Although many hotels were initially reluctant to adopt voice assistants in guests’ rooms, tech developers say more hospitality companies are coming around to so-called “virtual concierges.” One prominent example is Disney, which is rolling out “Hey Disney!” voice experience in partnership with Amazon in select hotel rooms.
In 2018 Marriott was one of the launch customers for Amazon's Alexa for Hospitality, but when asked about the current status of in-room voice devices, a company spokesperson says while it looked into the technology, "with the exception of a few properties acting on their own, we did not roll them out."
But since then, people have grown accustomed to speaking to voice assistants — such as Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant — in their homes and cars, says Tammy Estes, chief product officer at tech company Nomadix.
“We are very close to a tipping point where guests are going to start to come into a hotel room and say, ‘I want to turn my lights on via voice because that’s what I’ve been doing in my house for the last couple of years,’” Estes says. Her company makes Angie by Nomadix, a multilingual digital concierge that fulfills hotel guests’ requests and answers questions via voice and touchscreen.
Voice assistants help short-staffed hotels by answering routine questions that the front desk would otherwise have to answer: Where are the ice machines? What are pool hours? Can I set a wake-up call and have a late checkout?
The devices can also generate revenue by prompting guests to rebook the property, stay an extra night or book a spa service, for example.
Perhaps most importantly for guests, the devices used in hotels and short-term rentals are more secure than those used in people’s homes, developers say, with no voice recordings stored or apps to scroll through visitors’ questions.
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While not everyone is sold on the economics of voice assistants, their value may be enhanced as hospitality companies brace for anticipated staffing shortages.
“There are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of openings in the hospitality industry just here in the United States alone,” Estes says. “However, guests when they travel are still expecting the same level of customer service as they got when hotels were fully staffed.”
Tom Goodwin, CEO of cabin rental company Mountain Laurel Chalets in Gatlinburg, TN, installed 62 voice assistants in its homes on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The company hopes to add instructional videos and information to the devices regarding use of other in-home technologies, such as Wi-Fi access, smart TV remotes, Nespresso machines and Peloton stationary bikes, as well as concierge information for local events and activities.
“This was another way for us to personalize our hospitality brand and upscale our homes through technology,” Goodwin says.
Digital concierge for vacation rentals
When hotels first tried using voice assistants, the devices weren’t as user-friendly as they are today. “You needed to go through some hoops,” recalls Dana Young, CEO of Aipex Technologies.
Guests had to read a placard explaining the system. In order to access it, users needed to say, “Alexa, ask our hotel, what’s the Wi-Fi password?” or “Alexa, ask our hotel for information [about something].”
The voice assistant would respond, “Welcome to our property. We’re glad you’re here. How can we help?”
Today, Young says, “I walk into the room, I ask the question, I get the answer.”
Aipex created a guest portal that works with Alexa Smart Properties on Echo Show devices, and its customers are mainly property management companies for short-term rentals. So what’s the value proposition for the STR host? Young says it’s the curated content provided as a service to guests and enabling them to access information “in a quick and easy way without necessarily having to talk to a human.”
The STR host inputs the description of what they want to share on a given topic, whether it’s a Mexican food restaurant recommendation, where they store a spare propane tank for the grill or how to get more towels. The voice assistant covers approximately 850 different topics regarding the property and surrounding area.
The host inputs the primary data set, and Aipex backstops it with artificial intelligence-driven public information from the internet. If a guest asks a question the internet can’t answer, the hosts receive real-time notification.
Another factor that appeals to properties, Young says, is that the screen-based devices display digital signage to guests through image, voice and video.
For larger property management companies, Aipex partners with Xplorie, an activity provider to the vacation rental industry. The solution is branded as Xplorie SmartHost and is used by more than 7,000 property management companies, including the Mountain Laurel Chalets in Tennessee.
A "must have"? Some aren't sold
Robert Cole, senior research analyst for lodging and leisure travel at Phocuswright, points to several challenges facing hoteliers when it comes to in-room voice tech.
It’s difficult to plot a direct relationship between deploying voice technology and an associated nightly room-rate increase to justify the expenditure.
Robert Cole - Phocuswright
“It’s difficult to plot a direct relationship between deploying voice technology and an associated nightly room-rate increase to justify the expenditure,” Cole says, adding that cost and complexity increase with hundreds of thousands of rooms.
Even as voice assistants become more common, Cole sees problems for hotels and short-term rentals that expect guests to intuitively use and understand the devices. “Many hotels are still challenged with streamlining mobile app adoption and guest Wi-Fi access.”
Bottom line, Cole doesn’t see anything in the technology that advances it from “nice to have” to a “must have.”
“Adding cost and complexity that enhances TV remotes, light switches or curtain controls just isn’t it,” he says. “Neither is answering questions about a hotel or destination.”
Nomadix’s Estes concedes the COVID-19 pandemic set things back a couple of years.
“Voice in hospitality is still somewhat of an unfamiliar technology, and it’s new in the hospitality industry,” Estes says. “That leads to a lack of confidence that the investment will get a return. And while we have information on the return that they could look to get, [hotels] need to see other properties actually experiencing that return and that savings on their investment.”
The technology gets smarter every year, she says, noting that Angie by Nomadix now responds to numerous languages. Guests can interact with a microphone or touch screen.
“We’re guiding it to be smarter over time,” Estes says. “But I think in the future with the advances that are happening in AI … that is something that it could learn and optimize for on its own.”
Mike and Sandy Wieber, husband-and-wife owners of Bayfront Marin House, a boutique waterfront hotel in St. Augustine, FL, began using “electronic concierges” in 2018 to attract younger clientele. Sandy Wieber credits the technology with helping them to maintain occupancy at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
The Nomadix Angie device enables the Wiebers to integrate multiple properties while keeping each device associated with a particular room or cottage. That allows Angie to answer questions specific to the room, such as where to find bicycles or beach chairs. In addition to property-specific questions, guests ask Angie for restaurant suggestions and attraction addresses.
“From a guest’s perspective, it is just another convenience,” Wieber says. “Frankly, I think that they expect it more than they consciously appreciate it, because they rely on it at home.”