How Occasions Determine What Guests Want from a Restaurant

A couple of months ago, we met with Adrian* in Los Angeles. He is an easygoing tennis instructor who lives five blocks away from the beach with his dog. He is the life of the party and meets up with his friends on a weekly basis, hitting up the coolest and latest restaurants. On the East Coast we met with Jeff*, an executive working at a bank in Manhattan. He has the typical New Yorker vibe: talks fast, walks fast and, pressed for time, he usually eats lunch at his desk.

I can’t think of two more different people that we spoke to during a research interview. However, when it came to dining, they exhibited very similar behaviors. Putting in little to no planning for an everyday dinner, they looked for something close to home, affordable and easy. For special occasions, they both did a lot more research and were willing to spend more money.

Dining occasions drive unique behaviors around a restaurant meal. They give context to the goals and motivations of diners coming to your restaurant. These occasions drive what they’re looking for, why they’re looking for it and how they’re looking for it.

Last fall we embarked on a research project to understand in more detail who OpenTable consumers are, why they book on OpenTable, and what motivates them to eat at restaurants. The goal was to use our findings to help us better design our products on both the diner and restaurant side.

We found that diners’ behaviors and motivations kept changing depending on if they were dining out for a celebration, meeting up with friends, going on a date, or if they were just coming home from a day at work. That’s when we realized that there wasn’t one standard formula to discovering and going to restaurants. Diners’ behaviors and motivations changed depending on the dining occasion. In our analysis, while many dining occasions surfaced, we identified 5 main foundational dining occasions:

  1. Everyday Dining
  2. Business Meal
  3. Date Night
  4. Friends’ Get Together
  5. Special Occasion (celebrations)

Each occasion is very distinct; users have particular goals and criteria when looking for a restaurant. Here are the most important decision factors for each occasion:

  1. Everyday Dining: Convenience and price
  2. Business Meal: Close to the office and low noise level
  3. Date Night: Trying a new restaurant and/or new cuisine
  4. Friends’ Get-Together: Convenient location to all and fun ambiance
  5. Special Occasion: Food quality, service and ambiance

The two charts below show in more detail how occasions differ from each other.



We ran a survey on our website over the course of a week, and with more than 10,000 responses combined, we found out that 94% of the diners that come to our website have a specific occasion in mind.

The data further pointed us to the intensity of preparing for an occasion. Planning, searching and deciding where to go will be generally low for an Everyday Dining meal. It happens frequently, so diners are less inclined to be spending time and money to satisfy the functional need of hunger.

For a Special Occasion, which is relatively infrequent, the intensity will go up dramatically, because diners are willing to spend more money to experience the food, service and atmosphere. During our qualitative research, some of our participants talked about visiting the restaurant beforehand to make sure it was up to their standards.



So, I turn the question to you: Do you know what occasion your customers are coming to your restaurant for? How might you market or do things differently now that you know what your customers are looking for? And how may OpenTable help you along the way?

*Participant names have been changed for confidentiality

Research methodology: We recruited a total of 21 participants in 3 cities (New York, Los Angeles, Nashville) with various demographic (age, income, gender) and psychographic (attitudes, motivations, opinions) attributes.

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