Skift Take

The next big questions hoteliers might soon be asking themselves: "Alexa, how do I make sure you recommend my hotels when they ask you where they want to stay?" Or, on the flip side: "Why did I invest so much into the modern-day version of the iPod docking station?"

It was only in November that technology giant Amazon announced the launch of its Alexa for Business division and just eight months later, Amazon’s plans for getting deeper into the travel space are becoming much clearer.

With the help of Marriott International and a number of other partners, including both hotel brands and technology systems, Amazon is announcing Tuesday the debut of Alexa for Hospitality, a division of the company committed to placing Amazon’s smart home devices into hotel rooms, vacation rentals, and other hospitality settings.

A Growing Trend: Voice-Powered Hotel Rooms

By harnessing the Internet of Things (IoT), voice assistants like the Amazon Echo are able to help guests control the lighting and temperature in their rooms, make calls and requests to the front desk, play music, check the weather, or play entertainment on the in-room television, for example.

“We’ve done some piloting today on a small scale in the hotel context,” said Amazon vice president Daniel Rausch. “It’s helped us understand more about how to work with hotels and what kinds of features they want.”

A number of hotel brands have already piloted the use of the Amazon Echo in their rooms — Best Western, Dream Hotels, and Wynn Resorts among them.

Marriott also debuted its own IoT Guestroom Lab last year at its headquarters office in Bethesda, Maryland, which showcased the use of voice technology to control the room. Marriott’s Aloft brand has also carried out previous pilots with Apple’s Siri, in addition to Amazon’s Alexa.

These various pilots with multiple hotels have led Amazon to conclude, “We know we’re onto something in the hotel context,” said Rausch.

“Almost 90 percent of guests who have had an in-room Alexa experience have rated it as a good or excellent experience,” he added. “Seven out of 10 guests who have had an in-room Alexa experience would specifically request a room with Alexa in it for their next stay.”

Since Alexa for Business debuted, Amazon has also been working on integrating its technology with back-of-house hotel technology platforms such as DigiValet, Intelity, Volara, and Nuvola. Integrating with these systems is something that, up to now, has been somewhat of a challenge for voice technology providers.

In April, for example, Amazon announced a partnership with Volara that enables guests to use the Amazon Echo to make phone calls. Today, Sonifi Solutions, a hospitality technology solutions provider announced its own partnership with Volara which will enable more voice-activated guestroom capabilities for Amazon’s Alexa for Hospitality products.

Alexa for Hospitality is also compatible with hotel guest room entertainment providers that include World Cinema and GuestTek, and with connected devices that use Crestron and Inncom by Honeywell.

Marriott’s Alexa for Hospitality Pilot

Later this summer, Marriott’s new pilot with Alexa for Hospitality begins with 10 different hotels from five of its brands — Marriott, Autograph Collection, Westin, St. Regis, and Aloft — in the U.S., from cities that range from Irvine, California and Wichita, Kansas, to Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.

For Marriott, the decision to run a pilot of this size with Amazon was influenced by the fact that “voice-first experiences have become an increasingly important channel for our guests, and we think Amazon is leading the market in this technology,” Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of customer experience innovation for Marriott International told Skift.

When the pilot debuts, guests can use the in-room Amazon Echo to do all the things they would normally ask it to do when they’re at home, along with other more hotel-specific tasks, or “skills” as Amazon calls them.

For example, Marriott can create its own curated music playlist that’s the default music for the Amazon Echo, and the devices are integrated with a hotel’s back-office systems to enable guests to make simple requests from the front desk, or even call the front desk directly.

Marriott did confirm it is thinking about “how each brand voice comes through with Alexa for Hospitality” and that it might adjust the Amazon Alexa for Hospitality experience accordingly to each of its brands.

For example, the wellness-minded Westin might offer a skill that helps guests discover the best jogging routes from the hotel, or a guest staying at a Marriott hotel might easily play a TED talk thanks to the Marriott brand’s partnership with TED.

While Marriott and Amazon didn’t disclose how much it would cost for hotel owners to incorporate this in-room technology, Hsieh noted that “each individual property will also be able to develop skills that are specific to the hotel and surrounding area.” Amazon’s Rausch said there would be “discounts on volume opportunities for devices.”

The company didn’t disclose if the pilot would be limited to only those initial 10 hotels, or when the pilot would officially end. There is no additional cost for guests who book a room that comes with this technology.

Eventually, Rausch said a guest will also be able to temporarily connect her in-room Amazon Echo to her own personal Amazon account to access her own media content, such as music or audio books.

Initially, however, a guest will not be able to connect his in-room Amazon Echo to his Marriott Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty member accounts, and that was a deliberate decision on Marriott’s part.

“We’re eager to learn how guests interact with Alexa — and what hotel amenities they request by asking Alexa,” Hsieh said. “In terms of connecting Alexa for Hospitality with our loyalty programs, or future tie-ins between our loyalty programs and Amazon Prime, we can’t speculate, but we are excited for our guests to experience Alexa in-room.”

For now, this pilot is also more focused on improving the guest experience rather than acting as a tool for hotel employees, such as serving as a panic button, or enabling housekeeping to notify the front desk when a room is cleaned. Amazon, however, did note that some of the hotels it has worked with have requested the development of more hotel employee tools.

Addressing Privacy Concerns and Voice Technology Challenges

Marriott’s Hsieh and Amazon’s Rausch also emphasized that a number of measures are being built into the devices to ensure guest privacy.

“With Alexa for Hospitality, guests don’t need to share personal information with Amazon to use Alexa in their hotel room, nor does the hotel need to provide guest information to Amazon,” Hsieh said. “A hotel cannot access voice recordings of what a guest says or Alexa’s response to a guest’s request, and Amazon cannot link voice recordings to individual guests. Voice recordings will be automatically deleted daily.”

