Without Reservation

Since the pandemic began, I’ve taken to walking up and down a nearby hill every lunchtime. Every day, I pass the Burns Monument, a Neo-Greek temple commemorating Robert Burns. Normally it’s closed to visitors, but during the Edinburgh Art Festival this month you can visit a sound installation by Emeka Ogboh.

Visiting is free, but I was surprised to discover that advance booking was advised. Then again, everything seems to require booking nowadays. It’s especially intense right now due to the pandemic reducing the capacity of, well, everything, but the growth in reservations began long before 2020. Reservations are accepted, and often now required, at museums, restaurants, bars, galleries, and even parks.

Since I like planning, I welcomed this development. I find it satisfying to put together itineraries for days out and holidays, and since most reservations can be made online, it goes hand-in-hand with the increased availability of transit schedule information on the web and Google Maps. No more crossing my fingers that a restaurant won’t be too busy or we can get into a popular exhibition – everything can be secured well in advance.

So you’d think the more things that can be reserved, the better for planners like me. That’s what I thought, until I went to Disneyworld a few years ago – a place where demand management has become such a well-honed science it makes even the most hardened planners blanch with fear.

Disneyworld is so busy that until very recently (more on that later) if you wanted to avoid queuing for hours at even moderately popular rides and restaurants, you had to make reservations months in advance. You couldn’t make all your bookings in one go, either; I had to repeatedly check back in case more convenient slots opened up. 

Once you’re in the park, you can’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour as you get extra FastPass reservations every day, best spent strategically on popular rides to fill gaps between more valuable reservations made earlier. The problem is that since the popularity of rides changes in real time, if you want to be really efficient (and hey, I’m a planner), you’ll want to refresh the Disneyworld app a few times an hour. 

(You might wonder why I care about seeing everything so much. It’s partly because I’ve done consulting work for Disney Imagineering in the past, and so I was professionally interested to know what was going on in the parks; but mostly, I find these kinds of ultra-designed immersive themed environments to be endlessly fascinating. Also, hey, Disneyworld is expensive and I wanted to get my money’s-worth!)

On our trip a few years ago, we went on practically every single ride and the longest we waited was 40 minutes (Frozen). Mission accomplished – but at what cost? It was a surprising amount of work for what was meant to be a fun holiday. I suppose I could have not bothered making any reservations at all, but then we would likely have seen barely a third of the things we would have otherwise, and the rest of the time would’ve been in queues. So there wasn’t a great alternative.

The rest of the world is rapidly following Disney’s lead. Whether it’s the Avatar ride in Animal Kingdom or a fancy restaurant in Edinburgh, the goal is to fill every single seat for every single hour, as far as possible in advance, with reservations going to the most valuable (i.e. big spending or committed) customers.

So nowadays, a trip to London or even a weekend at home requires reservations days and weeks ahead. There’s the nagging feeling you’re always being rushed. Are we going to the coolest places? Did we plan too many events, or too few? We’re always checking our watches to know when we’ll need to leave for the next place.

Is this what our leisure time in cities has become? And how much worse could it get?

There’s a view that someone is a planner because of their personality. That’s kind of true, but I prefer to see planning less of a character trait and more of an act, and the act of planning requires resources:

  • Time and energy, to research options and make reservations – a sometimes frustrating process involving poorly-designed websites and long phone calls.
  • Knowledge and experience, to know that reservations are even possible and understand which things need to be reserved and when.
  • Freedom and security, to know your work and holiday and family schedule and budget securely enough to book time weeks or months in advance. The bigger the group, the harder to organise in advance.
  • Money, for deposits or full-price tickets.

Planning is an inherently privileged activity. Even if you love planning, you’re going to be stymied if you don’t have these resources. Planning is also paradoxically risky for people in precarious situations since it requires you to commit to a future course of action, one that could come with financial penalties if you have to change your mind; but also, penalties if you don’t plan, in the form of fewer options and higher prices. Yet if you’re wealthy, those penalties are a trivial price to pay, and you can even outsource the entire job to a vacation planner.

A lot of people are in the middle – not so precarious they can’t plan a holiday six months in advance, but not so rich that easily write off the loss of all their deposits if their circumstances change. So you exist in this in-between world where you’re constantly trying to decide how far ahead it’s worth planning.

On the face of it, businesses ought to benefit the most from reservations. Reservations allow them to maximise profits by charging more at peak hours and offering discounts to fill quieter periods. Confirmation emails and paid deposits also reduce the chance of no-shows. Finally, the ability to predict demand means businesses can scale staffing accordingly, though it’s easy for this to result in poor working conditions.

