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
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
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
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
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