During the Spring immersion in Syracuse we had the pleasure of hearing from Greg Hedges, VP of Emerging Experiences at Rain Agency, who discussed the current state of voice technology and how his company is advancing entry by businesses into the industry. During my last immersion in Seattle Hedges also spoke about the industry and especially its interaction with Amazon to build out skills for Amazon’s Alexa software. While the speaker and topic were the same in each discussion, the topic in Syracuse discussed more how the agency helped build out some of Alexa’s initial voice commands and less the debate about privacy. By 2019, the conversation wasn’t as much “what is voice?” Rather, Hedges focused on how voice is changing in the landscape and how consumers are flocking to the technology at an extremely rapid rate.
According to Voicebot.ai, over 1 billion devices have voice assistant technology. That number is somewhat deceiving as smartphones make up the large portion of it with Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Samsung’s Bixby, and Android’s Google Assistant. NPR and Edison Research conducted a study specifically on voice enabled speakers and found that “53 million people (18 or over) in the U.S. (21% of the population) now own at least one smart speaker, and the total number of devices in homes has increased 78% year-over-year.” At only 21% of the population, we can still call these individuals early adopters, but the increase in number of devices in the home is truly staggering. As the number of users at home increases, people will begin to want the same technology outside of the home. This includes in the car, outside appliances, and notably my line of work, hotels.
In June, Voicebot announced that Amazon had launched “Alexa for Hospitality.” Their first major partner was Marriott and select hotels within the brand were provided devices to be placed in the guest rooms.
“Alexa for Hospitality integrates seamlessly with your existing amenities and services, to become your guests’ virtual concierge. Alexa simplifies tasks for guests like playing music, ordering towels, controlling in-room temperature or lighting, finding local restaurants and attractions, calling, and even checking out. Alexa makes delivering a great customer experience simple. Just ask.”
– Description of Amazon For Hospitality from Amazon
Since July 2018, I have been working in the hotel industry. As new competitors like AirBNB and HomeAway flourish, traditional hotels need to focus on ways to improve the guest experience. Despite usually higher prices, hotels will never be able to offer more square footage, appliances, and traditional amenities than vacation rentals. Instead, we rely on personalized service, dining options, and location to keep guests happy and yearning to return. Voice options within a hotel room could truly transform a stay from normal to extraordinary. While some hotels currently are focusing on improving streaming options within the room, the next area of focus could possibly be voice. Marriott International is one of the largest hotel chains in the world and by being and early adopter they will be at the forefront of innovating voice technology within the hotel industry. Being able to turn on the TV, close the shades, turn on the lights, order more towels, and lock the door using your voice brings the luxury concierge service from the lobby of the hotel into the guest room.
Other than the in room options, voice also allows the guest to interact directly with the hotel. Ordering room service, making reservations at the hotel restaurant, and getting recommendations on local attractions can all be programmed through the voice software. As technology continues to enter our communicative space, this will free up time for the employees to complete other necessary tasks. The Hilton Honors app currently has options that allow guests to automate their amenity requests and in room dining options at select properties and could be seamlessly intertwined with voice commands. Your Hilton Honors profile houses so much information that helps hotels personalize service for the guest. Everything from preferred room type, beverages, view, floor level, and more. Just as companies like Dominoes and Starbucks have already created simplified ordering options, hoteliers would be able to as well.
At a hotel property with a lobby café? Simply say: “Alexa order my usual coffee.” Alexa might respond: “Your most frequent order is a large vanilla latte. Would you like me to order again?” After confirming, the guest would be told that his or her latte will be ready to pick up in the café in 5 minutes. The possibilities are really endless and can vary depending on property. The hotel I work at, The Roosevelt New Orleans, is a historic hotel currently celebrating its 125th Anniversary. In my role as marketing manager I could work with our team to branch out for new and exciting offerings that differentiate our hotel. We could create a skill that reads trivia from our history, including the famous musicians that have played in the hotel, including Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra. In addition to trivia, a playlist of music by these artists could be played by guests to get them into the mood of the earlier years of the hotel.
