Amazon's Alexa can be an unwelcome hotel roommate

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The Amazon Echo on a hotel nightstand.
The Amazon Echo on a hotel nightstand.

LOS ANGELES -- Maybe this won't surprise anyone, but it turns out that some hotel guests are not happy about having listening devices in their rooms, even if the device in question is there to help them.

With privacy breaches related to Amazon's Echo and other smart devices making headlines over the past year, the hotel sector's hype about voice-activated virtual assistants might be starting to cool.

At the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) here earlier this year, Best Western Hotels & Resorts president and CEO David Kong told attendees that a pilot program introducing Amazon's Echo device and its virtual assistant, Alexa, into Best Western rooms "did not go well." 

"We [tested] Alexa as a means for guest requests," Kong told the ALIS audience during an executive panel. "If someone wants an extra towel or to say a light isn't working, they can use Alexa to communicate with us. But what we found out was when most people got into their hotel room, they disconnected it, presumably because they didn't want Alexa listening to them in the room. We didn't see any lift in satisfaction scores, and the usage was minimal."

Kong added that he also received complaints about Alexa activating unprompted in the middle of the night and waking guests.

When asked by a panel moderator if he would unplug a voice-activated virtual assistant device in his own hotel room, Kong said he would. 

Best Western was among the very first players in the hospitality space to experiment with voice-activated virtual assistants, launching its test run in 2017, concurrent with companies like Wynn Resorts and Marriott. 

Last year, Amazon stepped up its efforts to target hotels with the launch of its Alexa for Hospitality platform, designed to let hotels customize a number of features on Echo devices based on guests' needs.

Despite Amazon's efforts to widen Alexa's reach, however, the digital assistant has been plagued by a recent spate of bad press. In May, media outlets reported that a family in Portland, Ore., complained to Amazon after their Echo recorded a private conversation in their home and sent the audio to a random person within the family's contacts list. 

And this past winter, Alexa was back in headlines after a German man allegedly received 1,700 Alexa audio recordings of another user, with Amazon citing "human error" as the cause of the mistake.

"Alexa has been caught listening on a couple of occasions over the past few years," said Richard Forno, assistant director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for Cybersecurity and the director of the school's cybersecurity graduate program. "And because of incidents like the Snowden revelations a few years back and Facebook's recent scandal with Cambridge Analytica, people are being a little more conscious of privacy. 

"So now, if you've got a device that's in a hotel room you haven't configured or set up by yourself, are you going to trust it? I wouldn't."

According to Stacey Gray, policy counsel at the nonprofit Future of Privacy Forum, a hotel might be highly unlikely to use Alexa to eavesdrop, but the fact that privacy policies regarding the Echo could be difficult to track down is worrisome.

"Should people be concerned about the hotel listening in?" Gray asked. "No, probably not. But that said, there are questions I would ask that a hotel would need to know how to answer. If my voice gets recorded, what do you do with that data? Are you saving it in any way that's identifiable for me? Are you deleting that data after a certain amount of time?"

Gray added: "Hotels have a relationship with the person staying there that makes it much more important and much more incumbent on them to be upfront about their policies. And policies like that are hard to communicate on a device [like the Echo] that doesn't have a screen."

The tests did not involve the Echo Show or Echo Spot, versions of the device that have screens and built-in cameras.

Although Best Western's relationship with Alexa has been rocky, other early adopters within the hospitality sector have reported success. 

The Westin Buffalo also introduced Alexa in 2017, rolling out Echo devices across all 116 of its rooms. Tom Long, general manager of the property, reports that guests have had "a positive reaction" to the feature thus far. 

"They offer guests an easy, fun way to request services, get recommendations and generally engage with hotel staff without the hassle of picking up a phone," Long said. "From the hotel perspective, seeing the most common requests has allowed us to better anticipate our guests' needs and therefore provide better service. Concerns about privacy have been minimal, [but] in the event of a concern, we recommend the guest turn the device off or unplug it."

Though the Echo has received a warm welcome at the Westin Buffalo, voice-activated virtual assistants are still a far cry from being commonly available industrywide. According to Long, the property is still one of only a few hotels in the Buffalo market to offer the in-room amenity. 

Lorraine Sileo, senior vice president, research and business operations at Phocuswright, said, "The jury's still out on the true application and success of voice in hospitality. I do think there's a place for it, but we ultimately still need to figure out the logistics around it. 

"Hotels are thinking about new ways to interact with guests and perhaps replace some of the features of a concierge, but it could be through text and chat or via an app. It doesn't necessarily have to be just voice."

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