Insights from the National Restaurant Association Show and Utility

Busy OpenTable booth at a conference

Last week, the culinary world came together in Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show and Utility. Industry leaders, innovators, and passionate restaurateurs gathered to explore the latest trends and tech shaping the future of dining.

Our OpenTable team was right in the mix! We connected with restaurant friends, soaked up insights, and empowered our partners for success. At the National Restaurant Association Show, our restaurant experts hosted engaging product demos and our on-site illustrator delighted guests with custom illustrations of their favorite restaurants. Over at Utility, our lounge was buzzing with folks chatting and getting flash tattoos from Great Lakes Tattoo.

From thought-provoking sessions to a high-energy pitch competition, there was a lot to take in at both events. Here are four key takeaways to think about as you plan for the rest of the year.

AI is more than a trend

When you hear about AI in restaurants, the first thing that probably pops into your head is a futuristic kitchen run by robots. While that’s not just science fiction anymore (there are real-life restaurants with robot chefs!), it’s not the only way AI is shaking up the dining scene.

Today, even restaurant tech novices can tap into AI to streamline operations and enhance the guest experience. Earlier this year, OpenTable introduced the ability to respond to reviews quickly with a new generative AI tool. Assisted review responses allow you to generate personalized responses to diner reviews at the click of a button, saving you time while still providing a personal touch. Additionally, we’re helping you answer more calls and automate bookings by teaming up with partners like PolyAI, which provides customizable voice assistants. 

“For restaurants, we see AI as a powerful tool to help save time so they can focus on things like providing amazing hospitality,” OpenTable CEO Debby Soo recently told Barron’s.

Efficiency is top of mind

Man gives a product demo at a conference
The OpenTable team speaks with restaurateurs at the National Restaurant Association Show.

Running a restaurant is all about efficiency—every second saved means more time to deliver top-notch hospitality. And with the ongoing labor shortage in the industry, it’s more important than ever to streamline operations and ease the strain on staff. Over half (55%) of restaurant operators are investing in tech to boost productivity and efficiency, according to the 2024 State of the Restaurant Industry report. From automated order systems to smart packaging options, the show was packed with innovations to help restaurants do more with less.

OpenTable is your go-to solution for achieving this efficiency. Our platform integrates with your entire tech stack, saving you time and effort. Plus, features like Smart Assign automatically optimize table assignments, so you can focus on providing the best dining experience.

Balance high-tech with high-touch hospitality

Tech isn’t just a nice to have—it’s a game-changer. According to the 2024 State of the Restaurant Industry report, 76% of operators are banking on technology to give them that competitive edge. That’s why it was no surprise that the hottest tech took center stage at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show. From cutting-edge POS systems to AI-driven analytics, the expo showcased tech solutions geared towards helping restaurants run smoother shifts, delight guests, and boost profits.

Still, striking a balance between high-tech innovations and the timeless art of hospitality is crucial to success. President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association Michelle Korsmo reminded everyone that people are what make the restaurant experience so special for guests. She urged restaurateurs to blend high tech with high touch. 

Be a changemaker in your community

People speak on stage during a panel
The panel discussion curated by Southern Smoke Foundation at the Utility Show.

Restaurants have a huge impact beyond serving delicious food—they can be agents of change in their communities. Chef and restaurateur José Andrés delivered an inspiring keynote about restaurants’ role as beacons of hope and catalysts for social good. He spoke passionately about World Central Kitchen, his nonprofit that provides food relief in response to crises, encouraging operators to use their influence to support meaningful causes. It was a wonderful reminder that everyone can make a difference.

At Utility, the focus was on creating change within the restaurant community. On day one, the Independent Restaurant Coalition curated a panel on an equitable and sustainable industry. The following day, Southern Smoke Foundation hosted a mental health and wellness panel, underscoring the importance of investing in your team and providing a supportive environment. OpenTable is proud to support these organizations and others like Ben’s Friends, which are vital in providing assistance and advocacy for those in need.

“The industry as a whole is taking a more holistic approach to everything they’re doing. For the hospitality industry, it’s ironic to me that we’ve not exhibited that much hospitality to ourselves, and it’s really nice to see that paradigm shifting,” said Paul Pruitt, founder of New School, an LA-based boutique hospitality agency.

From the rise of AI to the quest for efficiency, one thing was crystal clear last week: the restaurant industry is evolving, and fast. But amidst the buzz of technology and innovation, what truly makes dining memorable is the human touch. As we harness the power of tech to streamline operations, we can’t lose sight of the importance of hospitality and community.