I had a family commitment that prevented me from attending this event, I really do wish I could have made it.
Just a few years ago it was that the Palo Alto Daily News was the best source for reviews on local (and regional for that matter) restaurants and attractions. They approached it like all newspapers do, send out a reviewer and write a review, many of which were out-of-date and in some cases just inaccurate. But for lack of an alternative this worked. Then came along Citysearch and OpenTable which offered not just reviews but also interactive features that made the services much more attractive.
The latest in this trend is Backfence, a community generated news site. I was talking with one of the owners of a restaurant in Palo Alto that has become a favorite of mine, Mantra, and he made two interesting comments about these online services. The first being that Citysearch is always a top sponsored link in search sites when you search for a restaurant and that ends up driving a lot of traffic to their restaurant reviews. Secondly, when I asked him about the economics of OpenTable he said that even though he pays them $1 per reservation for those made through their network, and some percentage of that for call-ins (OpenTable owns the reservation computer in their member restaurants), the service is invaluable because of how many reservations they drive. It’s true, I make almost all of my reservations in OpenTable.
What Citysearch, OpenTable, and now Backfence are doing is investing in community news and user created content while at the same time local newspapers are cutting back on services and continuing to ignore the very features that make the other sites attractive. In the case of OpenTable they are also controlling a transaction and that puts them in a powerful position in the value chain.
By the way, definitely have lunch or dinner at Mantra the next time the occasion presents itself, it’s a really elegant restaurant with some solid people behind it and most importantly, fantastic food.
UPDATE: Julia points to Yelp, which from first impressions appears to be well designed and content rich.