Why cyber bookings push the wrong buttons
Hong Kong's second Restaurant Week, running until Sunday, asks diners to make a technological leap of faith by ditching phone and face-to-face reservations and booking tables online instead.
The reservations are organised by international online dining guide platform DiningCity.com, and more than 60 restaurants are taking part, including Al Molo, Jimmy's Kitchen, Bombay Dreams and Yat Tung Heen. Some are offering three-course lunches from HK$98 and dinners from HK$258.
Hong Kong businesses are tapping into the growing demand for online restaurant reservations, an approach that is commonplace in New York, London and Sydney. Launching this week, restaurant reservation portal Gourmei.com tempts Hong Kong diners to book online with free appetisers or a glass of champagne, and promises to connect gourmets with hidden culinary gems. Popular dining guide OpenRice has also rolled out an online reservation service, TableMap, which provides instant confirmation for more than 100 participating restaurants and a Dining Point programme that enables customers to redeem restaurant vouchers and gifts.
Hong Kong-based restaurant group Dining Concepts - which manages Bistecca, BLT Burger and Craftsteak - introduced iPad and iPhone reservations this month following the success of its online reservation service introduced five years ago. And Asia-Pacific fine dining portal Eat2eat - which, like TableMap, enables diners to make reservations with immediate confirmation and has no booking fee - recently launched a free Android app for reservations.
Diners are sometimes asked to give credit card details or a deposit to guarantee bookings - a practice already employed on busy nights of the year such as New Year's Eve, or for large parties. But as rival businesses compete for market share, Garry Bisset, director of marketing at Dining Concepts, says, this won't become the norm.
'On Valentine's Day, we do ask for a credit card guarantee online - some people prefer to come in and pay a deposit - but we don't want to impose on customers by asking them for a guarantee or deposit, especially when it's just a normal day,' he says.
Scheduled seating - when a restaurant dictates the times diners sit down - is also in place for busy occasions or in-demand dining experiences. Sydney-based foodie Anne MacPherson, jewellery designer and director of Annie Mac Designs, believes the practice is on the rise.
'I tolerate it, but sometimes I feel 6pm is too early for dinner and 8.30pm a little late,' she says. 'I like to choose my time to dine, but if it's somewhere I desperately want to try, I'll play by their rules.'
However, eat2eat founder Vikram Aggarwal believes most diners won't tolerate scheduled seating. 'It may work for ad-hoc events such as chef dinners or a restaurant week, but the vast majority of restaurants will continue operating as before, whether diners book by phone or online.'
So what do tech-savvy gourmets make of online restaurant reservation services? Moshe Goldberg, a banker at ING Investment Management in Hong Kong and a regular user of eat2eat, says: 'With mobile devices, it's easy to search and book restaurants online, and I prefer it as I can book whenever I want. Many restaurants are going the online route now. I tried phoning the Red Lantern in Sydney recently, but they only accept online reservations, so eat2eat helps in this process.'
Dining Concepts user Joon Moo Shim, senior architectural designer at Aedas, says the service sends out personal e-mails or calls to confirm the reservation, and does the same afterwards to ensure you were happy with the service.
Even so, there is room for improvement. Peter Bailey, a Sydney-based territory manager in academic publishing, says: 'I've found it's only the high-end restaurants that reliably check their e-mails.' Even so, he prefers to book online, as 'we booked at a Mexican place, and they didn't confirm our booking because they heard the contact number incorrectly'.
Anthony Plewes, a director at British-based Futurity Media, says reservations companies could offer more content from independent review sites rather than relying on user-generated info, or data provided by the restaurant.
So what is the future of online restaurant reservation here? Gourmei founder CeCe Hoang, who represents 11 restaurants including Sahara in SoHo and Korean eatery Chum Chum Mi in Tsim Sha Tsui, says: 'We want to provide a site that's very clear about what's on offer, and keep the number of restaurants we represent below 100, so it doesn't lose its impact.'
While there is a booking fee of HK$25 per table, Hoang says the incentive, such as a round of appetisers, is worth more.
Andrew Bradbury, owner of new wine bar/restaurant Amo Eno at the IFC, says there is a challenge to persuade Hongkongers to commit to a restaurant given the last-minute culture of the city. 'I know which places have lines and those that don't, and always have a back-up plan in case my first choice isn't available,' he says.
'Smartphones have changed everything as you can do it on the fly and don't have to wait long for a confirmation. People are looking at reviews online, so ... you could funnel those site users towards the online booking component.'