Talking technology: is this what hotel guests really want?

Andrew Hennigan takes a look at the growing popularity of talking technology and wonders if this is the future of hotel room interfaces

In the not too distant future you will be able to lie on your bed in a hotel room and control room features and services entirely with voice commands. The technology behind this is already available. Many homes already have an Amazon Echo, an Internet-connected voice interface that connects you with Amazon’s Alexa voice service, providing on-demand music, TV, audio books, travel information and many other services through simple voice commands.

While geeky guests might be excited to find an Amazon Echo or similar device in their hotel room not everyone is convinced that this is a good idea, even at London’s Eccleston Square Hotel, a high-end property known for its high-tech features. 

“I'm not sure this would work for all guests, some might even find it frustrating,” says manager James Byrne. So while it could be a “cool” additional feature, which a proportion of guests would enjoy he argues the cost of implementing the system could outweigh the benefits.

I'm not sure this would work for all guests, some might even find it frustrating

This concern is one that is shared by many other hoteliers.

“For our hotel it simply would not provide enough value to offset the cost,” says Louis Herman, GM of Yildirim Hotel Denizli in Turkey. One factor that could change the balance of this equation is in potential savings in the payroll.

“Some hotels would benefit greatly from an integrated voice activation system in guest rooms,” says Herman. His view is that not only would it be an advantage to guests, adding value to their stay, but could also lead to cost savings on concierge services, or reduce the number of phone operators answering guest questions.

Where voice activated systems are likely to become more accepted is when there are dedicated devices fully integrated in the hotel systems.

“I imagine a top-to-bottom integrated hotel system where the digital voice activation is connected to the TV, sound system, heating & cooling, water, electric and fire safety systems and the hotel operating systems,” says Herman. “Maybe if you hear a knock at the door you can ask ‘Alexa show me my hallway’ and security camera footage of your door’s peephole will be displayed.”

Makers of hospitality industry systems like Intelity are not yet on the market with voice based interfaces but they are cautiously optimistic.

“The success of Amazon’s Echo has clearly demonstrated that people are willing to adapt to ‘ambient technology’ quickly,” says Intelity CTO Chris Grey, adding that, “what people get used to at home they’ll begin to expect when they travel”.

Picture a scene where the hotel can call out for ‘Housekeeping, please bring me extra towels’ or ‘Room service, I’d like a Caesar salad at 7.00 please’.

Amazon, the makers of Alexa, is not talking about future plans for dedicated hospitality solutions yet. However, they stress that the Alexa product was built to be open so that developers and companies can integrate it into their products and services, building new ‘skills’.

Kayak has already demonstrated this with its new ‘Ask Kayak’ service where travellers can ask questions like ‘Alexa, how much is a hotel in Las Vegas from May 12th to May 15?’ and hear a natural sounding speech response.

Risks and reality

Still, even when costs fall, there are still some other concerns about hotel-wide voice activated systems. Some of these risks can be avoided – theft, for example, could be avoided by bolting the device to the wall.

However, for many others there is no easy fix. In properties with poor room-to-room sound insulation voice commands will almost certainly increase complaints about noise. Some guests too may feel uncomfortable about privacy. When you turn on the TV with a remote nobody knows what you watch; when you call out the same instruction out loud everyone passing nearby could hear what you say. And, of course, pranksters could roam the corridors shouting ‘Alexa play Justin Bieber volume 10’.

Hardware with dedicated hospitality features will address some of the concerns of the hotel industry, but there are still another question hanging over these devices.

“Pretty much everyone who wants a voice activated assistant has one already in their phone – like Siri and Cortana,”says Herman. A shift towards the bring-your-own-device approach means hotel guests don’t need to learn a new assistant and the hotel doesn’t need to replace hardware every few years.

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