Just Ask: Voice Technology Makes Waves in Hospitality

Voice technology

While scientists have yet to introduce jetpacks, flying cars, 
and, of course, hoverboards to the general population, 
we are living in an amazing era of incredible technology. 
We communicate faster and better than ever before, and 
automation is making hard and complicated tasks easier and 
more efficient. New innovations enter our everyday lives at a 
dizzying speed, but one, in particular, is making major waves, 
especially in the hotel industry—voice technology.

Encompassing Apple’s Siri digital assistant, Samsung’s Bixby, Google Home, and Amazon’s Echo, voice technology is one of the fastest-adopted technologies in recent history. According to the Fall/Winter 2017 “Smart Audio Report,” a study by National Public Radio (NPR) and Edison Research regarding consumers’ voice-activated device habits, 16 percent of Americans owned a voice-activated smart speaker as of January 2018—that’s about 39 million people. That number is up 128 percent from January of 2017, outpacing the adoption rates of both smartphones and tablets. Additionally, Gartner Inc., a leading technology research and advisory company, predicts that 75 percent of American households will have a voice-activated smart speaker by the end of 2020. And, it was noted in the Smart Audio Report from Spring/Summer 2017 that 42 percent of smart speaker users now consider the device “essential” to their everyday lives. People are using these devices for all kinds of tasks, from playing music and setting alarms to controlling household devices.

Any technology that has this rate of adoption in the consumer market is sure to grab the attention of the hotel industry, especially considering that most people already know how to use it. “Voice is a natural human interface. We learned how to speak and respond to language as infants,” says Ted Helvey, the CEO of Angie Hospitality. Helvey is deeply immersed in the world of voice-activated technology, as his company developed Angie, a voice-enabled, in-room technology solution that acts as a 24-hour assistant for hotel guests.

Voice-activated technology’s ease of use has made it very appealing to hoteliers, who are now looking for ways to incorporate it into their operations. But, that road had been a little rockier than initially expected. “While these technologies seem simple enough to incorporate at home, hotels are a much more complex environment. There are security concerns, connectivity issues, and, perhaps most importantly, high guest expectations to meet,” Helvey explains. “People like voice-activated technology because it’s easy and natural—as long as it works. That is the key.”


As Long As It Works

Reliability has been one of the major issues with voice-activated technology, but recent advancements have made the technology better. “We’re continuing to see improvements in accuracy and interpretation, and most voice-activated devices are now functioning at a very high level,” Noreen Henry, CEO of travel AI company WayBlazer, says. “Sometimes there can be a struggle with accents, but these devices are learning and getting better all the time.”

There’s also a certain amount of training that goes into using voice-activated technology—not necessarily users training the device, but the device training its users. “When I ask Siri a question and she can’t answer it, I don’t ask that way again. I get trained,” Helvey says. “You never know how someone is going to ask a question, even if that question is as simple as, ‘What time does the pool close?’ That’s one of the biggest challenges for hotels looking to incorporate this technology.”

While it is a challenge, there are people out there looking to meet it head-on. Helvey’s Angie was developed specifically for hotel use and has been quite successful, Henry’s WayBlazer is bringing voice into the booking process, and other companies are working on developing hotel solutions that can be integrated with existing voice-activated devices.


High-Tech Guest Benefits

Once a hotel decides to implement a voice-activated solution for its guests, there are seemingly endless opportunities for use. Some of the more obvious applications are controlling the guestroom’s lights, television, drapes, temperature, and even “do not disturb” notifications.

There are already some companies integrating voice across the hotel technology stack in management systems, guest engagement platforms, valet systems, safety systems, IPTV systems, and more. One such company is Volara, a provider of integrated and custom voice-based solutions for the hospitality industry. Jeffrey Clement, vice president of strategic accounts for Volara, says, “Voice-activated solutions offer an easy and frictionless way for guests to interact all of the hotel’s technology, including—but not limited to—in-room devices.”

Clement is currently working with Jason Cohen, Senior Vice President of Adcomm TV, a national authorized dealer for DIRECTV for Business, IPTV, HSIA Services, and a Samsung for Business Platinum Level Channel Partner for the Hospitality and Healthcare Industry, on rolling out the Volara solution in numerous hotels. Both Clement and Cohen are very excited about how they’ve seen the technology impact their hotel clients. “Volara’s software enables smart devices to be business tools for the hotels,” Cohen says. “The technology is creating measurable efficiencies and the positive impact on the guest experience is already showing up all over TripAdvisor.”

The hotels Cohen and Clement are working with have embraced the flexibility of voice solutions. “You can have it answer in Alexa’s voice, or you can pre-record messages from team members. For example, you can have the chef at your in-house restaurant describe the weekly specials or the golf pro share news about an upcoming tournament.” Cohen says.

Clement adds that the messages can even be targeted to certain travelers. “If you have a group coming in for a wedding or a conference, you can pre-record messages just for those guests. So, say it’s a wedding party, you can have the bride and groom—in their own voice—welcome their guests. The technology enables truly memorable experiences.”

And, for hotels investing in voice-activated solutions, the possibilities are limitless and easily tailored to a property’s brand. Cohen says that at some hotels, guests can ask Alexa to create a movie night for them. “The lights dim and the shades close, and the TV turns to the movies on demand. Then, about 15 minutes later, there’s a knock at the door and there’s a staff member with popcorn and a six-pack of soft drinks. Amenities like these really help the hotel make a positive impact,” he describes.


