The smart move: are hoteliers ready to bet on voice assistants?

Patrick Kingsland 21 October 2019 (Last Updated October 4th, 2019 12:43)

Just as they sit in many modern households, voice assistants, such as Alexa and Google Assistant, could soon be a commonplace feature in hotel rooms. The benefits for guests and hoteliers are clear, but questions over privacy remain, as Ross Davies reports.

The smart move: are hoteliers ready to bet on voice assistants?
Voice assistants, such as Alexa and Google Assistant, could soon be a commonplace feature in hotel rooms. Credit Sustainable Economies via Flickr

It is surely only a matter of time before voice assistants become as ubiquitous in hotel suites as they are in domestic living rooms.

According to a recent report on the key trends to look out for in the hospitality technology space, 59% of hoteliers believe automated assistants will play a significant part in boosting property revenues. Similarly, 43% of those surveyed claim such technology could help create a reduction in labour costs while making operations more efficient.

The report was conducted by Angie Hospitality, creators of Angie, a 24-hour, interactive room assistant built exclusively for hotels and resorts. Debuted in Sydney last year at the NoVacancy Accommodation Business Expo, Angie can be commanded to do everything from switching on the television to ordering room service and adjusting light settings. Guests can also sync their mobile devices to the assistant using Bluetooth.

Angie is representative of the kind of technology today’s guests expect when they check in to a hotel. As our appetite for smarter homes mounts – a new study by Juniper Research forecasts there will be some eight billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023 – so does our inclination to recreate similar conditions when on the road.

Why hotels need to tap into the prevailing trend of household voice assistants

Yet, adoption rates of voice assistants amongst hoteliers remain slow. As revealed by the Angie Hospitality report, only 7% of hotel owners admitted to having a dedicated voice strategy in place. If the industry fails to address this sooner rather than later, it risks falling behind one of the fastest growing domestic consumer trends of recent times.

Indeed, according to UK retailer Argos, sales of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant leapt by 161%, year-on-year, in 2018. Only the most myopic of hoteliers would fail to see that the crossover of voice assistants from home to hotel room is impending. In an industry for which the name of the game is offering a personalised guest experience, the implementation of such technology is crucial.

Ethar Alali is the CEO of Axelisys, a Manchester-based innovation engineering firm, which creates Alexa and Google Voice interfaces, working with a number of groups, including hotel reservations website LateRooms.com. He believes voice assistants have the potential to disrupt large parts of the hospitality sector, with hotels “the most obvious starting point”.

“While voice interfaces are still in their infancy, that same exclusivity is actually a strength,” he explains. “It adds a touch of luxury at every level, whether that’s replacing traditional hotel guides, interacting with the room’s lighting and air conditioning, booking tables at the hotel’s restaurant or ordering room service.

“The possibilities are endless. The costs don’t have to be particularly high for major resort operators, potentially providing them with a huge return on investment while freeing up hotel staff to concentrate on the real value-adds and special cases.”

Martin Meany, a Dublin-based tech expert, also sees the benefits of voice assistants.

“They’re great for simple things, like asking for the weather forecast so you know whether you need an umbrella, jacket or pair of shorts for the day,” he says. “You can also ask the likes of Alexa how long a taxi-ride to the airport will take, which allows you to plan your timings better.”

Nobody’s perfect – not even Alexa

However – as anyone who possesses an Alexa at home can well testify – voice assistants are not perfect. Despite having come a long way in recent years, voice recognition remains an issue, whereby users may still have to repeat themselves several times over before a command is understood.

For commands of a visual nature, voice assistants are also at an obvious disadvantage, says Meany. “Alexa might be able to recommend restaurants in the local area – which is great if you’re not familiar with the area – but some won’t find this recommendation enough. Personally, if I’m going out to eat, I want to see pictures and read reviews.”

Then there’s the burning issue of privacy. Last year, a news story emerged that Alexa had recorded a private conversation between a husband and wife in Portland, Oregon, and sent it to a contact in their address book without consent. Similarly, a man in Germany, upon requesting to listen back to an archive of his Alexa recordings, instead received 1,700 audio files – belonging to a complete stranger.

“There are two sides to this coin,” believes Meany. “As I have Google Home and Echo in my sitting room, I personally wouldn’t mind having one in my hotel. But others won’t feel the same. A device capable of listening is one thing when you own it yourself, but one that’s been in the room for countless other users will likely leave hotel visitors uncomfortable. This is a really important consideration.

“I would imagine some guests might even request their room not to have such a service, if it’s there by default.”

Hotels can ill afford to be the subject of data and privacy breaches. As of May 25 2018 – which marked the enforcement of the EU General Data Protection Regulation – operators are liable to be fined up to 4% of their annual turnover in the event of such infringements. The implications, from a reputational perspective, for hoteliers who fail their guests in this regard are much more serious.

That said, automated assistants look set to play a key role in providing more personalised functionality in hotel rooms. If this is the will of today’s guests, it is likely hotel operators will soon oblige in turn.