Executive Conversations: Building Resiliency with Debby Soo, CEO, OpenTable
Debby Soo, CEO of OpenTable, joins David Solomito, Head of Global Marketing, Travel and Hospitality for Amazon Web Services (AWS), for a broad-ranging discussion about the recent disruption faced by travel and hospitality companies – and her company’s response to that disruption. OpenTable, part of Booking Holdings Inc., is the world’s leading provider of online restaurant reservations, helping diners discover and book the perfect table and restaurants deliver personalized hospitality to keep guests coming back.
This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders, where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity, and capacity for innovation. The series follows the publication of the AWS Travel and Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run.” Filled with strategic observations, hints, and tips, the E-book provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, potentially serving as a useful resource as travel and hospitality companies address both current challenges and those yet to come.
David Solomito: Many companies across travel and hospitality have been managing through a period of unprecedented disruption. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during this recent period and how have you managed through them?
Debby Soo: COVID-19 has impacted the restaurant industry like no other event in modern history with seated diners down nearly negative 100% globally from March to mid-May. As restaurants started to reopen worldwide, they were faced with unprecedented challenges from redesigning floor plans to abide by social distancing guidelines to managing capacity limits and, for some, taking reservations for the first time. Even now as some countries have started to recover and restaurants have shifted to opening for outdoor dining or contemplate ways to safely operate indoors, OpenTable is still seeing dining down more than 25%, globally.
We are now six months into a global pandemic and restaurants continue to face enormous challenges. Every day, OpenTable is working to react to the needs we’re hearing on the ground from our restaurant partners while keeping our eye on the ball of long-term priorities that our partners will want and need on the other side of the pandemic. Adaptability and communication will continue to play a critical role in our path forward.
David: As we all prepare for the next phase of traveler or guest demand, what are some of the changes your company has taken (or plans on taking) to adjust to the current operating environment?
Debby: Recognizing the struggle for the restaurant industry is far from over, we recently extended our Open Door Pricing through March 2021 which waives our subscription and cover fees to help restaurants reopen.
We moved extremely quickly to adjust to the current operating environment in support of our partners. In March, we published our state of the industry data to show how devastating COVID-19 has been for the industry and have been updating it daily, which has helped the restaurant associations work with their local city councils to try and lobby for concessions, using permits, etc. It has also helped shine a spotlight on the devastation in the industry for diners because they didn’t realize the thin margins restaurants run on.
Our product team also moved quickly – launching eight products and even more resources in just six months in direct response to COVID-19 – to create a quick and easy way for restaurants to efficiently track their costs and revenue to make it easier to manage finances during these times. In addition, we:
- Waived gift card fees
- Pushed our delivery/takeout features
- Added donate buttons for restaurants who have fundraising pages
- Launched a webinar series to bring together members of the industry to discuss how they are navigating the post COVID-19 world
- Created a resource center so other restaurateurs could see what others are doing in the industry and apply it to their business
David: In the face of the current disruption to the travel and hospitality industry, we’ve observed incredible innovations coming from across the industry. How has your company innovated through these challenging times and what are you most proud of?
Debby: I am most proud of the work the team has done to support our restaurants and the speed in which they moved to react. For weeks our teams were working around the clock and in the trenches with our partners to close their books, pilot new features to help them navigate the unknown, encourage delivery and takeout, and more. As the industry continues to adapt, we are innovating our product to anticipate their needs. Finally, to help kickstart local travel, we have offered local destination marketing organizations (DMOs) free promotional space on our platform to allow for direct communication of existing offers in a destination.
David: The travel and hospitality industry is incredibly resilient. As you look toward recovery, what role does technology play for your company moving forward? How do you see technology enhancing the customer experience and improving operational efficiency?
Debby: Reservations have never been more important. Venues that have never had to take reservations before are looking for ways to manage capacity limits. Technology will continue to play an important role in helping restaurants and diners navigate the new norms of dining out – whether managing reservations, capacity and floor plans, or facilitating more digital services, such as takeout and delivery.
David: There’s much talk at the moment about how the travel and hospitality experience has changed and there will be a “new normal” going forward. What does this “new normal” look like to you and how do you think the dining experience will look three years from now?
Debby Dining out will not go back to normal until we have a vaccine. In a post COVID-19 world, consumers and businesses are much more likely to adopt online or digital services now. We anticipate 25% of restaurants to not survive post-pandemic. With favorite and neighborhood restaurants whittled down and capacity within them limited, reservations will be a necessity.
David: What makes you excited for the future of travel and hospitality? As a traveler or guest, where are you looking forward to visiting next?
Debby: COVID-19 has spurred a transformative moment for the hospitality industry. The innovation and resilience we have seen from our restaurant partners gives us confidence and renewed hope that the industry will emerge stronger empowered by new tools. I’m extremely proud of OpenTable’s role in quickly creating revenue generating tools that enable restaurants to safely forge toward a better tomorrow.
I’m currently based in New Hampshire (we’ve been out here since March) and I’m so looking forward to going back home to the Bay Area and eating at Foreign Cinema in San Francisco.
Learn more about the new Travel and Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run.”
See more Executive Conversations and industry insights on the AWS Travel and Hospitality Blog.
Debby Soo is the CEO of OpenTable, bringing expertise in product-first commercialization, strategic partnerships and international growth. She has spent the past ten years building KAYAK’s travel commercial team, establishing the APAC business, and then overseeing global business development for both KAYAK and OpenTable. In addition to managing the company’s revenue-generating activities and relationships with airlines, hotels and car renters, Debby has worked in various roles across business development and product marketing, including launching KAYAK Brazil and KAYAK Canada, running KAYAK’s affiliate marketing program, and mobile marketing activities. Debby is a graduate of Stanford University and has an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.