Alexa for Hospitality’s marketing materials show the types of requests guests can make via Amazon’s Echo device.

SEEMS LIKE EVERYBODY involved in hotel technology these days is talking about voice. And the more people talk, the more they learn. Just like the technology itself.

The subject of voice-activated solutions supported by artificial intelligence dominated HITEC in July as exhibitors of TVs, tablets, phones, room controls and the devices themselves touted the latest iterations of software platforms as well as expanded uses of dedicated hardware in guest rooms and back of the house.

While it’s a hot topic today, most experts interviewed for this story said the technology is so new there is no telling how its use will evolve over the next five to 10 years.

One thing’s for sure, they say, voice is here to stay; hoteliers who ignore the inevitable run the risk of becoming obsolete.

Rupesh R. Patel is determined to stay out in front of the trend. In mid-August, his company, Zenique Hotels, opened an Aloft in Dublin, California, and went live with tablets from AavGo in every one of its 127 rooms. The tablets enable guests to communicate with hotel staff and gather information about the property and local area.

The rooms also have Amazon smart speakers powered by Volara. Through voice command, guests can control the room’s lights and thermostat and ask the hotel to provide items such as towels and toiletries. The hotel also uses Savioke’s robot to deliver items guests request via either tablet or speaker.

“We decided to go all out with technology because we are in the Bay Area and Aloft is a forward-looking brand,” said Patel. “To be ahead of the curve, you have to take a risk. Voice control is still being beta-tested by many brands, and we wanted to jump into the deep end to see what it can do.”

VIDEO: See Alexa at work at Zenique Hotels’ newly opened Aloft Dublin-Pleasanton in Dublin, California on the hotel’s Facebook page.

Eventually, Patel will reduce the number of devices in the guest room as AavGo of San Jose, California, is working with Google Assist to integrate voice into its tablets. Patel uses AavGo tablets in his other hotels – from upscale to midscale – and looks forward to the day they include voice.

In the first two weeks of the hotel’s opening, guests had not fully embraced all in-room tech options. But Patel thinks his guests’ learning curve is steep and they will soon be comfortable with the devices. After all, he said, “this is the future.”

Hiren Mowji, co-founder of AavGo, said guests appreciate having options between touch and voice activations that tablets provide, but some are hesitant to go all in. “Millennial guests have no problem with the technology, but other guests have privacy concerns and are cautious,” he said.

Mowji acknowledges voice is growing and will be a standard expectation of guests in the coming years, but for now the technology is limited. “Guests can place a room-service order with Alexa, but they still need to see a menu.”

“Voice-based technologies and automation are natural outgrowths of IoT [internet of things] and consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable using voice command…,” reads a report by Angie Hospitality, creator of a hotel-room touch-responsive device that includes voice.

“Voice is a very nascent market,” said Ted Helvey, founder and CEO of Angie Hospitality who got his start 20 years ago installing Ethernet cable in hotels. “It is estimated only about 1,000 rooms in the world have a voice-activated device. It’s microscopic, but very exciting. Remember when we first put high-speed internet in hotel rooms? Then we added Wi-Fi. Those developments are still not as big as voice.”

What’s Behind It

Driving hotels’ adoption of guest-facing voice technology are Amazon, Google and Apple, to some extent.

Getting consumers familiar and comfortable with the devices at home is the prevailing strategy to growth in other areas of users’ lives, including hospitality. Last year, 25 million smart speakers were shipped in the U.S., reports NPR and Edison Research. In July, researchers estimated 48 million American adults own devices, and 74 percent of those bought the speakers in the past 12 months.

Various research groups report differing estimates in the number of smart speakers as well as market share for Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod. No matter how it adds up, Amazon (Alexa) is ahead of both Google (Hey, Google) and Apple (Siri) in device distribution in the world and in the U.S.

In June, Amazon announced the launch of Alexa for Hospitality, touting a partnership with Marriott International for a pilot project in some of its brands, including Marriott, Aloft, Westin and properties in its Autograph Collection. Marriott International declined to be interviewed, saying the project will begin its launch in October.

Amazon is not new to the hospitality industry. Working with Volara, Amazon “started integrating the Alexa voice service into hotel rooms in 2016,” said Liron Torres, senior manager, Amazon Alexa. “We learned a lot from different deployments, and that led to the creation of Alexa for Hospitality, a software-based deployment and management solution that makes it easier and faster for hotels to add Alexa to their guest rooms.”

Torres said because millions of people have Amazon’s Echo in their homes, developing Alexa for Hospitality “was the natural next step.” By its launch date, Alexa for Hospitality and Volara had deployed Echo Dots in 45 hotels in the U.S.