But I don’t get the impression that after a restaurant switches on reservations, it immediately rakes in the cash through increased efficiencies. Rather, I suspect the gains are largely realised by companies selling reservation software rather than the restaurants themselves. The software usually costs a few hundred dollars a month, and platforms like OpenTable can charge a dollar per customer (i.e. per seat) for certain bookings, which is a lot given the razor-thin margins of most restaurants.

Restaurants could always roll their own reservation systems and try to avoid the charges, but there are a couple of reasons why they don’t. Firstly, good software is very expensive to develop and maintain – well beyond the abilities of most small businesses, or even a small chain of business. Taking payments and integrating with Apple and Google Pay is no simple task, especially when the rules keep changing.

Secondly, the most popular reservation systems like OpenTable and Resy have grown beyond simply selling software for restaurants to use on their own websites into destinations in their own rights where people discover restaurants as well as booking them. In other words, when people think “I want to go to an Italian restaurant tonight”, they don’t go to the website of a restaurant they saw in the local paper, they just visit OpenTable and click on “Italian”. Booking platforms offer something that simple software doesn’t – the ability to reach a wider audience.

The shift of OpenTable into a platform has seen it sell marketing opportunities to restaurants like bonus points promotions (from $4/cover) and boost campaigns ($3-5/cover) that increase their visibility to customers. This is happening on a broader scale with Google Maps and Tripadvisor, both of which encourage visitors to make reservations directly (i.e. without going to the restaurant website, or even OpenTable/Resy). And those platforms also sell marketing opportunities for businesses to promote themselves.

So it isn’t clear that businesses, especially small ones, are adopting reservations because it’s profitable or empowering. Instead, it may be something they’re forced to do because these platforms have become the new mode of discovery, and not offering one-click reservations harms them versus the competition. And the simple availability of reservations contributes into the pressure for customers to make reservations.

Who’s profiting? The small businesses? Maybe.

The customers? Maybe.

The platforms? Definitely.

The end result of this movement is that our access to real world experiences is experiencing a kind of digital enclosure. The experiences are still there, but increasingly the way in which you discover and access them is through just a few giant companies. That said, our access was never quite free before – it was just gated in different ways, sometimes more explicitly by class or race.

Is there a way out? Well, you could opt-out of real world experiences entirely and just do everything at home, with all your entertaining delivered to you on-demand (and your food and drink, why not). A lot of people already do this, whether by choice or by force of circumstance. The problem is that home entertainment and food delivery are even more digitally-mediated than real world experiences, with entire forms of media dominated by a handful of conglomerates. So while you don’t have to do much planning at home, your options are being constrained in different, albeit more subtle, ways.

Assuming you still want to go outside, you could stop going to popular places: if you go to an average restaurant or bar or museum rather than the highest-rated on Google Maps or Tripadvisor, you probably won’t need to book ahead. This would freeing in some ways, but it’d sharply limit your experience of the world – not everything popular is good, but a lot of good stuff is popular. Sure, some people could manage this, but there are plenty of forces pushing you towards places requiring reservations:

  • Ranking systems and algorithms mean that average places are increasingly invisible in maps and lists, a phenomenon exacerbated by social media.
  • The discovery of real world experiences is increasingly happening through sites that promote and earn money from reservations (including Facebook).
  • If your job doesn’t give you much holiday, no wonder you’ll want to secure the “best” experiences for the little time you have; Disneyworld made a lot more sense to me when I realised Americans have no holiday.
  • At least some of your friends and family will still like going to popular places.

So there isn’t much you can do as an individual. What can we do as a society?

We could build more stuff! More restaurants, more bars, more attractions, more museums, increasing overall capacity. This might mean less profit for owners, of course, which is a real problem given we live in a capitalist economy. Another problem? It costs a lot of money to build physical experiences, so either you need to raise lots of money somehow (usually from investors who want profits) or reduce costs (possible, but really hard for cultural, technological, and political reasons).

We could also try reducing the gap in popularity between physical experiences, to spread demand more evenly. That would probably require greater redistribution of profits to prevent concentration of market power, and changes to how places are discovered, algorithmically or otherwise.

Reservations are, of course, a hidden way to increase prices, since you can often pay to skip the queue. Usually this is artfully hidden to prevent normal customers from becoming too annoyed (e.g. separate or hidden VIP lines at theme parks), but not so hidden that customers don’t realise the benefits of paying more. 

