Urbanspoon battles OpenTable for online reservations

There's a silent war being waged throughout Toronto's restaurant scene, and the battle is happening below the guise of that cheery-seeming Saturday dinner reservation for two.

Toronto restaurants were once ruled by a monopoly of sorts, with only one major service provider offering online reservation capabilities. That provider was OpenTable, and if you've ever made a dinner reservation for a Toronto restaurant through the web, you've probably used it. No doubt about it — OpenTable has the Toronto upper hand with hundreds of area restaurants signed up to its service.

But a couple of months ago, a new provider came to town. Urbanspoon launched its online booking service, Rezbook, about two years ago, testing the waters in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle before expanding across the United States. Now, it's Toronto's turn.

Rezbook took to the city about two months ago, slowly winning over new clients and, in some cases, annexing them from OpenTable. For diners, the change will mean very little. But for Toronto restaurateurs — especially those risky new businesses — the sudden availability of options may mean better service, better options, and increased visibility in a city saturated with eats.

The obvious edge that Rezbook offers as the new guy in town is affordability. Restaurants that choose to operate their online reservation system through OpenTable are required to pay a flat fee, plus a cost per head. So, for example, if you book a dinner reservation for six for The Boiler House this weekend, the restaurant must pay OpenTable a predetermined amount (typically $1 per person) for the reservation. It's free for you, but costs the restaurant, even if the reservation was made through The Boiler House's own website or Facebook page rather than the OpenTable website. That's on top of a service fee and equipment rental.

Urbanspoon works differently. According to Adam Bent, restaurants never have to pay a per-head charge when reservations are made through the restaurant's own website or Facebook page — only when they book through Urbanspoon's website. There are two pricing packages from which restaurant owners can choose, but compared to OpenTable, the cost is much less.

That's what motivated Nyood to switch over from OpenTable to Urbanspoon, according to marketing manager Miranda Chartrand. "We're probably saving about $500 per month," she estimates, since Nyood has only been using the system for the past two weeks.

But cost wasn't the only factor — another biggie was accessibility. Urbanspoon works basically as an iPad app, available to download on the owner's iPad (or a borrowed one from Urbanspoon), as well as complementary devices. In short, a restaurant owner can check the reservation and table status at his restaurant on his iPhone, at home, and while dinner service is in full swing. If there are multiple owners, there can be multiple carrying devices, all of which communicate via cloud. None of that can be done with OpenTable's equipment.

"It's a clunky thing, and not easy on the eyes," Rob Turenne of Parts & Labour says of the reservation system that used to greet customers by the front of the restaurant. Parts & Labour is currently in the process of adopting the Urbanspoon system. "We were not happy with our old system," he says. "It was expensive, and we found that the provider was really inflexible."

"Our hands were tied financially," he continues. "It left a really bad taste in our mouths; we were ready to go back to pen-and-paper reservations after our contract was up." But Urbanspoon swooped in at just the right time. "We liked what he was doing," Rob says of Adam at Urbanspoon. "And we thought financially, it was a better deal."

That's not to say, of course, that OpenTable doesn't still offer advantages. Hungry patrons perusing the web for places to dine have far more reservation options if scanning OpenTable's options. And the site does run a rewards system whereby customers can collect points through reservations to put towards a free meal. But the monopoly, it seems, is coming to an end with more than 25 restaurants signed up to Urbanspoon and counting. Let the battle continue on, with dinner as the ultimate victory.

Photo courtesy of RezBook

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