There’s been plenty of anticipation — and coverage — of the possibility of using voice technology in hotels, but when it comes to vacation rentals, the theoretical power of voice has the potential to be truly transformative for an area of hospitality without staff to provide certain services.

“The promise of voice in vacation rentals is amazing, in theory,” said Alex Nigg, co-founder and CEO of Properly, a cleaning management platform for private accommodations. “It’s amazing because if you look at how vacation rentals position themselves against hotels, it’s more about the product: more space, kitchens, interesting neighborhoods. But you miss the service overlay of the hotel, and a voice system can replace a lot of that. That promise is compelling because it brings vacation rental product up to par of what a hotel offers.”

Not only that, but as more consumers purchase and use voice assistants for their homes, their familiarity with the product has grown. Research released earlier this year by Voicebot.ai estimates that approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population, or 47.3 million U.S. adults, has access to a smart speaker.

Both Nigg and Dave Berger, CEO of Volara, a voice-based software provider, are Airbnb Superhosts themselves, and they said they’ve seen a number of their guests intuitively use voice assistants when staying in their respective homes.

“Guests loved it and they made less requests of me using the messaging app on Airbnb, and then I implemented some promotions from local businesses,” Berger explained. “This was the genesis of Volara. I saw an opportunity for voice assistants to provide guest services.”

Current Applications

While there’s great promise and increasing consumer familiarity with voice technology, the applications — for now — remain somewhat limited to the following categories: providing guest services; serving as a sort of virtual guidebook; creating a “smart home” environment; and enabling communication among guests, vacation rental staff, and the property managers.

Simple guest services that mirror what a hotel front desk normally handles are easy enough to program into today’s voice assistants. They include things like helping guests figure out the Wi-Fi password or where the remotes are located, or perhaps even allowing guests to order groceries via Amazon Prime or Whole Foods.

“Where are the extra towels? How do I operate the washer and dryer? These are things that hosts are asked all the time, but now they can handle those requests in an automated way,” said Berger. “There’s an efficiency value for hosts and guests to get information when they need it and want it.”

As for guestbooks and recommendations, there’s also been more movement in this area as well. Most recently, Hostfully, a provider of digital guestbooks for private accommodations, partnered with Virtual Concierge Service, to integrate Hostfully’s guidebooks into voice assistants.

“People have been using our digital and print guidebooks for a number of years,” said David Jacoby, president and co-founder of Hostfully. “This is just a natural extension. Now they can access the guidebook information through voice, phone, or even old-school print.”

Virtual Concierge Service also recently launched an integration in September with recommendations platform Yelp.

Berger said he’s heard of some property managers recording their own personal recommendations for guests to be made available on demand through voice assistants, allowing those managers to provide more personable hotel concierge-style services to their guests.

We’ve also seen some early examples of how smart speakers are harnessing the Internet of Things to create smart home environments, and a number of hotel brands, from Marriott and Hilton to InterContinental Hotels Group and AccorHotels are currently testing out “smart room” tech.

Likewise, the applications for smart home technology to sync with voice in a vacation rental exist, but adoption isn’t quite there yet. At Virtual Concierge Service, vacation property managers can order smart home kits.

Volara’s Berger, however, said, “Properties that have lighting controls synced to voice are still the minority of homes. To do a whole integration is more expensive and more of an investment of time and resources.”

Ease of communication, whether it takes place between guests and property managers, or between cleaning/maintenance staff and property managers is also a useful application that today’s voice assistants can provide in the vacation rental space.

Virtual Concierge Service CEO Dana Young said its software provides the “capability for guests to contact hosts using voice and the host gets and email or text message that relates to specific requests, or to report damage, or to deliver feedback.”

Similar to how we’re seeing some hotel staff use voice technology to address back-of-house or operational efficiencies, vacation rental staff can do the same, such as alerting management with information about the units, documenting maintenance requests, or reordering supplies for homes.

RedAwning, a vacation rental network and marketing service, was an early adopter of voice technology in the vacation rental space and is working on a pilot with Amazon’s Alexa for Hospitality program to place voice assistants in as many as 10,000 properties by the end of 2019. CEO Tim Choate said 5,000 homes in RedAwning’s network have requested the technology.

