New bookings trend is sweeping the industry

Dirty Martini Clapham

Nick TelsonNick Telson, co-founder of DesignMyNight, discusses the pre-booked restaurant business model that is now taking off in the bar and casual dining sectors

Ten years ago, the concept of booking into a restaurant online was alien to most people, apart from the Michelin elite. Toptable – now Opentable – brought a restaurant-booking revolution to the industry, both to the operations of venues, but also to the customers. “If I can book online, for free, why wouldn’t I?”. Toptable proved there was a customer need, as well as showing restaurants that they could throw away the thick paper diary. Fifteen years since launch – and having been initially acquired by its American counterpart, Opentable – Toptable was acquired by hospitality giant Priceline, for $2.6bn.

DesignMyNight launched five years ago, primarily focused on London’s bar industry. When it launched it was solely a discovery site, but the two founders, Nick Telson and Andrew Webster, quickly saw demand both from the industry, and also the consumer side, indicating that people wanted to be able to book into bars.

We would got emails from customers comparing restaurant sites with DesignMyNight, asking why they couldn’t book on ours. One year in, we had opened up enquiries on DesignMyNight on all bar venue pages, whereby users could discover and enquire. In the early days we were phoning up bars and booking in their users directly, seven days a week and the more we started to put covers into the bars, the more we learnt about their operations, as well as our users’ demands and wishes.

DesignMyNight as a site grew quickly on this model, manually booking in thousands of heads a month into our bar partners. We ensured customer service was top notch but also had desires to change the landscape. However we knew this wasn’t the answer and had long looked at the Toptable model and thought this could be rolled out to the bar industry. We knew the market wasn’t mature, but neither was the restaurant market when Toptable started.

To really get things off the ground we took on two tranches of £250,000 investment from six angel investors with backgrounds in Friends Reunited, and Quidco. The investment allowed us to hire a team, including a skilled tech core team. We worked with close partners in the industry to develop a booking system that really catered to their ever-changing needs. The bar industry works very differently from the restaurant industry: we encountered the concepts of enquiry management, multiple bookings on single tables, pre-orders and deposits, as well as the standard real-time bookings that the likes of Opentable offer. After a 15-month build, Collins was born: a booking system truly designed for the needs of the wet-led market.

At the same time, our consumer brand DesignMyNight was doing its job of showing users that they should book into bars – this luxury was not reserved for restaurants or VIP clubs. When having a beer or cocktail with a friend, why risk standing at the bar with your laptop between your legs!

The demand was off the charts. It seemed the industry had been waiting a long time for a software like Collins. For our early adopters, their enquiries in were up, conversions up, and efficiency increased. The system’s return on investment was clear to see and news spreads quickly in this industry.

The success of the launch was also driven by this change in user behaviour, with the concept of booking into bars becoming more mainstream. Faye Catchpole, sales manager at CG Restaurants & Bars, who operate the fast-growing chain Dirty Martini, recognises the importance of pre-booked business into their bars, and having the correct tools to power it: “Pre-booked business equates up to 45% of overall sales and increases to 61% during the Christmas period. We have an in-house sales and reservations team who focus on converting hundreds of enquiries each week, for all our venues. Since implementing Collins, we have seen a dramatic lift in conversion rates and are able to provide a simple and effective way for our customers to enquire and book online.”

As our Collins’ client base grew, so did the demand for new features and improvements, which have played a major role in the development of Collins. Twenty-four months post-launch we have implemented over 350 new features and improvements with weekly updates. Continuing to learn from the people that use Collins has been one of our key drivers. The other global booking systems seem to update a few times a year max, but we have been able to be more agile and create some awesome new products within Collins, as well as tweaking the user experience. Our clients really respond well to a supplier that is reactive and listens.

Twenty-four months since launch, Collins now services over 850 clients in the UK and Ireland, and has another 500 and more in the immediate pipeline. Interestingly, we work with huge national groups such as Fuller’s and Young’s as well as with the best independents like Purl, Callooh Callay and the Nightjar. The huge positive is that operations of all different shapes and sizes have seen the benefit of formalising their booking and enquiry process, and capitalising on the desire for their clients to be handled in a more professional booking manner.

With the success of major pub groups signing up, this has opened the door to the casual dining sector. There are a new wave of restaurants that fit this mould – whether they have a bookable bar too, look to take a lot of party enquiries, and/or like to create bespoke occasions for their diners. Due to the enquiry management and pre-order nature of various Collins features, it sits perfectly with the requirements they need. As with bars, there is a large new tier of restaurants making a name for themselves that are not high end, but not fast food, and offer top-quality fare in a laid-back and livelier environment.

Anthony Knight, group sales and marketing manager of London group Maxwell’s, comments: “Maxwell’s has a varied portfolio of brasseries, restaurants and casual dining establishments. We are seeing great growth in our casual dining sector whether it be Joe’s Southern Table that have two restaurants with bookable and busy bars or Roadhouse, the Covent Garden icon that offers group dining, drinking and partying all under one roof. Millennials are definitely seeking venues that offer them a multi-faceted experience. Across the portfolio we have introduced more sharing food, quick bites and family style ‘all in’ menus as well as spend more time getting to know our customers, what motivates them and keeps them coming back.”

So what is the future of this market? The bookable bar and casual dining market is only going to keep growing. Not only across the UK but of course first into other major global cities, and then beyond in individual cities within those countries. We are at the start of this revolution and the upside, we believe, is on the scale of the bookable restaurant market. Consumers are already there and willing, it just takes the industry to see this opportunity too. We daily are encouraging them to throw away their paper diaries or pure-play restaurant systems and take the leap to something modern and with a fresh perspective.

Picture: Dirty Martini in Clapham, London.

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