What do restaurants, doctors, and salons have in common?

Booking sites have expanded from restaurants to hair salons and even medical appointments. What is the next step to help small business in Asia offer online bookings?
Written by Howard Lo, Contributor

"It's spelled H-O-W-A-R, no ma'am, it's not C-O-W, yes, last name Lo, what? Ho? No, Lo! Can you hear me? Hello? Hello?" Sadly this is an all-too-frequent occurrence when calling a restaurant and trying to reserve a table--made worse by Singapore's hodge-podge of languages and accents.

In the past yea, a flurry of online reservation sites, similar to OpenTable in the U.S., have been sprouting up in Singapore--Chope and TableDB being leaders of the pack. It will be interesting to see how they diversify themselves and compete--Chope with its large database of restaurants and market headstart, versus TableDB and its SingTel-backed monetary muscle.

To the end-user (i.e. the diner or consumer), it looks pretty transparent and friendly. They go to a Web site, find a restaurant they're interested in, select the time slot they want, and book it. Voila, no interacting with a human and a confirmation is e-mailed to them!

On the restaurant-side, it's not quite as smooth. While OpenTable provides an integrated table management system and automatically updates bookings made, it's still a manual process with Chope and TableDB. In other words, a staff member at the restaurant has to monitor an e-mail account for new bookings and then update their in-house system accordingly.

[UPDATE] Thanks to Arrif from Chope for contacting me.  They also offer a fully-integrated Table Management Solution on a subscription basis (similar to OpenTable) and a few of the big restaurants such as Jumbo, Prive, and Pollen are using it.

While this leaves a few gaps--resulting in reservations possibly being missed out--this provides a low barrier for restaurants to quickly offer online reservation capability to their diners. As long as the restaurant has an e-mail account which is checked regularly, their diners can book online. Anything that increases convenience for the customer is definitely worth doing.

Interestingly, booking engines are moving past the restaurant industry into other retail and consumer spaces. Portals for hair salons and even doctor appointments have sprung up. Quickhairclick.com launched a week ago, and www.doctorpage.sg also recently went live. Two things they have done right is to strike partnerships with hair salons and doctors prior to their launch so when potential clients come to the site, they have numerous choices available.

Contrast this to when restaurant booking systems launched with few restaurants signed up, which made for poor customer experience. Yelp, while not offering booking--at least not yet--did a similar great job of pre-populating their database with hundreds of reviews before going live, so instantly they became a useful tool.

Southeast Asia seems like a wide open opportunity for booking services. I imagine the difficulty isn't in building the technical infrastructure, but in having enough people on the ground going to each restaurant, salon, or clinic, and getting them signed up. I can't wait for the day when I can book everything online!

What do you think some of the pitfalls are or barriers to having this become widespread?

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