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