Smart Speakers in Hotel Rooms? Yes, Alexa, Please Bring Me My Wine

Smart Speakers in Hotel Rooms? Yes, Alexa, Please Bring Me My Wine

Charles Keenan

Charles Keenan

Charles Keenan has written about payments since joining the American Banker as a staff reporter in 1997, a time when automated teller machines were appearing just about everywhere but people's living rooms thanks to the relaxation of surcharging rules.

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Voice assistants in hotel rooms have had a lot of hype over the past few years, but not much adoption. Yet like other slow-moving technological transitions, such as chip cards, real-time payments and biometrics, voice devices in hotel rooms could eventually become normal fixtures in our lives. For leisure and business travelers, in theory, smart speakers offer another way to purchase goods and services on site, serving as another potential boost to payments volume.

After a slow start for voice assistants in the hotel industry, there are signs that devices are finally ready to start populating higher-end establishments. Purveyors of hotel-centric voice assistant technology have been using artificial intelligence to make their systems smarter, while addressing privacy concerns on the part of hotels. Hardware cost is falling, too.

"It's still early days," says David Berger, chief executive of Volara, a provider of hotel-centric voice software. "There's just a sliver of hotel rooms that have voice assistants, but we expect it to be as popular as color TV."

Time will tell, but the sellers of hotel voice-assistant technology do stand to benefit from gaining cultural acceptance of speaking to devices. While hotels have been slow to embrace them, they’ve rapidly become standard tools for many Americans. About 26% of consumers own a smart speaker, such as Google Home or Amazon Echo/Alexa, according to the 2018 U.S. Consumer Payments Study, released by TSYS earlier this year.

As voice payments become more accepted and rolled out by banks and third parties, there’s certainly a fertile ground waiting for processors in the hotel industry, with more than 5 million hotels in the United States, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. One good sign is how owners of smart speakers are at ease with conducting financial transactions via voice. About 67% of them say they are comfortable using conversational interfaces for banking transactions, according to research by Mercator Advisory Group.

Smart speakers in hotel rooms potentially present an easy way to order things on-premises, from room service to massages to excursions. It's akin to how the ease of using plastic at the point of sale ultimately led to greater sales.

"There's just a sliver of hotel rooms that have voice assistants, but we expect it to be as popular as color TV," says David Berger, chief executive of Volara, a provider of hotel-centric voice software.

"Voice assistants are a frictionless way to engage guest to drive new revenues with them and serve them more efficiently," Berger says. "Consumer adoption is driving hoteliers to take notice."

One thing dogging adoption by hotels is skepticism over the ability to answer questions correctly. It just takes a few wrong answers or simple oversights in an operating system for folks to give up on a new thing. Several trials at hotels have quietly ended in recent years.

Baby steps

Yet vendors keep making headway. Volara has had its software installed in 10,000 hotel rooms as of August, up about three-fold over a 12-month period. The Volara software allows guests to turn on the television and request amenities such as towels, toothbrushes and ice. Hotel Zetta, an upscale tech-themed establishment situated in San Francisco, recently placed Amazon Echos in its 116 rooms to handle basic tasks and answer simple questions.

Owners of smart speakers are at ease with conducting financial transactions via voice. About 67% of them say they are comfortable using conversational interfaces for banking transactions.

"From an operations standpoint, it's less noise at the front desk," says Mark Beevor, general manager of Hotel Zetta. "The phone calls are reduced a little bit, and the team at the front desk can be much more engaged with guests."

What’s noteworthy about these new systems is that they've gotten smarter. The high failure rates have been in part due to the generic devices not having a natural language engine geared toward hotels, notes Ted Helvey, chief executive officer of Angie Hospitality, a company that's selling touch-screen devices and software systems to hotel rooms. Each time the units — dubbed 'Angie' — don’t get an answer right, Helvey and his staff can make a fix, effectively making the entire fleet smarter in one fell swoop.

"Even though we sell a hardware device — the cloud services, the Angie intelligence, the hospitality engine, the integrations with backend systems — those are things we see as our most valuable work," he says.

With regards to privacy, vendors are working hard to show their systems are safeguarded. For example, Hotel Zetta protects user identity by only letting the device 'know' the room number, Beevor notes. Angie Hospitality devices have user agreements and hoteliers can configure them as opt-in or opt-out.

Opportunity for engagement

The potential of voice assistants to engage customers has appeal for hotels. With mobile phones already serving as virtual reference desks everywhere we go, hotels have lost a bit of an opportunity to offer guests their expertise. "The frictionless nature of voice gives hotels an opportunity to win back that engagement that they have lost to the mobile devices of the guests," Berger says.

That increased engagement of customers is another way eventually for hotels to sell more services. With the Volara software, managers can tweak answers to common queries by adding on information at the end of the answer, Beevor notes. If a guest asks about the time breakfast is served, answers could tack on a promotion about the hotel spa.

If voice assistants truly take off in hotel rooms, count on those travelers comfortable with tech to lead the way. Among those who use mobile banking, 40% use voice interactive interfaces, according to Mercator. That could bode well for hoteliers, vendors — and eventually — processors.

The statements and opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of TSYS.

Other Articles by Charles

Charles Keenan

Charles Keenan has written about payments since joining the American Banker as a staff reporter in 1997, a time when automated teller machines were appearing just about everywhere but people’s living rooms thanks to the relaxation of surcharging rules.

His work at the American Banker included writing about credit and debit cards, merchant processing, and bank stocks. He later freelanced for the Banker and industry publications such as Banking Strategies, Bank Director, Community Banker, and U.S. Banker. He also writes about investing, insurance and health care, and is based in Los Angeles.

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