When it comes to voice, it’s best to keep it natural

SAN JOSE, CA—Whether voice-activated booking or in-room devices that connect guests with the hotel, voice is on the rise in hospitality—but not all voice-activated solutions are the same. In order to clearly and effectively communicate with guests, these solutions need to be as user friendly as possible—and natural language is a part of that.

Ted Helvey, CEO of Angie Hospitality, developer of a 24-hour interactive guestroom assistant purpose-built for the hotel environment, noted that the change in how people in the industry have been thinking about voice can be seen from the difference in the last two HITEC conferences. “Two years ago, right after we released the product, it was curiosity seekers,” he explained. “Last year, people were coming who had now been experimenting.”

The changeover from those who see voice as a novelty to those who are serious about implementation mirrors the breakthrough in voice technology. “Voice is something that has gained popularity overnight after four or five decades of effort to try to make it work right,” Helvey said. “The breakthrough in technology has come in the past couple of years, where a high enough percentage of spoken words is understood and can be processed fast enough that it really is growing in popularity significantly. It’s really a breaking point, if you will, that enough people are using it now and familiar with the concept.”

But, he noted, when evaluating solutions, hotels should look for those that use robust language processing that doesn’t rely on learned phrases or commands, which will allow a hotel to implement a voice solution that guests can immediately use via natural speech, providing a more human-like interaction with the technology.

“We, from the ground up, built our system, and it’s not just understanding the words, but understanding the meaning in a hotel context,” he said. “That’s something we worked hard on, and put into the architecture from the beginning, which makes a huge difference for the guest experience in the hotel room.”

That hotel context is important and differentiates hospitality solutions from more global ones like Siri or Google Assistant. “When you talk to Siri, she trains you—you’ll say it again and again until finally you go, ‘Oh, this is how Siri wants to do it.’ We as humans get trained by virtual assistants. But that’s an intimate relationship you get used to,” he said. “We realized we were taking on the challenge of putting a voice-activated device in a room with different users every day. We had to focus heavily on how things might be said,” he explained. “It can get asked in so many different ways, and we didn’t want to create that initial negative experience you might have with your own assistant, so we put in as many ways as possible.”

Hotel guests who spend a couple of days in a hotel room aren’t going to invest that kind of time in a relationship with a voice assistant in a guestroom. They need it to work right from the beginning. “We want it to be a good experience; the hotelier, particularly when they make an investment in guest satisfaction, they don’t want it to be guest annoyance,” Helvey said. “That has been some of the reports we’ve gotten from those trying to use consumer devices—it’s not a natural speaking experience. It’s there, and it’s cool, and there is a novelty aspect, and a lot of hotels are giving it a try because they want to do something interesting, but the actual usage and satisfaction is not where they would like it to be.”

Because the system is built for the hotel environment, it focuses on questions that pertain to travel. “We created our own guest-language engine, a hospitality engine we wrote ourselves from the beginning,” Helvey said. “We licensed the actual changing audio sounds of words into text and leveraged that from the tech giants, but the meaning and questions, that’s where our layer begins. The only reason we were brave enough to do it is we knew this is a hotel environment, and we know what questions get asked.”

However, there are an infinite number of ways those questions can be asked—and multiple languages they can be asked in. “We think about a guest coming into the room, we want them to be comfortable, to be able to control the room, whether it’s the TV or the nightlight,” he said. “We focus on comfort in their room, at their property, neighborhood and transportation-focused things like flight status. There are an amazing number of ways to ask about the status of your flight, and we need to process that in split seconds to have it be a good experience. We do have the advantage in feeling confident about our efforts because we have a much narrower focus; I try to be patient with Siri and Alexa because they’re trying to answer how far it is to the moon or any other question anyone might ask.”

The system is also fluid, constantly updating. “Any time there’s a failure, we keep an anonymous log of what was said, and we add that back in if we can figure out what was really intended there,” Helvey said. “Angie doesn’t make the same mistake twice because of the technology we put in.”

The company is also currently beta testing a solution in which, if Angie doesn’t know the answer to a question, she asks Google Assistant, and the device responds with Google. “In some ways, we’re saying Angie is going to be the local expert, but if we don’t know the answer, we’re going to ask our friend Google,” Helvey said.

Another thing hoteliers should look at, he said, is how clunky the commands are—hotel guests don’t necessarily want to use double triggers, but something simple like, “Angie, close the drapes.”

“We do get positive feedback that people have lots of interactions and really few misunderstandings,” he said.

“If we’re going to bring voice to the room, then we need to treat everything as a first date—we need to be on our best behavior and as flexible as we can; yet, on the other hand, once we’ve interacted once, we also want it to be like we’re married for 20 years, and we know just what they like, what temperature they like, know what lights they like, know what channels they like,” Helvey said. “The hotel owns the guest relationship and any data associated with their guests, which is a big differentiator. But within that, because we know what they’re asking for, what they’re ordering from room service, we know all of the things they like and can easily make their next stay, whether returning to that particular hotel or a like-branded hotel, better.” HB

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