Giving Voice to the Industry: Command or question, automation is here to help

It’s a scene we’re all familiar with: You exit a hotel elevator, toting a laptop bag and a suitcase, with, perhaps, a coffee in hand or a mobile phone, ready to use the property’s keyless entry system. As you enter the room, dropping your things off on the nearest bed or desk, you search for a light switch and the thermostat, as the room’s default setting is much too warm for your liking. Sometimes it’s easy to find and sometimes it’s not. Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell the room to turn on the lights and switch the air conditioner on to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, while you get down to the business of charging your almost-dead devices and hanging up your clothes? And maybe you could even tell the room to turn the TV on to ESPN (no need to figure out what channel that is in this area of the world) and order you a salad from room service?

Certainly, the benefits of voice automation would appeal to both the multi-tasker and the guest who wants technology to work quickly and efficiently. At least, that’s what many hotels are thinking as they begin to implement voice-automation solutions. Properties from brands ranging from select-service Aloft to boutique Kimpton to casino-resort Wynn Las Vegas have either experimented with, are piloting or, in the case of Wynn, are doing large-scale implementations of some form of voice automation. And attendees at the past few HITEC tradeshows would have met various exhibitors—from television solutions providers to energy management platforms to guest management systems—experimenting with voice integration. But is it the next fad or is it the future?

DigiValet’s solution has the ability to remember guest preferences from property to property.

“Voice technologies are gaining more traction primarily from the consumer standpoint,” said DigiValet President Rachana Salgia, whose company supplies an iPad-based solution with voice capabilities (for instance, the company provides the tech for Aloft Hotels’ voice-activation pilot). “On the mobile phone, you have Siri, you have Google Assistant. It’s the consumer mindset that is being changed, and that’s what consumers are expecting—that they should get a similar interface and similar capabilities when they visit a hotel. It’s primarily being driven from a consumer technology point of view.”

Ted Helvey, CEO of Angie Hospitality, a voice-based guestroom solution that won Hotel Technology Next Generation’s (HTNG) 2017 TechOvation award, agreed. “Technology advancement and need is always a challenge for the hotelier: How do I keep up with that? What do I invest in? What don’t I invest in? What do I skip?” he mused. “It’s very challenging for the hotelier to pick the right thing, but oftentimes, the technology is driven by outside expectations, guest expectations. The technology that folks are used to using at home is usually more advanced than what’s in the hotel. That drives a lot of it. Certainly, that’s where the voice expectation has come up.”

David Goldstone, who is DigiValet’s president of the Americas, noted that this is especially true for luxury guests, many of whom have home automation systems and are becoming used to controlling the home environment by voice or by app. “The guest staying in luxury hotels wants to have the same level of service that they have at home,” he said. “If they have the ability to speak to a controller and say, ‘Turn on the TV to CNN, dim the lights, turn off the lights, order room service,’ that is where technology is going in the hotel room.”

Helvey agreed about expectations. “That’s exciting that you can connect with technology in a way that’s the most natural and intuitive. We all learn to talk early on and that’s the user interface. You don’t need to do anything else to make this work,” he said. “It’s driven by the guest and it’ll be expected more.”

Armand Rabinowitz, senior director of strategy and workgroups, HTNG, noted that incorporating new technologies is an ever-evolving process as users progress from awareness to adoption, no matter what the solution is for. “You grow accustomed to seeing and knowing certain capabilities exist. Just like before electricity was invented, people were lighting candles. Eventually, people realized there’s a switch and people knew to look for it. Voice will eventually become the switch,” he said.

Of course, you can’t just take a solution made for the consumer space and put it into a hotel—it either has to be made enterprise-ready, or a similar solution designed for the hospitality space needs to be implemented. “Adopting consumer technology in the enterprise space has always been challenging,” Salgia said. “It’s the same with voice and natural conversations. When you use these technologies on your personal phone or your personal devices, it’s your own device. When you adopt the same technology in hospitality, the first and foremost challenge is to identify which guest and which room number has this request come from.” She noted that both Google and Microsoft seem to be more focused on the consumer track, but Amazon is “trying to make solutions so they can become as appealing to the enterprise environment.”

The second challenge is the broad range of services at a hotel, she said. “When you walk in the hotel room, you expect you will have to use only one interface for interacting with hotel services. It should not be the case that the guest is required to issue a voice command to turn on the lights, but to make a spa reservation, I have to pick up a phone,” Salgia said. “If a hotel plans to offer voice technology, it has to be for all the services in the hotel room. For that, you have to have a full spectrum of integrations or interfaces with hotel services.”

