a direct website link to your venue’s reservations page in the “About” section of the restaurant’s social media page’s bio. Depending on the number of followers and presence via these channels, this small effort will definitely increase a restaurant’s public outreach.

Interested in adding your venue to Google Maps? Find out in our quick guide.

4. Optimise Reservations Policy

Understandably, many restaurants charge a per-booking fee to mitigate the financial cost of a restaurant no-show. However, online customers may find this option unattractive.

Speed and reliability allow restaurant customers to zip through an online reservations system, making a table date with a restaurant in less than a few minutes. The last thing they want to see is a surprise demand for their card details to pay a pre-booking fee.

Nevertheless, this is a necessity for some venues, particularly those that suffer from frequent no-shows. Restaurants should explain clearly their policies before customers embark on making a table reservation with them. This could come in the shape of a small notice on their social media page or as a pop-up on a website.

Online restaurant reservations make table policies easy to implement (via Flickr courtesy of Kent Wang, Creative Commons 2.0)

Common Concerns Debunked

It’s innovative and quick — so naturally many restaurants fear giving online reservations a try. Here are four common concerns that are actually false. 

  • Online reservations will make me lose control. An online reservations system enhances a restaurateur’s control over their reservations. Discover how this works.
  • Online reservations result in overbookings. An online reservations page accurately manages a restaurant’s table inventory in real-time, accommodating guests as they book. Find out about managing overbookings with digital technology.
    • Online reservations are incapable of “staggering” tables. Reservation software spaces bookings out every 15 or 30 minutes, or more, depending on the number the restaurant establishes. Learn more here.
  • Online reservations cannot handle large parties. A guest limit feature is a key setting that allows a restaurant to establish maximum booking sizes. Explore our article on how these features work, addressing common concerns about online bookings.

Do Customers Prefer Online Restaurant Reservations?

Today, when a whole world of instant services sits at the customer’s fingertips, customers no longer want to wait for things. People use their phones for a lot of services, from airplane tickets to Google map directions.

Also, customers have undergone a change in mannerisms. The Wall Street Journal has reported on the restaurant industry in the USA, saying that customers have experienced a culture shift in their attitude to dining out. Spending habits have changed. As a result, a large portion of people would prefer to stay at home, as online services offer instant services, from shopping to entertainment — even food.

Restaurants now need to make the reservations process as smooth as possible for customers. Ease of access via digital methods will maintain guestlist movement, reassuring restaurants that they are up to speed with the rest of the commercial world. 

Find out more about today’s guest demands as restaurants look toward the future.

Price of Online Restaurant Reservations

Most providers fail to acknowledge that, for restaurants, managing finances is a tough job.      So a price comparison on online restaurant reservations systems is worthwhile because providers tend to be costly.

Restaurants need to save as much money as they can. From cost-of-goods-sold to payroll, restaurants have many costs to bear. That’s why the American restaurateur Joe Bastianich pointed out in his biography that in restaurants “to make money you have to save money”. Owners “have to appear to be generous, but you have to be inherently a cheap f*** to make it work”.

With this in mind, restaurants need to consider the financial impact of most reservation systems. Providers alter their charges to suit a restaurant’s needs, via six big costs.

  • A Subscription Cost. This is a monthly or annual charge to the restaurant, and no matter if your restaurant experiences either success or failure, you will still pay the subscription cost. Read about how providers break these costs down.
  • A Features Cost. Spending more will increase your access to features. Evaluate the costs here.
  • A Customer Cost. Providers can charge you on how many reservations you secure through their system. Investigate whether or not vendor costs work for you.
  • A Hardware Cost. Extra hardware is sometimes a requirement to use online restaurant reservations. Or restaurants can sidestep this cost, using their own devices with mobile app functionality. 
  • A POS Cost. Restaurants need to consider an electronic point of sales cost. If a restaurant already has an EPOS system installed and running, then a reservations software provider will charge to integrate the two systems
Focus on the things that matter to customers with effective online restaurant reservations (via Flickr courtesy of Lou Stejskal, Creative Commons)

Employ Online Restaurant Reservations

With Carbonara App, online reservations come at no cost at all. Delivered with various features, this makes use of mobile technology, including:

  • Digital Reservation Book. Keep control of reservations.
  • Table Management.  Keep an eye on tables throughout the day.
  • Daily Statistics. View a regular report that breaks down guest levels and average times, helping you make plans for your restaurant’s future.
  • User-Friendly Interface. Navigate an intuitive interface.
  • Device Sync. Anyone with a smartphone is a user.

When it comes to online restaurant reservations, Carbonara App is here to help. Contact us to learn more about how we can help your venue improve its efficiency.