In 2017, Theodore Henderson wrote an article on Forbes titled, “Why Innovation Is Crucial To Your Organization’s Long-Term Success,” that discussed how innovative ideas come about and why they are necessary to the long term success of a company. “Innovation is vital in the workplace because it gives companies an edge in penetrating markets faster and provides a better connection to developing markets, which can lead to bigger opportunities, especially in rich countries,” Henderson wrote. With $52 million people using voice speakers, there is a large number of people who may make their buying decision based on a Marriott location having a voice enabled speaker.
Even looking past innovative uses, voice speakers would be a great addition already. Many hotels still use dated alarm clocks that can be confusing and minimally used with the increase in smartphone usage. But having a speaker that can set an alarm, read the news and weather in the morning, and play music before the guest goes out on the town could lead to an increase in satisfaction among the tech generations who are increasingly making money that leads to large buying decisions. Three day vacations can cost upwards of $1000 once all the fees involved in traveling are combined. Guests want to see their money going towards more than simply a room with a bed. They want personalized services and exceptional experiences.
There truly are so many opportunities available within the industry. Now there are two parts to the actualizing a stay in a hotel: Booking the room and staying in the room. The above innovation in voice will be game changing, but there are other avenues to combining voice and the hotel experience that companies could experiment with. A primary goal of all individuals in the consumer buying market is to simplify the buying experience. Booking a hotel room can be difficult sometimes. There are so many sites a person can book through. From the hotel’s website, to third party sites like Google, Hotels.com, Expedia, and Booking.com, one can get lost through the various avenues. Hotel companies could control more of the landscape by creating a voice app that allows someone to say, “Alexa book me a hotel room in New Orleans.” After discussing dates, the voice UI could potentially read the rates from the top 10 hotels based on rating, or sort by lowest price. Initially this may be more useful for return guests because of the information needed to choose a hotel. Guests look through everything from reviews, photos, location, information on amenities, and the cost of bringing a pet.
With a large company like Hilton that has over 5,000 hotels, it would likely take years to roll out, but each individual hotel could build out its own profile so that a voice UI user could ask those type of questions that currently require one to visit the hotel website.
Voice UI User: “Alexa, what amenities does The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans have?”
Alexa: “The Roosevelt is a historic hotel in New Orleans that has 504 guest rooms. In addition to a café, full service restaurant, and historic bar, the hotel has a spa, rooftop pool, gift shop, business center, and over 60,000 square feet of meeting space.”
– Example of possibilities for people looking to book a hotel
While these aren’t the questions that people are asking now, innovation from other Marriott and other industries will lead to consumers asking these type of questions to future voice enabled devices.
While Greg Hedges lecture didn’t discuss privacy much, this of course will be an area of concern for all businesses that allow guests to use the technology. In an article on Business Traveller about the first Alexa moving into a Marriott in Charlotte, North Carolina, a student had his concerns quoted: “One student commented: “It’s laughable to think someone would be okay with a human being stuffed in the closet gathering the same information that Alexa does but because it’s an inanimate object it becomes accepted.” That’s a legitimate concern, and during my research I haven’t found any information on how to disable the Alexa in the guest room. To prevent theft it may be impossible to unplug the device. Potentially hotels may offer “Alexa enabled rooms” or “Alexa free rooms” during booking.
While there are certainly concerns, the benefits in terms of attracting guests and being on the forefront of innovation in the competitive industry lead me to believe that more large hotel chains will adopt this technology over the next three to five years, while small boutique hotels may adopt it quicker because they will not run into some of the issues that slow roll outs of new technology in large corporations.
During the lecture I learned the basics of what it takes to launch an Alexa skill. Rain Agency has worked with many businesses to research what questions people are asking (in part using answerthepublic.com/), and how to best put that info into a voice UI database. It’s not as simple as programming the device to message the front desk. Deep research needs to be done and the executives at the company likely have to approve every voice enabled question and answer.
Voice enabled devices are important to communications because they are the fastest adopted technology and are being installed in so many facets of daily life. Earlier I mentioned the step of car manufacturers adding Alexa to new car models. In addition, appliances are now being enabled with voice technology so you can start and stop the oven without pressing a button, and have Alexa tell you what items in your refrigerator need restocking. The more people, specifically the young generation with buying power use voice, the more they will want it in more facets of everyday life. Voice enabled speakers make life easier and when we’re on vacation we want everything coming as easy as possible.