Freebookings Review: A First Look

People love the saying: “you get what you pay for.” With that logic, if you don’t pay anything, all the services you receive should be worthless. Freebookings, Livingbookings’ newest online restaurant reservation service, proves that some free things do have substantial value and performs better than like products of Openable and UrbanSpoon.

After months of mystery, Livebookings has just recently launched Freebookings. It is a pure “Freemium” service where there is no monthly subscription fee and no cover fee. As OpenTable has dominated the US online restaurant reservation market,  Livebookings is not well-known in the US. However, Livebookings provides restaurant reservations for thousands of restaurants in Europe and is well-regarded there. They aren’t new to the business, and this shows in the design of Freebooking. They just haven’t made much headway in the American market yet.

Freebookings may change that. Freebookings is easily the best “Freemium” service (although similar attempts like OpenTable Connect and Urbanspoon’s Rezbook Lite (old name was Rez) were not totally free and not technically “Freemium” software).

At this point, I cannot vouch for Freebookings’ reliability or support. Freebookings is not the first attempt in online restaurant marketing to provide basic services at low cost. A short history will be helpful so you can see the past strategy and why this is different. If you want to get to my conclusions right away, feel free to jump ahead and skip the history.

History

Opentable and Urbanspoon did something similar but they weren’t ever true “Freemium” services. Although there was no subscription fee, they charged cover fees unlike Freebookings. It’s hard to confirm if that still is the case. A lot of the information about these services, OpenTable Connect and Urbanspoon Rezbook Lite (which was once “Rez”), barely show up on their company’s respective websites.

At this point, OpenTable and Urbanspoon bury these similar services so that only someone familiar with the companies or the restaurant marketing industry know that they exist. By the looks of it, Connect and Rez Lite are being phased out. In stark contrast, along with a true Freemium service, Livebookings is doing something that no major online restaurant provider does (not OpenTable, not Urbanspoon, not Seamless, not Grubhub, etc.). They provide up-front pricing. Check it out. Restaurant owners respect this as they don’t have to go through a saleman to know what they are being offered and at what price.

One thing is the same. Livebookings, like OpenTable and Urbanspoon before, hopes that restaurant owners pay for upgrades (which aren’t unreasonably priced). They are a business after all.

Review

Over the last week, I had a chance to look over Freebookings. Freebookings is an online restaurant reservation system that works through a restaurants’ website and Facebook Page. You have to pay to get on any central directory. For Freebookings, there is no cover fee nor subscription fee. You don’t get a table management system. That comes with two paid Livebookings’ packages. You’ll see if you go to the website other differences.

The system is flexible. Freebookings works through your internet browser and you can manage Freebookings from a computer, a tablet (like iPad) or even a smartphone. These options are definitely convenient. Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the interface.

How to Use

Freebookings is very straightforward. It has all a restaurant needs to accomplish the basics of online restaurant reservation (and a little more). It is organized and uncluttered. There are four functions in Freebookings.

  1. Dashboard: Summary of Reservations
    After signing on, you initially arrive at the Dashboard. The Dashboard has a summary of reservations (for Yesterday, Today and the Next 7 days). This gives you quick information immediately so you know what to expect reservation-wise. (There is a news feed underneath where Livebookings gives you helpful advice and updates). They do have two good blogs that are worth checking up on.
  2. Reservation Information
    The next function is Reservations. It is broken down into three pages: Today (a list like format broken down by meals), the Week and the Month. You can see what’s coming before it arrives weeks in advance. This setup is easy to use, and your staff should have no problem with it. A quick runthrough will be enough. I am not sure if you can manually enter a reservation but I will get that information.

    Here is a little side note. If you have ever seen the Freebookings widget, it shows the customer immediately what is available reservation times rather than them having to enter a time and then see the available times. I like it this way as customers don’t think for a second they have a reservation time, but really don’t. The widget functions well but it is not perfect as I will discuss later on.

  3. Customer Database
    You do have a customer database. You can track customers (both the last visit and the number of visits) and acquire phone numbers for contacting them. There is a column for email addresses but a customer must opt-in to receiving info from your restaurant for Livebookings to provide this (that’s just the law). It is a good place to build a strong your email list.
  4. Settings
    Then, you have a Settings panel. There are three parts. You set up a profile with all the information about your restaurant (from address to phone number to website url to Twitter Handle). It gives you a couple features also to help customize the layout to your restaurant.

