Valentine’s restaurant reservations top last year, signaling economic improvement

Online restaurant reservation company OpenTable has conducted a marketing campaign encouraging lovers to go out for dinner on Valentine's Day. Robust dinner reservations may be a sign the economy is improving. (Photo courtesy of Google images)

Related News: SF’s OpenTable revenue up as more diners make restaurant reservations online

Ah, Valentine’s Day – the holiday of love, chocolate, roses and teddy bears.

OpenTable, the San Francisco-based restaurant reservation company, is on a campaign to not-so-subtly remind you the holiday is also about eating out with your loved one. The company hopes that numerous and persistent marketing efforts, combined with a recovering economy, will make the holiday a success for restaurants, diners and OpenTable alike.

“Valentine’s Day has historically been a big day for us,” said OpenTable spokeswoman Tiffany Fox, who noted that Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve are also particularly active. According to a survey OpenTable conducted in January, 89 percent of respondents said they plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day at a restaurant this year. A similar survey conducted last year found that only 63 percent were planning to dine out for the holiday.

The survey results are promising not only for OpenTable, but as an indicator of the economy’s recovery. Of those who dined out last year, the majority plan to match or increase their 2010 dining tab.  Seventy percent expect to pay at least $100 for a romantic meal, 12 percent expect to pay $200.

Fueling spending, the timing of this year’s Valentine’s Day is especially fortuitous for restaurants. Because the actual holiday falls on a Monday, restaurants can expect higher traffic on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well.

“The entire weekend looks busier than usual for us,” said Kristine Gregory, dining room manager of Palo Alto restaurant MacArthur Park. Gregory said the restaurant expects to serve more diners on Valentine’s Day this year than last. “We did about 175 covers last year, and we’ll probably do about 200 this year,” she estimated. A cover refers to a meal. For example, a restaurant that has 30 seats and occupies each seat twice over the course of the night does 60 covers.

According to Fox, OpenTable started reaching out to its 20,000+ restaurants at the beginning of January, inviting them to send any prix-fixe menus or other specials they were planning for the holiday.

That information was compiled and displayed in a featured Valentine’s Day section of the OpenTable homepage, as well as included in numerous email marketing blasts the company started in early February. The company introduced a vanity URL,, as an easy shortcut for diners looking for a restaurant reservation on the big day.

OpenTable conducted a survey in January that revealed 89 percent of respondents will dine out on Valentine's Day. This compares to 63 percent last year.

Among the company’s most entertaining promotional moves: OpenTable sponsored a “Pimp my Valentine’s Day” giveaway in conjunction with, a limousine reservation website. To enter, contestants posted a photo of themselves in or with a limo to the OpenTable Flickr account. (“Dig through your favorite prom, wedding, and night-on-the-town pictures!” the contest’s description said.)

Last week, OpenTable selected four winners to receive a free limo ride and a $200 gift card for dinner.  Although this is the second year the company has done a contest with, this is the first time they used the photo submission method.

“Last year we asked our contestants to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the chance to be selected, but we decided to be a little more fun this year,” said Fox, who added that the company received nearly 800 submissions for the contest.

Besides social media, results may also be due to the dollars OpenTable is spending on getting its message out. According to the company’s most recent financial statement, OpenTable nearly doubled its sales and marketing expenses in the fourth quarter of 2010 to $6.7 million from $3.8 for the same period last year. In 2010, the company spent $21.7 million on sales and marketing compared to $15.5 million in 2009.

Whether from their marketing efforts or year-round consistent growth, OpenTable is making a noticeable mark at local restaurants. At MacArthur Park participated in OpenTable’s marketing initiative, and Gregory said they are on track to get 60 percent of their Valentine’s Day reservations from online bookers.

Even restaurants that were not promoted through OpenTable have seen a boost. “Last year, about 5 percent of our Valentine’s Day reservations were booked from OpenTable,” said Chelsea Alton, the manager of Il Fornaio in Palo Alto. “But this year, we already have about 30 percent of reservations coming from online.”

Still haven’t booked your own Valentine’s Day reservations? You’re not alone, OpenTable says. Survey results indicate nearly 19 percent of diners were waiting to book until the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.  “Last year our mobile bookings nearly tripled on Feb. 13 – the day before Valentine’s Day,” Fox said.

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