Of course, part of the challenge with this is voice is still in its infancy and will continue to evolve. “If you look at the use cases that can be accomplished simply through voice, it’s really commands, instructions and requests,” Rabinowitz said. “As we enable technology to know more about us and there’s context and artificial intelligence (AI)—true AI, not just voice-to-text and text-to-voice, which is the current status of the voice technology—the voice technology will mature to a degree where we won’t have to say as much and have as much clarification required in that communication. In the future, when you’re asking for a good place to eat, it’s going to know the places you went last night or where you went for breakfast. Voice does not change the world by itself, but it certainly drives more interaction, which will create more data, which will make the experience better.”

Another challenge with developing technologies is that there is no standard yet. “Today, all of the voice solutions available in the market—Alexa, etc.—when they have to control the room temperature, they expect the thermostat will be a particular brand that’s compliant today with Alexa or Siri,” Salgia said. “Millions of hotel rooms already exist and are using lights and thermostats that are not voice compliant today. You can’t ask hotels to change those solutions.” As such, the company worked to make its solution a hub that can bridge those differences.

Helvey noted, for its part, Angie Hospitality took the little-bit-at-a-time approach. “We support both ZigBee and BLE. And we don’t sell the other components; we work with standards and allow the hoteliers to go buy what they want, when they want. Instead of having to buy an Angie complete room solution, you buy the Angie device and it can control the room. Then when you decide you want a thermostat, you can go to your current HVAC vendor. The idea is we’re trying to do it so hoteliers can do it a little bit at a time as it fits their budget and their needs,” he said.

Angie Hospitality added a screen to help bridge the gap with guests as voice solutions become more familiar.

From the broader industry perspective, Rabinowitz said, hotel companies need to work together. “We need to drive adoption and there’s going to be somewhat of a learning curve,” he said. “When you have people staying for an average of 1.5 nights, you can’t make things too complicated. It’s important that hotels are enabling the most obvious use cases and the way to engage with them is consistent, even among hotel brands.”

He noted that most hotel brands are experimenting or rolling this out in some way. “As hotels are rolling it out and experimenting, some of the vendors who are enabling these solutions for hotels are finding each brand has a different list of use cases and think about them differently,” he said. “And that’s fine, but the challenge I see in the future is a guest will only become familiar with how to engage with the device in the voice solution provided by a particular hotel brand. As much as hotel brands would like to think those guests are only going to stay at their hotels, the reality is they’re going to go to another hotel, which might have a slightly different implementation, and a guest is going to be dissatisfied with the fact that it’s not the same as they learned it the last time. We’re trying to bring these entities together, recognizing that how you deploy voice in the base use cases is not going to be the differentiating factor. The fact that you have it and it is a good experience will differentiate you, so HTNG wants to bring the different brands and manufacturers together to work on a standard list of use cases to fulfill the basic needs. Ultimately, that will create some satisfaction, which will create more adoption, and then hotels will benefit. 

“There are an infinite number of things you can do with voice, so hotels can differentiate on the way they create some premium interactions or the personalization,” he continued. “Maybe the AI piece and big data, they can do better with that, with the data science and the intelligence they build around it. The more input we have from the hotels trying to implement that, the better the industry will be for it.”

What about security—will guests feel like Big Brother is watching by having a microphone in the room, or does the convenience the solution provides win out? “Voice solutions are processing over the cloud,” Salgia said. “That is one concern that guests have about the privacy, and that’s why there are solutions emerging that are doing most of the voice assisting in the room and not going into the cloud. Those could be limited in their capabilities, but may work better for hospitality—but only time will tell about which solutions will win over.”

Helvey added, “A microphone in the room is something to be sensitive about. A lot of people won’t even think about it, but others will and go, ‘Do I want a live mic in my room?’ Even the Amazon Echo is getting some press and the Google Home as to the constant microphone and what happens to that. When you’re in your home environment you can decide what you’re going to do, but if you’re going to check into a hotel, we want to make sure…they realize it’s there and it’s not recording anything unless you talk to it.”

As such, the company has implemented its solution so that there’s no voice component if the guest doesn’t want it. “We can do room controls, set your alarm to have your lights come on, your morning alarm, the temperature to change, all of that via voice easily, but you can also do it on the touchscreen,” he explained. “There are the two ends of the spectrum and you need to satisfy all of them. You need to do it the guest’s way.”

The benefits for guests go beyond each individual stay. For instance, if the voice-automation solution is plugged into other technologies—the property management system, the customer relationship management system, the loyalty program—it can provide a lot of useful data for the guest profile.

“Eventually, we will hear a voice that knows I’ve arrived and will set up the environment the way I like it because the hotel has my preferences from home, or how I set things the last time I was here, or the last time I was at this brand,” said Rabinowitz. “Those things could be our vision for the future.”