Expedia’s HomeAway is also seeing what kind of role voice technology can have in its inventory. Tina Weyand, chief product officer for HomeWay, said that as part of Apple iOS 12, third-party developers such as HomeAway can integrate with Apple’s Siri voice assistant.

“HomeAway has leveraged this new capability in their mobile app to allow travelers to quickly retrieve details about their upcoming trips using their voice,” Weyand said. “Other Expedia Group brands have also launched features for voice-enabled devices, and we are incorporating their learnings as we explore voice solutions that make the most sense for vacation rental travelers, owners, and property managers.”

However, Weyand and others agree that while there’s plenty of promise for voice in vacation rentals, the technology isn’t yet fully developed.

“Voice in vacation rentals remains a nascent category with a few early entrants,” she said. “While we admire the solutions these companies have built, there remains tremendous opportunity to scale and to improve.”

Privacy Issues

Not only are the applications somewhat limited for voice technology in vacation rentals, but there are also a number of challenges to it that need to be addressed.

It’s also much easier to program these devices for a hotel setting than for a network of unique and individual vacation rental properties spread out across a number of different regions, as Volara’s Berger found.

“We spent more of our time in the hotel industry because it was an easier market to provide the solution in,” he said. “The rooms are all the same. In vacation rentals, all are each very different.”

Perhaps the most obvious challenge — and one that also poses a problem for the placement of voice assistants in hotel rooms — relates to privacy.

“One challenge to enabling voice technology in the vacation rental space is that need for both homeowners and travelers to have a sense of trust and privacy when using these devices in a property,” Weyand noted.

“If I take a device like this and install it in my home, it’s my choice and I know what I’m doing,” Properly’s Nigg said. “But in the hospitality context it’s a totally different story. We can’t assume the guest know what they are doing or even how to use it. Do we need consent? What if it both watches and listens? Do we need guests to opt-in up front?”

Volara’s Berger said that his company has developed technology that ensures that no guest information is ever connected to a recording, and that any data exchanged between the property manager and a guest is never shared with Amazon.

“When we integrate into an existing software of a large vacation rental manager, that’s an integration with Volara and the property management system of that vacation rental owner or management system,” Berger explained. “We use data to inform responses and interactions, but we don’t share that data with Amazon.”

Virtual Concierge Service’s Young said, “There are guardrails in the Alexa for Hospitality program that help address privacy concerns.” One of those features includes the disabling of a “drop in” feature that lets an Amazon Echo device “drop in” on another device. “You don’t want the vacation rental manager to drop in on the device, and Alexa for Hospitality prevents that from happening.”

Multiple Users and Multiple Unique Locations

Extending the idea of privacy issues further, Nigg also wondered how voice assistants would know which account or credit card information to use when a guest decides to order food from Amazon, for instance.

“These devices were meant to be used by one user in one house,” Nigg explained. “But with vacation rentals, you’re dealing with many different locations and different addresses with different services available. And when one guest checks in or out, how do you ensure that they don’t have the same account settings as the guest who stayed there previously?”

Young said that Virtual Concierge Service’s software allows for “resets” to “ensure that we can go in and reset devices and clear everything from the previous guest to ensure a consistent experience for the new guest coming in.”

RedAwning’s Choate similarly said that automatic resets of devices are a major feature of Alexa for Hospitality.

Virtual Concierge Service’s software was also developed to make it so that multiple properties could be managed under a single account, while also taking into account specific “tweaks or adjustments” that need to be made for individual properties.

Volara’s software similarly enables property managers to manage multiple devices across a spectrum of different properties. “We just launched a new technology that allows for responses for Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or IBM Watson to be modified by any external data,” said Berger. “So, if you’re a large vacation rental manager with 300 units across Florida, you can now, through our software, manage all of those on one account, but the responses can be different based on what unit your guest is in.”

At RedAwning, Choate said it has developed a skill with Alexa for Hospitality that allows guests to extend their reservations or request late check-out, thanks to an integration with Stripe and the payment that’s on file. But when it comes to something like ordering a pizza via UberEats, the payment options haven’t yet been established for ordering via voice.

