Alexa's hospitality skill: Hotel concierge

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An Amazon Echo Dot branded for use in the Alexis Hotel in Seattle.
An Amazon Echo Dot branded for use in the Alexis Hotel in Seattle.

Are you looking for nightlife someplace you're visiting for the first time? Need a restaurant recommendation? Maybe you'd just like some relaxing music.

If so, your next visit to a hotel could involve a conversation with a machine rather than a call to the front desk or the concierge.

Generally speaking, the machine in question will be Amazon's digital personal assistant, the Echo, which users address as "Alexa." The Echo is beginning to appear in some hotel rooms as part of an experiment in which hoteliers are attempting both to improve the guest experience and to streamline operations by automating common questions and requests, such as dining recommendations.

Originally just a Bluetooth speaker with a built-in personal digital assistant, Amazon has upgraded and diversified its Echo family of artificial intelligence products in the past two years, first adding the hockey puck-size version called the Echo Dot, followed by the Echo Plus, which includes home-automation software; the Echo Show, which includes a video screen and can make phone calls; and the latest addition, the Echo Spot, a device with a smaller screen that is something of a smart alarm clock.

What each of these devices has in common is Alexa, the built-in smart digital assistant that can answer questions using internet databases as its information source.

"She" -- Alexa's default voice is female -- can also read books, play music on demand and engage in a great many other "skills" that users choose on the Alexa smartphone app.

While hotel experimentation with Alexa has been limited so far, hoteliers are reporting that guest feedback has been largely positive. Guests are using the devices as intended, and only a small number have asked for the device to be removed from their room outright.

Marriott International is among the hotel companies that are experimenting with Alexa and other types of digital personal assistants.

"We are working with partners like Amazon and others to develop a solution that can scale to our needs, including privacy, music and a seamless enterprise experience," a Marriott spokesperson said. "We have tested Amazon Alexa in-room at the W Austin, and the consumer feedback was overwhelmingly positive."

Through its innovation lab, Marriott is also exploring concepts to create an "Internet of Things hotel room" with multiple systems, devices and applications designed to improve hotel operations and serve guests.

Volara, a company that provides voice-based guest-engagement software for Echo devices, has built a business around providing custom solutions to the hospitality industry. As of November, it had helped 25 hotels around the country deploy Alexa devices in their rooms, working in collaboration with Amazon Web Services.

Volara CEO David Berger said the company itself is device-agnostic. While other companies have created smart speakers with similar digital assistants, such as Google Home, Amazon devices rule the market at the moment.

"Far and away today, the most suitable hardware for these deployments is the Echo or Echo Dot," he said. "Primarily because Amazon has led the way in developing a business platform."

Volara helps hotels get set up with the necessary hardware -- a smart device, like the Echo or Echo Dot -- and brand it to their property with skins that wrap around the devices. It also provides hotels with a robust back-end program to manage and customize how they work at a particular property.

Use cases vary based on the type of property, but Berger said both luxury and efficiency hotels have benefitted from the technology. Most guests now use the devices more for utility than discovery, primarily with requests for items and services. They are also increasingly using the devices for music (Volara has a partnership with iHeartRadio.) Staff can also use the devices to interact with each other. For example, a housekeeper might put in a work order to replace a light bulb.

The response from hotels and consumers has been "overwhelmingly positive," Berger said. On the consumer end, he pointed to around 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews mentioning Volara's solution. Hotels were initially attracted to the idea to differentiate their properties with new technology, but they are finding now that they also benefit from the data and efficiencies gained.

An Amazon Echo branded for the Westin Buffalo and its user's guide.
An Amazon Echo branded for the Westin Buffalo and its user's guide.

According to Volara, for every 1,000 occupied room nights, it is automating an average of 240 item/service requests and 700 guest questions about the hotel and surrounding area.

Jenn Gile, assistant general manager of the Alexis Hotel, a Kimpton property in Seattle, said Echo Dot devices have been deployed in the hotel's 121 rooms with the help of Volara. January will mark the program's one-year anniversary.

Gile particularly likes the ability to record custom messages for groups -- for instance, a bride and groom can record messages for their wedding guests staying at the hotel.

Right now, Gile said, the devices field around 20 to 30 requests per day, which helps eliminate some calls to the front desk. Guests are alerted to the devices when they check in, and an in-room piece of paper gives them prompts about what they can ask Alexa. The devices are in rooms in place of traditional compendiums.

Very few guests seem concerned about privacy issues, despite recent headlines about how Echo and Google Home devices record and keep almost all a user's communications -- any questions or commands prefixed with the triggering word (in the case of Echo, "Alexa").

Guests who want the devices removed from their rooms at the Alexis Hotel have been very few; since January, only two have made the request. "It's like a blip," Gile said. Guests are also informed that they can mute or unplug the device if they are uncomfortable about their words being recorded.

Berger said Volara advises hoteliers to do just what the Alexis Hotel does: Inform guests about how the device works, and let them know that it can be muted, unplugged or removed if they are uncomfortable.

"We are not capturing transcripts or recordings," he said. "And we don't know guests' identity," just their room number. Meanwhile, Amazon, which does capture recordings, once a person says "Alexa," to improve the devices' natural language processing capabilities, does not have access to the guest's identity or room number, ensuring that the information is anonymous.

Guest response has been similar at the Westin Buffalo, according to general manager Tom Long, whose hotel also partnered with Volara to deploy Echo devices.

"It certainly surprised me," Long said. "I thought there would be a little hesitation with it, but guests love it."

Best Western Hotels & Resorts is experimenting with Alexa devices in hotels with the assistance of Runtriz, a company Best Western had already been partnering with on a messaging program to help connect with guests before and during their stay.

Alexa seemed like a natural extension of that program, Best Western COO Ron Pohl said, and the devices have been tested in a few hotels over recent months to see how receptive guests are.

"It really provides some great customer service as well as efficiencies," he said, adding that it's the way many guests want to communicate today. So far, he said, no Best Western guests have opted out of using the devices.

Pohl said he thinks technologies like voice interaction with a device will become the norm going forward.

"I think it's going to continue to be more and more a part of our life and how we do business in the future," he said.

Long agreed.

"I just think it's inevitable that it's going to be integrated into this industry and into a lot of industries," he said. "It's exciting to be a part of it in this early stage."

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