Goldstone noted that the industry is well on its way. “Our system remembers the guest preference. Say we’re in Ritz-Carlton, and you stay at one today and Marina Del Rey the following week. It will know your preferences through the PMS,” he explained. “So we offer services both to the guest and to the hotel.”

Helvey concurred. “We can do profiles of the hotels’ frequent guests; we connect to the property management system,” he said. “Since we can do cloud profiling, the guest, if he goes to another hotel, it can set the temperature he likes and the lights the way he had them in the last room. That type of positive guest experience and personalization turns something that’s been a challenge to a positive,” he said.

Goldstone noted that, for the most part, this type of technology will appeal to the upper-upscale, luxury and boutique segments. “It’s very expensive technology and what makes it more expensive in a hotel environment is making it work through the PMS and in every room, and being able to be wiped out when a guest checks out,” he said.

For his part, Helvey noted that this segment is “where room control has already gone, so this is a natural extension of that.” However, he also sees opportunities in the select-service space. “You’ve got limited staff there. With a talking device such as ours with multiple capabilities that are important from room control to access point and the like, you can do a lot of things with fewer people, so you can offer a level of service that is higher than you would otherwise be able to plan for,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a capital investment there, but if you compare that to having to add a full-time concierge or staff overnight, the capital expenditure seems quite small. There’s a real opportunity for those in that space to say, ‘If I could have an in-room assistant that always behaves the same way, that could be pretty powerful.’ It’ll have to be seen if the operators of those hotels feel the same way.”

So when will voice become ubiquitous? The answer is unclear, especially since many solutions available also include a digital screen for guests unfamiliar with voice. “In building our device, we realized many aren’t there yet,” Helvey said. “We have a seven-in.-high resolution display that does virtually everything that voice can do. You can pick either interface.”

For her part, Salgia noted, “I think voice will take some time to become available, but there is one thing we have noticed: The experience of the apps are changing to be conversational. For example, today, a lot of hotel brands have their own mobile apps or they keep a tablet in the room where a guest can ask for a water bottle or make requests for laundry or valet, etc. Now, all of these user interfaces and the nature of these apps are changing to be conversational, meaning you type a message like you’re doing an SMS. You’re talking in your natural language. It is so easy to replace all of these conversational messages that are currently text-to-voice conversations. All of that is happening very fast and I’m sure in the next year we’ll see hotel apps getting changed to conversational interfaces, and voice will be a natural progression on top of that.”

Rabinowitz said it’s likely that we’ll start to see greater adoption of voice solutions toward 2018—and the Wynn Las Vegas implementation will be a good bellwether for the industry. “We’ll see what kind of adoption it gets,” he said. “If it’s successful, I think you’ll see fast followers within a year. If it’s not successful or marginally successful, it’ll follow a more reasonable trajectory of growth that aligns with other new technologies that have followed the consumer.” HB

Voice: a new way of booking?

NATIONAL REPORT—As hotels experiment with adding voice-activation solutions to hotel rooms, greater consumer adoption of voice technology is happening every day. Smartphones, laptops and other consumer devices all have voice capabilities. Devices like Amazon’s Echo can increasingly be found in consumers’ homes—and voice solutions can also be found in other places, like cars, as well. As this continues to evolve, could it have an effect on how consumers think about booking? It’s too early to know the answer—but the hotel industry is thinking about it.

Certainly, some guests are using voice solutions to help enable booking. At both the recent Choice Hotels International and La Quinta Inn & Suites conferences, voice activation was a topic of discussion. Julie Cary, EVP and CMO, La Quinta Holdings Inc., noted during the conference that the company had seen significant shifts in industry-wide behaviors, beginning summer 2016. For instance, generic searches—enabled by voice—were on the rise. (By example, instead of a search for “La Quinta hotels in Dallas” potential guests searched for “hotels near me” or “hotels in Dallas.”)

“This is a game changer for all hotel brands, as generic searches have lower returns and the OTAs bid aggressively for these types of searches,” she said, noting revenue that comes from search is five times higher than the brand’s top corporate account.

When Hotel Business asked Cary about the implications of voice search, she said, “I think we’ll see some pretty big changes with voice search and artificial intelligence (AI). We don’t even know yet the impact of Alexa, Google Home, etc., where you say, ‘Book me a room at La Quinta,’ as this continues to progress. I think we’ll continue to see changes in how customers shop and book and how we, as an industry, adapt to that because it is the basis of the behavior that’s changing that we have to then adapt to. We’re definitely seeing voice search having an impact and it will continue to evolve.” As such, the company is engaging in beta tests with Google.