Easing Operations

Voice-activated technology in hotels isn’t just for guests—there are also many possible applications when it comes to operations. “When we launched Angie, we were primarily concerned with guest needs, but our immediate feedback from hoteliers was more focused on potential operational applications,” Helvey notes. Angie Hospitality thus began developing systems that allowed housekeeping to verify verbally that rooms had been cleaned, and that information would be passed along to the programs that tracked housekeeping.

“Users can also have Angie send texts or emails. It’s all about streamlining communications at these hotel properties,” Helvey says.

There are also many, many independent developers working to create new capabilities for consumer-focused voice-activated speakers like Amazon’s Echo. In fact, last summer, Amazon launched a program that funds developers working on new Alexa skills—basically, apps for the speaker—to grow its online ecosystem. As more and more skills are introduced into Alexa’s repertoire, the more likely it is that hoteliers and others in the industry will find ways to incorporate the technology into their operations.

Amazon Alexa Echo - voice technology

A New Booking Channel

Another area where voice technology is becoming more prevalent is booking. WayBlazer’s Noreen Henry notes that voice is an extremely easy interface for this purpose. “Guests don’t have to interact with filters or dates—it’s more like talking to a travel agent,” she says. Some OTAs, such as Kayak, already allow travelers to book a hotel room through Amazon Alexa. Major hotel companies are also working to make voice booking a reality, whether through their own apps or through outside developers.

Additionally, consumers are becoming more comfortable with the interface. According to Alpine.AI, an analytics company that specializes in voice platforms, there are more than 1 billion voice searches per month.

In WayBlazer’s case, the company leverages how comfortable travelers feel when speaking about their travel plans into learning more about their “trip intent.” Its travel recommendation engine uses artificial intelligence to recommend activities, restaurants, and lodging, and to make the booking experience easier.

Henry says that determining a guest’s trip intent is invaluable to hoteliers.

“Understanding a guest’s trip intent changes the whole dynamic. This puts hotels in a very advantageous position and allows them to differentiate themselves from the OTAs. If you know what a guest is expecting upfront, you can better deliver on that expectation,” she explains. “For example, someone who’s going on a girls’ weekend is going to be looking for a different travel experience than someone who’s on a business trip.”


Lock It Down

Voice allows users to make extremely detailed requests with little effort. As such, security should be a major concern to any company using voice technology. “When you have drop-down menus, you can restrict the information that users input. When they’re using voice, it’s completely open-ended,” Henry says. “Companies that use voice technology may or may not store consumers’ personal data, but if they do, they should clearly communicate to customers how their data is being used.”

Beyond educating their customers, there are other steps that companies can take to protect their users’ data. While it may use Amazon’s Alexa interface, Volara’s core functionality acts as a firewall between recordings of guests and their personally identifiable information. “Amazon captures recordings of guests and stores that data to improve their natural language processing,” notes David Berger, CEO of Volara.

“But—unlike in a home environment—Amazon does not know who is in the guest room and using the voice solution. Volara never receives the recording or a transcript, but a code that identifies the intent of the guest. Our software then interprets that intent and takes action, like opening a ticket in a work order management system or turning on a light in the room.”

Because there are so many data security and information protection rules in the hotel industry, it’s not advisable for hoteliers to simply hook up an Alexa device in their guestrooms. “I would highly recommend that big brands and individual hoteliers partner with technology companies that are focused on voice technology. Not only will this help them get to the market with solutions more quickly, but it will also help protect their guests and their data,” says Henry.


Integrating the Solution

The hotel industry can be notoriously slow to integrate new technologies and innovations into everyday operations. This is especially the case with technologies that were a hit in a home environment, as they don’t necessarily translate to a hotel room. “I’ve found throughout my decades in hospitality that taking a consumer device and putting it into in a hotel can be an interesting novelty, but that alone doesn’t usually have the traction that’s needed to stick,” says Helvey. “Connected devices in a hotel room need to behave as part of a larger ecosystem while providing individual, personalized experiences to the guests. Integration must be thoughtful, and hoteliers need to work with partners whose solutions speak to both of these needs.”

“Connected devices in a hotel room need to behave as part of a larger ecosystem while providing individual, personalized experiences to the guests. Integration must be thoughtful, and hoteliers need to work with partners whose solutions speak to both of these needs,” notes Cohen. “Volara has built a strong infrastructure of integration partners for this purpose. Major platforms like Amazon Alexa can understand the conversation, but that conversation needs to be translated into experiences for guests and business outcomes for the hotel.”

Cohen says that the most important consideration for any technology and for maximizing its return on investment is whether people will know how to use it. “You want to deploy technologies that the consumer is going to quickly understand and use. It’s a lifestyle thing. A lot of products that have been deployed in hotels sit unused because they cannot be incorporated into guests’ lifestyles. That is very much not the case with voice-based solutions, which are quickly becoming a staple in people’s homes. People walk into a hotel room and know exactly what this product is and how to use it. It’s not going away anytime soon, and more and more people are going to start expecting this convenience when they travel.”

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Kate Hughes, Editor, LODGING Magazine