The next part is determining availability. You can put in if you are closed or open. You set which meals you are open for and when they start and end. You can manage the traffic too with three categories. You can limit the number of covers on a shift. You can set the max party size and also pace out the covers. It is a good simple system to adjust to the varying demand for reservation times.

Lastly, there is the booking tool. This is the code for your website and your Facebook Page. You will probably need some assistance for someone proficient in coding websites to integrate this in a visible and cosmetically attractive place. I wouldn’t do it yourself if you are unsure. I have a complaint with the booking tool. I like its functionality but only a few times in my life have a seen a font so hard on the eyes. I normally don’t even notice fonts but this is grotesque. I hope they fix this as it seems like the booking tool is from 2002, not 2012. You want customers to trust the booking tool and this has a small effect.

Features

It doesn’t leave out the basics. First, you get alerts in your email with each new reservation. Second, you customers gets confirmations after they place a reservation in their email. There is a cut-off time so you can assess your reservation situation before a shift. You can also print out the reservation list and keep track of which customers you seated at which tables. Freebookings system seems designed for easy and accurate management of reservations.

Freebookings in a Nutshell

Compared to OpenTable Connect and Urbanspoon’s Rezbook Lite, Freebookings is definitely better even without considering the cover fee. Both Connect and Rezbook Lite can be hassles and prone to mishaps if whoever is managing it isn’t especially vigilant. Thinking about it from Livebookings perspective, it may be too good actually. For restaurants that are tempted to upgrade, the Standard package is a big jump in price (or seems so). There is a $119 subscription fee, $1 covers from Livebookings websites (though no fee from restaurant websites), and a one time $199 Set-up and Training fee. Yes, you get much more, most importantly table management capabilities, an email marketing platform and analytics, but Freebooking is good, not so-so.

It is actually somewhat strange. Even though the cover from OpenTable costs more, restaurant owners are ready to open their wallets to get into OpenTable’s network because they realize the power of OpenTable’s website in reservations. Livebookings is unknown to American customers.

So Livebookings faces a pricing gap. I know it is a programmers nightmare, but putting individual prices on each of the major three upgrades (even higher ones cumulatively to offset the loses) would bridge the gap. Some restaurants already have email marketing platforms. Some restaurants don’t want table management (they aren’t big enough). I don’t see anyone not wanting analytics however.  I will try to get my hands on the full system and review it. If the email marketing platform is formidable (some studies show email marketing has a 40 to 1 return on investment), I may be saying the Standard plan is an improvement that you should consider even if you only have a limited interest in online restaurant reservation.

We have to see if you can manually enter reservation into Freebookings. If not, that is a major hassle and will involve a parallel system for phone calls.  Otherwise, Freebooking is for me the first step for restaurants getting into online reservations that don’t want to go full-tilt and aren’t losing a dramatic amount of business by not being on OpenTable (which is a neighborhood by neighborhood thing, but rarely does it matter much away from major metro areas). It may not match Urbanspoon’s Rezbook in  the ability to control complex functions simply. But it is pretty close on the basic online restaurant reservation side and you have to pay for Rezbook. The upgrade might be better for all I know.

For Freebookings, you do need a solid, customer-friendly website. But it’s almost 2012; you should have one by now. You should have someone that knows code and design so you aren’t gluing the widget on in a way that makes your website ugly. This also allows you to go with the full widget with the calendar, which is significantly superior in plain online marketing terms.  I am happy with Freebookings so far, and Livebookings seems like they are going to have a serious go at the American market. They do have the resources and give really helpful marketing advice to restaurants. I always wondered why OpenTable and Urbanspoon didn’t participate in providing helpful information. I don’t know the reliability and if there are any major bugs. But that will come to the surface soon. If you don’t see an update, you should probably assume it performed well in that regard.

I am excited about Freebookings…if only they would change the font to their calendar widget. Check out Manne’s comment below.

The Profile Page has changed slightly to show what categories are required (they are in red). Secondly, Freebookings does not have a special feature dedicated to manually entering phone reservations. There is a workaround that isn’t difficult.

First, of course confirm that there is space. Then from the Freebookings interface, you go to Settings, then click Booking Tool. In the Preview (the calendar), you can enter a reservation just as a customer would. Now you will have to produce an email address (use one of your own), but you can now enter the info and put them in your database.

If you do get the customers’ email (not advised) who makes a phone reservation, I recommend that you do not put them on your email list even if you want to. First of all, it is illegal if they don’t give permission. Even if you do get permission, verbal permission can easily be disputed or forgotten (as they made a phone reservation). Just write the info down and enter it later on.