Similarly, Choice has seen similar results, noting during its conference that at the end of March, more than one in 10 searches used voice. The company has been experimenting with a way to book hotels through voice, including Alexa and Facebook Messenger. Robert McDowell, chief commercial officer, said, “We need to keep a sharp eye to the future—looking at Siri and Alexa—so that we keep [Choice] hotels in front of where customers’ eyes and voices are going.”

President/COO Pat Pacious elaborated, “We started looking at this about a year ago: What is it going to look like? Our thinking is it’s going to be another sales channel. Back in the old days, you had to call the hotel directly, then you went to 24/7 toll-free numbers, then the web, now it’s mobile. We don’t think it’ll overtake the others, but it’ll be another sales channel.”

Armand Rabinowitz, senior director of strategy and workgroups, HTNG, noted that booking by voice faces more challenges than in-room voice solutions, particularly in the higher tiers. “Sales was the original intent of the Amazon Alexa platform, but ordering travel is quite complicated,” he said, noting this is especially true for hotels. “Booking travel, unless you go somewhere very frequently, is definitely going to need to have a screen or some kind of extremely intelligent thing that’s reading your mind to bring voice into the booking path.”

But, he noted, the path becomes much clearer for one-night stays in drive-to destinations. “That future is coming. “Apple’s recent announcement about the release of their always-listening voice device, the HomePod, makes it clear the voice interface is maturing. This future could leverage something like Apple’s CarPlay and the forthcoming improvements to Siri for HomePod. Systems like these are not that smart yet, but because you can’t look at a screen when you’re driving, it would be smart to provide a service to enable booking a hotel with an EV charging station in 100 miles, for example,” he said.

For its part, Expedia Inc. is testing the waters. David Fleischman, VP of global product, Expedia, said that the point of booking sites is to match the traveler to the right product for them. “We have a philosophy when we do our products, especially things like voice, AI and chatbots that are a little newer in the western world—in Asia, it’s a little bit different—but we’ve talked about slow and then with overwhelming speed. The idea is we want to experiment and understand how our travelers think about these technologies and what they’re comfortable with,” he explained. “It’s going to evolve over time.”

Echoing Rabinowitz’s concerns, he said, “Lodging is a very visual, immersive experience: Will it work without voice? Maybe not today, but I would never say never. It depends on where the technology goes. It’s early enough that we want to experiment everywhere we can.

“One way to think about voice is it’s a much more natural way to interact with a product,” Fleischman continued. “One of the things we talk about is if we had had this technology 20 years ago when Expedia started, would any travel site look the way it does?” he asked. “Is it natural to say I’d like a hotel here on these dates with this number of people in a very structured way, or is travel more of an unstructured discussion?”

Expedia is looking at two types of voice- and AI-enabled solutions: helping consumers to buy something and giving them help. “That could be as simple as ‘I want to reconfirm my booking’ or ‘I have to change something,’” he said. “That’s a basic scenario we’re working to support.”

Before hotels are able to truly do voice bookings, AI will need to be there. “You’re not going to be able to structure a conversation up front, especially when you want to unbind your travelers from the limitations they have today on how they have to ask questions,” Fleischman said. “That’ll take a series of technological innovations and people behind it for a while. I don’t think you’ll get to a point in the near future where AI handles the more complex questions.”

For his part, Pacious gave his potential vision of the future and echoed the need for robust technology. “From a technology perspective and understanding who is going to be on the other end of that, what probably will end up happening, I think, is you create a profile of your most loyal guests and know what type of room they want, the brand they stay with, the price point they want to pay—then you’ll be able to easily serve that up, but that artificial intelligence needs to know that. And that is information that changes rapidly and it’s information that has to get processed quickly, so the backend systems behind all of this have to be upgraded in order to participate,” he said.

Adding that it’s something Choice has been working on, he added, “Data has to move at a speed that these old systems can’t keep up with. How the consumer is going to interact with voice is pretty nascent, so we’re still looking at it. Our technology folks have already figured out how to do it; now it’s just a question of how do you bring it to market? But we have to stay ahead of the game to bring customers to [our franchisees’]door. Thinking about where that customer will be and what channel they’re going to want to buy through is pretty important for us.”

Fleischman said, “This space is so early that we want to continue to understand what works for our travelers and how we further the cause of making travel simple and accessible to as many people as possible, matching those travelers to the right products. I think there’s a lot of potential here, but I don’t know anybody has quite figured out exactly how it will work or which platform will work. It’s the wild west in some regards. There’s no dominant player yet, which is a cool place because you can experiment pretty rapidly. But it also means it’s a little longer to draw conclusions.

“It’s an interesting time to start framing and helping people understand how to use these products for travel. We have a unique opportunity to do that, but it is early, and that’s what’s fun about it—trying to understand the space,” he concluded.

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