How OpenTable’s Diner Data Can Help Restaurants Better Plan for the 2021 Holiday Season

As the holiday season approaches, it’s clear that once again things won’t be “back to normal” for the restaurant business. In some ways, things seem less predictable than ever with continued limited staffing, questions about booster shots, and worries over possible new variants hanging in the air. All that uncertainty can make planning for a restaurant a week ahead feel impossible, let alone planning for a month or two out.

Any kind of planning may be tricky right now, but numbers gleaned from OpenTable data shed light on how diners intend to celebrate the holidays this year, removing at least one layer of mystery. Here’s what the data reveals about what people are doing now and what they’re likely to do over the upcoming, all-important holiday season.

People are booking now for the 2021 holidays

There’s good news in the data. In Canada, booking trends for 2021 are similar to 2018 and 2019. And in the United States, people are making even more reservations for the holiday season this year compared to pre-pandemic. They’re eager to gather at their favorite restaurants, especially after what was a significantly scaled-back holiday season for most in 2020. In fact, they’ve started planning holiday celebrations earlier this year. As of October 12, diners had made more reservations for dates in December than they had in advance pre-pandemic.

These numbers reflect an increase in advance planning when compared to pre-pandemic. In the United States, data from 2021 shows a 44 percent increase in reservations made during the first half of October for December dates compared to 2018 and a 42 percent increase compared to 2019 for that same time period. It’s clear that pre-planning these special meals is a priority for some diners.

Restaurants, get your holiday menus live on your website and OpenTable profile, and open your books for reservations.

They’re making reservations across more dates

This year, rather than focusing on just those big holidays — Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve — diners are booking across the whole month of December. Diners have long shown enthusiasm for pre-planning the biggest holidays, the ones when restaurants typically see high demand for tables and reservations can vanish as the event approaches. In past years, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve were the most frequently reserved dates for those making bookings in October.

For 2021, the data shows a big spike in reservations every weekend in the month of December, suggesting that people may be trying to make up for the holiday get-togethers they missed in 2020. In fact, the most reservations have been booked for the weekend of December 3. People are eager to get into the holiday celebration mode.

What frequent (and new) diners are doing

Unsurprisingly, the people who tend to dine out most frequently also visit restaurants more often during the month of December. These frequent diners typically represent more than a third of the total available December reservations.

But a close look at the numbers reveals something a little different for the major winter holidays for restaurants, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. On those days, the ratio of frequent diners shifts down because this is when diners who visit restaurants just a few times of year make their reservations. It represents a rare opportunity to introduce these new diners to your restaurant and win them over as repeat guests throughout the year. It’s also a chance to capture revenue generated by diners who go out on special occasions only.

Restaurants, this is a great time to offer special season experiences for smaller groups, such as heated and cozy outdoor dining, warm drinks, or festive holiday menus.

They’re booking for smaller parties

Over the past 20 months, people have been urged to avoid large groups for pandemic safety. It may have become a habit to keep gatherings more intimate at this point. The data shows that the party sizes for December reservations booked in October are just a bit smaller than they were in 2019.

This year, the average party size for the first half of December is 3.5 people in the United States and 3.3 people in Canada. The data shows that Christmas Eve brings larger groups than the rest of the month. However, the 2019 data showed party size averages consistently above 4 for the entire Christmas week in both the US and Canada.

Restaurants, consider reconfiguring your private dining space to accommodate smaller parties and maximize the potential of that space.

Most diners aren’t making reservations yet

If the trends remain consistent with 2018 and 2019 numbers, reservations made so far for the holiday season will end up being a drop in the bucket of eventual December bookings. The majority of diners aren’t early planners who book two months in advance.

Pre-pandemic, holiday reservations made in October accounted for just 2 percent of December reservations. In 2018, 83 percent of December reservations were actually made in December, and in 2019, 85 percent of December reservations were made in December.

Restaurants, make as many tables as you can available for reservations because the majority of people searching for holiday bookings will be coming over the next several weeks.

This data can’t tell you everything about how the coming holiday season will go, but it can help take some of the guesswork out of predicting diner behavior. The next two months probably won’t be exactly like pre-pandemic times, but the data indicates the 2021 holidays will be, thankfully, more like 2019 than 2020. And you’ll be ready.