David Berger, co-founder and CEO of Volara, in an article published in July by Phocuswright, calls the rollout a “seminal moment for hoteliers, as well as the ecosystem of the vendors that serve them. The potential is obvious and even a bit magical.” Berger also outlines the challenges ahead for voice, including guest education, data protection and integrating the technology into existing platforms.

Voice and AI

With the Marriott project, Alexa for Hospitality is partnering with Volara and other third-party providers, including DigiValet.

DigiValet teamed up with Starwood Hotels and Resorts in 2016 to place voice-activated iPads in rooms in Aloft hotels in California and Massachusetts. Dubbed “Project Jetson,” DigiValet’s deal with Starwood was underway months before the Marriott International acquisition.

Recently, DigiValet installed iPads with touch-screen and voice activation in the newly opened Loews Universal Aventura Orlando, and it has several more contracts in the works with other luxury and upscale brands.

DigiValet allows hotels to use in-room iPads to communicate with guests and give customers touch- and voice-activated control over their rooms, including lights, TV and thermostat settings. The handheld devices also feature the hotel’s dining and other revenue-generating services and allows guests to order or book an experience.

“My take on voice technology is multi-faceted,” said Rachana Salgia, who founded DigiValet with her husband, Rahul. “From a guest perspective, voice is moving to more natural interfaces. It can respond to different languages and different requests. Everything is moving to minimalistic natural interfaces.” One day soon, she said, augmented reality will couple with voice to create a platform that will respond to requests made with hand movements. “With a small gesture you will be able to control the room lights and the TV.”

Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others are “teaching humans to adapt to this technology and then adapt it into the hospitality experience,” she said.

DigiValet’s strength, Salgia said, is its insight into the guest experience. “We can make it as frictionless as possible through tablets, phones, voice and virtual reality. That is just one part of artificial intelligence.”

Artificial intelligence involves a process by which a computer program learns more and more about a task or a user every time a question is posed or a command is made. The technology assimilates to the user’s habits and established preferences. The more it learns about you, the better it can serve you.

In hospitality, Salgia said, “it enables continuous learning about the guest.” Once the guest intel is gathered, the next step in AI is processing it into something useful and marketable.

“Every hotel has information about the guest – reservations, where they dine, their spending preferences while in the hotel. The data resides in silos, and the challenge is to unlock and compound the data. Hoteliers will be able to use AI to make sense of the guest data and actually make recommendations directly to the guest. That is the real power of artificial intelligence.”

Data Ownership

A growing issue that has yet to be resolved is who owns the customer data – the hotel owner, brand parent or the company that owns the device.

Michael Coletta, author of Phocuswright’s recently released report, “The State of Voice in Travel,” said the long-term intention of third-party providers such as Amazon “is probably on the minds of hotel managers, for sure.”

Just as Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others collect data on consumers using voice in their homes, cars and phones, the hotel industry can expect the companies to be eager to “collect a ton of data and benefit from getting the devices into the [hotel] room,” Coletta said.

“Ultimately, I think voice is a battle between Google and Amazon in terms of larger consumer awareness, and voice is just a part of the picture. The technology will be moving from passive search to pro-active assistance.”

Helvey with Angie Hospitality said he has had to reassure hoteliers and franchisers that they alone own the customer data. Angie Hospitality’s devices are exclusive to each hotel, meaning when if a guest stays at a Marriott Hotel in New York City and later stays at Hyatt in Chicago, the Angie device will not recognize the guest from the earlier stay. “When they show up at Hyatt, they are a different guest.”

The shared value is the customer, Helvey said. “I don’t know how it will all shake out, but it will be a big issue.”

Travelers will probably leave it up to hotel companies and tech providers to figure it out.

“Consumers will come to expect voice in every point in the travel journey, from shopping, booking, check-in and while in the room,” Salgia said. “Hotels have to catch up to the consumer technology. Brands have to be ahead of the consumer’s life.”

Salgia is confident the U.S. hotel industry will continue to get on board with AI-powered technology. “Owners are wise people,” she said. “They know the value of differentiating themselves from the competition, and they will put money into technology.”

Learning Curves

Other hotel companies such as Best Western Hotels & Resorts and Red Roof Inn are experimenting with Amazon’s smart speakers. Best Western is testing in-room use and Red Roof is encouraging customers to engage with their devices at home to learn more about their hotels.

Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Best Western Hotels and Resorts, agreed that hoteliers – Best Western members in particular – are astute business people. “They don’t want to invest in technology that does not drive up net promoter scores” and improve business.

The company continues to explore innovations with third-party vendors. The company uses IBM Watson technology to power its new guest-texting program. “Texting allows the customer to engage before they arrive and for the hotel to anticipate their needs.” So far, about 30 percent of Best Western’s member hotels are participating. “We have rolled it out because we have seen the value to the customer and we are seeing a return on investment.”