You can tell how desperate a business is for cash by how obvious the “skip the queue” option is. Museums, usually quite coy about how their members can walk into booked-out exhibitions ahead of the general public, have lately been aggressively promoting memberships everywhere. But the best barometer has been Disney’s theme parks, which exist at the leading edge of technology, customer experience, and capitalism.

Historically, Disney has offered plenty of ways to skip queues and reserve attractions more easily. For example:

  • Full-price theme park tickets could reserve rides further in advance than other ticket holders
  • People staying at pricy resort hotels could get into the parks earlier than everyone else and stay later
  • VIP guides, costing thousands of dollars a day, allowed groups to skip most lines

Still, Disney tried not to draw too much attention to these techniques (especially the VIP guides) and even the cheapest tickets still had some access to the same FastPass lines as higher-spending visitors.

One result of this complicated arrangement was that a lot of people (including me) felt they had to spend a lot of time making reservations weeks or months in advance, a ritual that spawned a mini-industry of planning websites and guides. When some of my friends heard about this gauntlet, they were put off visiting Disney entirely.

I saw Disney’s first moves in solving this problem when I visited Disneyland Shanghai in 2018. Unlike other parks, no advance ride booking was possible, and visitors only got a meagre one or two FastPasses per day. If you wanted more, you could buy “Premier Access” FastPasses to skip the line, either for a bundle a rides, or for individual rides. During my visit, the bundle had already sold out by the time I made it into the park, so we had to buy Premier Access Fastpasses for individual rides at about $15 each – not cheap at all for China.

The lack of advance booking meant I was spared the distraction and stress of planning before our visit, which in any case was a last-minute decision (so, in a way, I was advantaged). That stress would have manifested inside the park if it weren’t for the fact that I was willing to spend more money to make it go away, not to mention that I knew how to make the app work. The inequity of paying to jump the queue was not lost on other visitors; I can’t speak a word of Mandarin but I can tell when someone is deeply unhappy seeing rich people waltz past the scary uniformed security guards posted at every FastPass entrance.

This year, Disneyland Paris introduced Premier Access at a cost of €8-15 per ride each time, swiftly followed by huge changes at Disneyworld and Disneyland involving a new “Disney Genie” app. This app sells access to a new Genie+ option costing $15-20 per day that lets you skip the line on rides a few times a day, something you used to get for free via FastPasses. But if you want to skip the line on the most popular rides, you’ll have to pay again, for some undisclosed price – I’m guessing another $15-30 per ride.

As in Shanghai, I don’t think you can reserve rides weeks in advance any more. In fact, you can only really reserve rides when you arrive at the park (or at 7am, if you’re staying in a hotel resort). This is in keeping with another newish demand management idea from Disney called virtual queues, which lets you wait in line for super-popular rides without having to physically stand in line (so you can go on other rides and buy more stuff); crucially, you can only join a virtual queue when you are inside the park. But again, this just shifts the stress of planning from the weeks before park entry to the moment after, whereupon visitors desperately hammer their Disney apps for five minutes to enrol in all the virtual queues they can, and soon, book all their Genie+ reservations.

What of the visitors who can’t afford Genie+? The Disney Genie app is the final piece in this puzzle – it creates personalised itineraries that respond to real-time demand, perhaps suggesting nearby rides with shorter queues. This is… good, I guess? It could level the playing field between app-savvy ultra-planners and more casual visitors, at least.

Disney has described this whole Premier Access/Genie venture as a way to “distribute demand much more effectively through [our] ecosystem.” Ecosystem is an interesting way to put it. I suppose since they own the entire park, they can call it whatever they want, and given the parks’ popularity it’s understandable and arguably necessary that they do something like this.

Where I get uncomfortable is when that ecosystem expands beyond the walls of a private theme park and encompasses entire cities and countries, as the tech giants would surely like to do. When companies like Google and Apple and Tripadvisor seek to own the entire “stack” of discovering, booking, and paying for real world experiences, it’s a short leap for them to create their own Genie that plans everything for you.

Unlike Disney’s Genie, which will only know what you tell it, these tech giant Genies already know what food you like and what brands you buy. They already know how busy a location is and how long it’ll take you to walk there. They’ll construct an itinerary for you, taking bids from businesses for your custom, just as they do online. You won’t even know what you’re missing, because their Genies will gently steer you away from places that you can’t afford. Of course, if you can afford it, you’ll always be able to skip the queue and reveal more options.

All of us will finally be able to explore the world without a care, guided not by own our whims but by algorithms claiming to work on our behalf. Not flaneurs, but fauxneurs.

Follow me on Twitter: @adrianhon 

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