As a default, all of the in-room Amazon Echo devices are muted, and guests have to unmute them to use them.

What the hotels do have access to, however, is to anonymized and aggregated data on how their guests are using these voice assistants. So, for example, if a hotel notices that restaurant recommendations are a very common request from guests using the devices, they might decide to add more suggestions as part of their Alexa for Hospitality skills set.

Not all hoteliers, however, are convinced that voice technology is capable enough of delivering a seamless guest experience. Hilton is also rolling out its own IoT hotel room concept, Connected Room, this summer, but it does not involve voice technology at the moment. Instead, guests access the technology via their own smartphones.

Josh Weiss, vice president of brand and guest technology at Hilton Hotels and Resorts, told Skift that while his team is constantly experimenting with voice controlled devices, the company would rather focus more on developing its Hilton Honors app as a tool, instead of using a voice assistant, primarily because of security concerns. Weiss said that he’s found that guests still feel like they might be monitored when one of those devices is in their guest rooms.

Another potential challenge Marriott will have to consider during this pilot is whether it can convince its hotel owners to adopt this technology, given the financial investment required. Older hotels, especially, may not have the infrastructure needed to support this technology.

And while the popularity of these voice assistants is growing, only 8 percent of Americans use a stand-alone device such as an Amazon Echo or a Google Home according to research from the Pew Center. By contrast, 42 percent use their smartphones for voice assistance.

Amazon’s Future in Hospitality and Travel

The concept of smart speakers in hotel rooms is still in its infancy, but the hospitality industry wants to ensure that it grows with this technology trend, and doesn’t fall behind in adopting it.

This trend isn’t limited to hotels, either. In February, ​Properly, a vacation rentals management platform announced that it developed a remote support system for Amazon Echo devices, enabling vacation rental property managers to place the technology in the homes in the hopes of improving the guest experience.

The overarching vision that hospitality brands — and Amazon — have for these devices is also very clear: to develop a connected platform that enables hotels to create truly personalized, frictionless experiences for their guests.

For Marriott, this Alexa for Hospitality pilot brings the company one step closer to achieving that vision at scale, and it builds on the concepts Marriott previously explored in its IoT Guestroom Lab.

Ensuring there’s some tie in with this voice technology to Marriott’s loyalty programs will be absolutely critical if Marriott wants to build stronger consumer relationships, and be that much better and well-equipped to service their loyal guests.

And likewise, for Amazon. When the ability for a hotel guest to link her Amazon account to an in-room Amazon Echo becomes possible, we can be absolutely certain that Amazon will be using it as yet another way to build loyalty and know more about its customers.

“We will be closely watching to see how these pilot programs get connected to the broader Amazon or Marriott ecosystems,” said Seth Borko, senior research analyst for Skift Research. “At the end of the day, Amazon is a platform company that obsesses about the customer experience. You have to think they will want to integrate these echo user profiles with the rest of the Amazon platform to provide a stronger customer experience. It will be interesting to see how much of the customer relationship will sit with Amazon or with Marriott.”

This pilot is also yet another example of the complex relationship between technology platforms like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and travel brands like Marriott. As much as they rely on one another, these brands are also competing for the attention of consumers. Earlier this month, the CEOs of Marriott, Hilton, and AccorHotels discussed the battle they currently find themselves in with regard to owns the customer in the digital space.

“I think we are in an absolute war for who owns the customer,” Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said.

“Of course, travel executives need to keep an eye out for direct competition from Amazon, but It may turn out that the final frontier for Amazon in hospitality is not as a competitor at all,” Borko noted. “Rather Amazon could end up as an advertising partner and designer of hospitality smart devices.”

Further down the line, hotels working with Amazon, Google, or Apple, will also have to ask themselves if and how they can influence voice search results as well. In other words, how does Marriott make sure that when an Amazon Echo user asks Alexa where to book a stay on his next trip, that a Marriott hotel is one of the suggestions?

“It’s something we are definitely thinking about,” an Amazon spokesperson told Skift, with regard to how voice search and hotel booking develops. “How can we follow up after you stay at the hotel if you have an Alexa at home? It’s that full circle connection to the experience.”

Marriott’s Hsieh said “We are not currently developing any custom skills around search or booking hotels using Alexa for Hospitality.”

But it’s certainly something Sorenson is thinking about, as well as his peers — AccorHotels included.

Earlier this month, Sorenson said, “What Amazon is doing with these digital assistants is reinventing search for voice search. They are all getting into have a profile for each and every one of our customers, so how do we use that to make sure we are monetizing that relationship as much as we can?”

“Voice searches are much more high stakes than desktop searches,” Skift Research’s Borko said. “With a voice search, users are more likely to go with the top result. This is true for tech companies as well. Voice monetization is difficult as it could ruin Amazon or Google’s consumer trust if they deliver a sponsored, but unhelpful result.”

“This is a battle we are going to be fighting for some time,” Sorenson said. “Each of us is making our bets in this space.”

And for now, at least, we have a clearer idea of how Marriott and Amazon are playing their cards in this space. What remains to be seen is what other players, Apple, Microsoft, and Google included, have in store as well.

“If voice continues to take off, Amazon could begin to chip away at Google’s dominance as Alexa uses Microsoft’s Bing as it’s default search engine,” Borko said. “In the long run, this is good news for advertisers as it could potentially move ad auctions off of Google and help ad prices.”

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Tags: amazon, Internet of Things, marriott, sonifi, Volara

Photo credit: Marriott is conducting a pilot of Amazon's Alexa for Hospitality product in 10 of its hotels in the U.S. this summer. Amazon/Marriott International

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