Do you hear an Echo? Amazon rolling out Alexa for Hospitality

A traveler interacting with an Echo Dot on a table.

"Alexa, order wine." 

"Alexa, I need towels." 

"Alexa, call the front desk."

Those are just three of many requests hotel guests will be able to make via Amazon's Echo, a device with a digital assistant called "Alexa," if they are staying at a property that signs up for Amazon's Alexa for Hospitality program, announced last week.

The program, which places Echo devices in guestrooms, is available to hospitality providers by invitation, but Amazon has also unveiled an early partnership with Marriott International. The experience will be available at select properties at a handful of Marriott brands this summer.

Hospitality providers can customize a number of features on the devices based on guests' needs, ranging from where things are located to requests for services like housekeeping and controlling other in-room devices. Later this year, guests will also be able to temporarily connect their Amazon account to the hotel's Echo, so they can access personal music and audiobooks.

Alexa for Hospitality is designed to work with existing hotel technologies, and it uses features developed by companies such as DigiValet, Intelity, Nuvola and Volara to enable guests to make requests that are then routed into property management systems. Some hotels already have Echo devices in rooms in partnership with third-party providers, but this is Amazon's first official foray into the space.

"I think it's a really significant inflection point for voice in hospitality," said David Berger, CEO of Volara, a company that provides voice-based guest-engagement software for Echo devices.

Liron Torres, Amazon's senior manager of Alexa, said the company started integrating Alexa services into hotel rooms in 2016. Guest feedback was solid, so introducing Alexa for Hospitality was "a natural next step."

Alexa for Hospitality isn't exactly the foray into travel that analysts were expecting from Amazon, but it could pave the way for more interesting uses of the devices, such as giving guests the ability to book tours and activities, according to Lorraine Sileo, senior vice president of research and business operations at Phocuswright.

"We've been expecting them to do something in the hotel space in terms of distribution," Sileo said. "They've tried a couple things. They've tried to enter the hotel distribution marketplace, but they've pulled back."

In 2015, for example, Amazon enabled customers to book hotel rooms on its Destinations site, but it has since pivoted away from that offering.

"But I think it was also expected that they would make an announcement in travel with voice, because we know that this is an interesting guest technology, and there are a lot of other suppliers out there," Sileo said. "So we think it makes sense that Amazon wants to get a foothold and build these relationships with some of the chains."

It also opens the possibility of offering things like activities via Echo devices. Sileo said the activities marketplace is valued at more than $150 billion, a "huge opportunity" for Amazon, albeit one in a competitive space. 

Placing an Echo device in a hotel room might leave some guests with concerns about privacy. A recent online study conducted by the digital agency Blue Fountain Media found that 90% of respondents had concerns about their online privacy, and 5% had actually gotten rid of their Echo device for security reasons.

Amazon said it has taken measures to ensure hotel guests' data is safe. For example, recordings of commands are deleted daily. Even so, security experts still have concerns.

Ian Thornton-Trump, chief technology officer of security services firm Octopi Managed Services, called the introduction of Alexa for Hospitality "both a blessing and a curse."

The blessing? Using an Echo to order food, find after-hours entertainment or play your own music in a hotel room is "really cool," he said.

"But, it could be horrible," he warned. "It could leak private information. It could be used to spy, it could be abused. With cyber security, there are always two sides to the coin."

While many guests might be comfortable with the device in their room, Thornton-Trump said he would likely unplug it.

"Folks should always have a choice before welcoming a digital assistant into your residence, even if that residence is a hotel room," he said.

Berger, the CEO of Volara, said he believes that in the next three to five years, just about every hotel brand will want to use voice technology as part of its guest experience. The technology will, in turn, help hotels meet business objectives.

"All voice is a means of communication," he said. "It's an ancient means. We now have new tools that allow us to manage voice in a scalable way. That alone doesn't achieve business objectives. What achieves business objectives is when you use that means of communication in certain ways to drive people toward certain activities, to serve them with a more limited resource but at the same high standard."

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