Short-term vacation rentals taking voice tech farther and faster

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Apartment-hotel startup Locale is testing several smart-home technologies.

While hotels certainly haven't shied away from voice tech, short-term vacation rentals appear to be innovating somewhat faster, pushing the envelope on everything from voice-activated smart-home integration to personalized guest recommendations.

Marriott International, Wynn Resorts and Best Western have all experimented with Amazon's Alexa for Hospitality platform in recent years, but Nitesh Gandhi, founder and CEO of the Austin, Texas-based apartment-hotel startup Locale, asserts that hotels typically lack the agility of short-term rental operators, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to adopting new technology.

"We effectively have a blank canvas to work with, and we don't have hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms tied up with legacy systems from the 1970s and 1980s that are difficult to integrate with," said Gandhi, who has a background in hotel management. "I've worked with those systems in the past, and it's extremely hard to implement new technology, especially when you have to clear it with both the brands and the hotel owners. It can be a long process."

Locale has partnered with multifamily developers in Austin, Houston and Nashville, and it currently operates 150 units across 11 buildings. In its latest accommodation concept, Locale is beta testing not just Amazon Alexa but also home technologies like smart Schlage locks, Nest thermostats and smart lighting systems, among other components. 

"Our strategy going forward is to implement Alexa and the smart controls in our rooms," said Gandhi, who added that many real estate developers are now incorporating smart home tech into their residential building infrastructure. 

"The nice thing about Alexa is that it's relatively easy to bring in a third-party integration with our vendors and systems," he said. "Plus, whenever new tech comes out, be it the latest smart lock or smart home system, it's all open API [application programming interface]. Our property management system and CRM are open API, too, so whenever a new company comes out that can enhance our process or systems, we can quickly plug them in in a matter of weeks as opposed to years."

The vacation rental tech startup Hostfully is similarly moving to improve voice tech capabilities, recently partnering with Virtual Concierge Service, a hospitality voice-interface pioneer, to create a voice-activated offshoot of its signature "guidebooks," which offer customizable property details and local recommendations that can be curated by a host or property manager.

The guidebooks are also available via mobile, desktop and print. 

Margot Schmorak, Hostfully's CEO and co-founder, said that local recommendations are easier for rental properties to implement. 

"Recommendations are where vacation rentals can really shine in comparison to hotels, because they can often operate with more specificity than a hotel can," she said. "Vacation rental inventory isn't homogenous like hotel inventory, and so in some ways it's a disadvantage because it's harder to manage operationally. But when it comes to providing a personalized customer experience, vacation rentals have a clear advantage."

Nicole Prentice Williams, Hostfully's senior director of business development, said property managers can use the Hostfully guidebook voice integration to help "offload" basic questions about the WiFi password or laundry. Hostfully offers guidebook services, which are available via a subscription model at a base price of around $5 a month per property, in more than 12,000 rental properties worldwide. 

"Property managers who operate at really high levels of quality want their interactions with their customers to be really valuable," Williams said. "And what we found is that they want to replace basic questions with really high-quality conversations like, 'Hey, I noticed you're here for your honeymoon. There's this sunset cruise that you can take that's really romantic. I can give my friend a call down the road and help you set that up.'"

While short-term rentals may have an edge when it comes to the ability to adapt quickly to new tech, the sector faces many of the same challenges hotels do when it comes to ensuring security and privacy. 

David Berger, CEO of voice technology software provider Volara, which offers solutions for both hotels and short-term vacation rentals, said, "The first thing any host needs to understand is that putting a consumer device like Amazon Alexa in their vacation rental without enterprise-grade privacy protections is going to open them up to liability. If you're putting Alexa into a unit that you're renting out and you set it up using the Alexa app, you're able to know what the guest is saying. And that's an invasion of privacy."

According to Berger, it's also vital that a host or property manager utilizing voice tech addresses the issue of privacy with some form of communication to the guest, be it through an email before a stay, a printed card next to the device or a programmed message that appears on a television or other screen. 

Alex Nigg, founder and CEO of Properly, a vacation rental housekeeping and operations management startup, echoed Berger's emphasis on security. 

"These devices were developed for consumer application, and as consumer application, if I choose to have [a voice assistant] in my home, then I know where it is, and I know how it works. That's very easy to manage," Nigg said, adding that Properly has done a light integration of the Amazon Alexa platform, featuring capabilities like a feature that ensures devices are automatically reset every time one guest checks out and another guest checks in. 

"In a vacation rental and a hotel context, it's a very different story," Nigg said, "so there are a whole bunch of issues around privacy and consent."

But though Nigg views voice as a tool still in the developing stage, he also acknowledges the technology's "massive promise."

"What I've found is that people are very experimental and open when it comes to voice," Nigg said. "We've seen a lot of engagement so far. I think that the promise of voice is huge, but I also know that the devil's in the details. And many of these details are still being worked out."

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