Joseph Essas joined OpenTable in 2012. As chief technology officer (CTO), he leads the engineering, operations and data science teams, as well as running all the technology-related functions globally for the business.
In the past three years, Essas has focused on spearheading OpenTable’s mobile initiatives and helping to drive the company’s mobile growth. He has also evolved OpenTable’s partnerships with Google and Apple, as well as leading his teams to develop advanced software for restaurants to better serve diners.
ClickZ (CZ): How has OpenTable grown since you joined the company?
Joseph Essas (JE): Over the past three years, we have been growing tremendously, especially in the mobile space. To date, we have sat around 16 million diners a month globally. And we have grown our mobile usage: half of the diners we seat book through our mobile apps and site, which is fantastic. We have also improved the software our restaurant customers use to help them provide great hospitality and better manage their floor service operations.
CZ: As consumers, we use OpenTable to make reservations. We don’t see the data magic. How does OpenTable leverage data to connect diners and restaurateurs in real time?
JE: There’s a variety of things we have been doing. The one diners are typically most familiar with is our real-time restaurant availability and mobile features that makes it easy to quickly locate and book tables at nearby restaurants.
We also use lots of data to understand the trends around neighborhoods and cuisines, and then we use data insights to help restaurants offer a better dining experience.
For example, we would know that in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, restaurants are around 85 percent occupied on Tuesday night. So if a restaurant has only 75 percent capacity on a Tuesday night, we would let them know that: “Hey, maybe you should do more marketing!”
If a restaurant has 90 percent, we would tell them: “You have done everything correctly. Don’t worry that you didn’t reach 100 percent, because that’s not going to happen on a Tuesday night.” Therefore, data flow is very important for us.
We also mine restaurant review data. We have high-quality review data, because our system only allows users to leave a review when they have actually eaten at a restaurant. We are trying to keep diner-generated reviews as unbiased and honest as possible.
Based on our review data, we will conduct sentiment analysis and topic analysis to offer restaurants insights into consumer behavior.
For example, we see that during Valentine’s Day, diners’ requests on ambience used to be very broad: “I want a romantic experience” or “I want an intimate setting.” But now, their requests are becoming more specific: they are talking about something like: “I want flowers on my table.” So we go back to our restaurant partners and tell them: “Hey, this is what we see across the board.” Then they will use this piece of information to improve their service.
CZ: Are there any specific types of data that OpenTable uses to understand customers to further create business opportunities for restaurants?
JE: We want to leverage data to provide culinary variety and the best possible dining experience. For example, we look at data to understand diners’ cuisine and neighborhood preferences, which helps tailor restaurant and dining experience recommendations. And when the location feature is enabled, we can use data to predict what diners may like when they are in certain cities.
CZ: OpenTable introduced its own mobile payments in February of last year. Can you tell us about the thoughts and decisions behind this program?
JE: One of the benefits we think we can provide by creating a holistic dining experience is adding value before, during and after you dine at a restaurant. We have a very unique thing in that we have technology in the hands of diners and our hospitality solution system in the hands of restaurants. Therefore, we know, for example, Joseph goes to Bar Tartine restaurant in San Francisco and he is sitting at table 34. Then we connect these dots with the point of sale (POS) system which shows Joseph has a mobile app, so we will let him just see the check, pay straight off and leave without delay.
Because we can close that loop with the POS, and between our system and the diner with a mobile app, it’s a beautiful experience where you walk into a restaurant, order your food and click to see your whole check, all without waiting for a waiter.
Our mobile payments also adds value to restaurants because they can move tables faster and thus offer a better experience and serve more diners.
CZ: How many diners have used OpenTable’s mobile payments?
JE: In terms of Pay with OpenTable, we have more than 500,000 Pay-enabled diners.
CZ: Google Maps integrated OpenTable last November. How has Google’s local search helped evolve your business?
JE: We work with many partners, and Google is one of them. When you search for a restaurant on Google, you can see links to OpenTable. We look at all of that as an additional distribution that Google provides to our restaurants. Now our restaurant partners are automatically integrated into Google’s local search results, so they may not need to purchase ads with Google AdWords.
For us, it’s a great opportunity to enhance marketing efforts on behalf of restaurants. But it’s a small chunk of our business in terms of offering additional distribution for our restaurant partners. More than 90 percent of the diners we seat book through OpenTable.com and our mobile apps.
CZ: Google will start indexing content from iOS apps in search results. Apple’s iOS 9 will present users with contextually aware information, including frequently opened apps based on time of day and location. How would these moves affect OpenTable?
JE: We work very closely with Google and Apple. For us, Google’s and Apple’s announcements will allow us to create a better dining experience. When you search in Google or on Apple, you will be able to see accurate results and deep-linking to mobile pages inside our app, so your dining experience will be faster and cleaner, and you will get relevant information in a better way presented to you.
CZ: Anything new we can expect from OpenTable this year?
JE: We always work on new things. Mobile, data and platform integration are definitely hot subjects that we have been, and will be focused on.