Accents and Language Issues

As sophisticated as artificial intelligence has become over the years, there are still issues with Alexa, Google, and Siri understanding us fully, and in all the roughly 6,500 languages that we collectively speak today.

“There’s still an opportunity for voice technology to drastically improve its understanding of various accents,” HomeAway’s Weyand said. “It not captured correctly, it won’t map to the right intent,” which also poses a big problem for the potential for people to book things like travel, or change existing reservations.

Volara’s Berger said his company has spent the last two-and-a-half years collecting data on how guests engage with Alexa, and to specifically look for data that Alexa passes onto Volara that is incorrect.

“Often, because of an accent or broken English, Alexa may not have heard a guest well. So, we’re using that data to improve accuracy of interactions so that guests who stay in Volara-powered vacation rentals and hotels will be better understood than they are at home.”

Disintermediation Looms

A more nebulous challenge that both the hotel and vacation rental industries face when it comes to the placement of in-room or in-unit voice technology is the threat of disintermediation from the likes of the voice and artificial intelligence providers.

In other words, who ultimately “owns” the customer? Is it the property manager/management company or hotel brand? Or is it the Googles and Amazons of the world whom the customer is most loyal to?

For example, in Marriott’s existing pilot with Amazon’s Alexa for Hospitality, there’s not yet any integration with Marriott’s own loyalty program when it comes to the smart speaker devices. Instead, a guest who stays in a room with one of the voice assistants would sync the device with his or her own Amazon account to access things like music, etc.

For the incredibly fragmented vacation rental industry, that problem becomes even bigger without the brand name recognition of a hotel chain.

“Property managers already feel dis-intermediated as more bookings come from the various different platforms out there,” said Nigg. “The average guest spends just an hour or two looking at Airbnb and spends five days at that property she booked on Airbnb, but she doesn’t remember the property or property manager. But she remembers Airbnb.”

He continued, “The dream of both Amazon and Google is that a guest will walk into his hotel room or vacation rental and say, ‘Alexa, it’s me,’ and she recognizes your voice and your voice prompt is your password, and it automatically configures to all of your Amazon or Google accounts. You essentially take your home with you. It’s compelling from a guest perspective, but not from a Marriott or vacation rental manager’s perspective.”

The possibility for vacation rental managers to leave personalized messages or even recordings for their guests might help combat that disintermediation from Google or Amazon, but RedAwning’s Choate thinks there’s no better way to ensure loyalty than with exceptional hospitality.

“Amazon can’t ship you a vacation rental,” he said. “There’s no chance that Amazon or Google will somehow take over the entire relationship with the guest. A good property manager will find the best ways to set themselves up to deliver the best possible guest experience.”

Even better, yet, is the possibility that voice integration software from providers like Volara or Virtual Concierge Service might become advanced enough to “know” guests as well — to know their preferences and personalize the information or suggestions that Alexa or Google tells them.

Young said he hopes that, over time, “personalized guest experiences can be offered” via voice, whether it’s in the form of access to special experiences or simply knowing what a particular customer likes or dislikes.

Still Early Days

General consensus is that voice technology applications for the vacation rental industry are still very new, but they shouldn’t be ignored.

“This is very early,” Berger said. “Where we will be in 10 years will probably blow both our minds, and the technology will evolve. I would encourage hospitality professionals to get started and evolve with the tech so they can be on the cutting edge of it.”

And voice technology could, in some ways, help solve one of the perennial challenges that has plagued the private accommodations space from the beginning: a lack of trust from consumers.

“This is part of the next wave of how vacation rentals get much better, and how trust builds,” said RedAwning’s Choate. “Trust is the biggest challenge in vacation rentals. People know what they get when they go to a hotel. When you get to a vacation rental property, everything is unique. It’s one of the things that’s so great about them, but our goal is to build trust by adding consistency of experience wherever possible so guests can feel comfortable and still get all the uniqueness which is so great about vacation properties.”

Photo Credit: Voice technology applications in the vacation rental industry are somewhat limited for now, but they are sure to expand in the next few years. Amazon Alexa for Hospitality