Dowling questions the future use of stand-alone smart speakers, noting the technology is available via the devices that guests already carry such as tablets and mobile phones.

John Swain of Evolve Controls echoes Dowling’s observation. Evolve has voice-activated devices, but Swain said, “You already have a voice assistant on your phone. It’s already with you everywhere you go.”

Swain is part of a workgroup with Hotel Technology Next Generation that developed guidance for hotels preparing to adapt to voice technology. “In this phase, we were focused on near-field devices that are controlled by voice three to 20 feet away. We hope to provide hoteliers things to consider when thinking about offering voice controls.”

The document, he said, is intended to “set the minimum standard for voice technology.” At issue is the sheer number of different devices in the market today. “There are a lot of options out there and you want to standardize,” Swain said. “There are so many things to think about in coming up with how to stay consistent. If you are a guest and there is a learning curve and every hotel has a totally different device, it’s not a great guest experience.”

Another hurdle is guests’ unfamiliarity with smart speakers. Although Amazon and Google are feverishly shipping new devices, the number of U.S. households with the units is relatively small, about 7 to 8 percent of all homes in the U.S. “It’s a big barrier in being able to transition voice technology to a hotel,” said Raj Singh, founder and CEO of Go Moment, creator of Ivy, a mobile phone texting program powered by IBM Watson.

Because it’s already programmed for a smart phone, Ivy is the “glue between the hotel guest and the ambient computer-voice-driven speaker,” Singh said. “Ivy can address the smart speaker and the guest.” Singh is working with Google to fine-tune the technology, which he said “is not yet ready for prime time.” Google declined a request for an interview.

Besides interacting with the guest-room device, programs like Ivy will be integrated with other devices, combining texting, voice and screen visuals – an entire ecosystem driven by voice technology.

The smart speaker will eventually be rendered obsolete, Singh said. “It will melt into the ether. The speaker will not be the mode of communication; for now it is prompting the user to get control over their hotel experience.”

Joining the Conversation

Controlling that experience usually starts before the guest arrives at the hotel. A smart device in the room is perhaps fun, but it’s only part of the journey. Red Roof Inn has come up with a way to start the conversation with guests before they leave home.

“Most of our industry is singularly focused on: ‘How do we put voice in the hotel room to add to the overall consumer experience?’” said Kevin Scholl, director of digital marketing and partnerships at Red Roof Inn in Columbus, Ohio. “We took a different turn and asked, ‘Why don’t we connect to guests where they already are – in their homes?’”

Red Roof worked with Amazon to create a program or skill in which consumers can talk with Red Roof via the Echo device. Developing the application is a “phased approach,” Scholl said. “First, we had to figure out how to integrate. So we looked at the conversations we are having with guests. We take the data we are collecting and turn that conversation over to Alexa. For example, people want to know about our pet policy and the locations of other Red Roofs.”

Red Roof Inn has enabled a skill on Amazon’s Echo device that allows people to learn more about Red Roof, its locations and special deals.

People also are asking questions that Red Roof has not heard before, leading to new things to talk about. “It leads us down the path to create a better customer experience,” Scholl said.

“Part of the challenge as a brand is creating your skill,” Scholl said. “I can ask Alexa to tell me about Star Wars and she will do a Bing search. But we want to become part of the conversation. We are creating the call and response. This is an opportunity for us to become engaged in the conversation.”

An Echo owner has to enable the “Ask Red Roof” skill via the Alexa app on their smartphone. Once enabled, the customer can learn about the brand by prefacing the questions with “Alexa, ask Red Roof.”

Torres of Amazon said the Red Roof program is not part of Alexa for Hospitality as adding an Alexa skill is a separate application.

Scholl likens adding branded skills to the development of smartphone apps less than 10 years ago. Each brand developed an app for that. It is no different for smart speakers. The process involves letting people know through marketing programs that they can ask Alexa questions about the brand and its hotels.

Being conversational means being branded as such, Scholl said. In phase two, Red Roof will develop a distinct voice for Red Roof. When a user hears that voice, they will know it’s Red Roof. “We want to sprinkle in fun little moments to give her a personality and get people comfortable,” Scholl said.

No matter on what device the voice technology is delivered, Scholl said, “it is a skill that won’t go away. We are social consumers. I am engaged in a conversation as a consumer. Translate that experience to buying something on Facebook. We will move from a social platform to voice.

“Our owners and our corporate properties are excited about voice technology because it’s a new way to continue the conversation about brand consistency and value. It allows us to carve a consistent path.”