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Smart Speakers Are Infiltrating Hotels – Will Room Service Ever Be the Same?

Michael Wilson | Jul 17, 2018

“Alexa, order fresh towels.” The next time you stay at a hotel, you may find yourself talking to a smart speaker instead of a live human when it comes to ordering in-room ...

“Alexa, order fresh towels.” The next time you stay at a hotel, you may find yourself talking to a smart speaker instead of a live human when it comes to ordering in-room amenities. Amazon has recently revealed a new version of its voice-activated smart speaker, Alexa. Entitled “Alexa for Hospitality,” the program involves an Amazon Echo smart speaker placed inside a hotel room, customized for every hotel location, which will let guests order room service, ask questions about the hotel, and adjust their thermostats, lights, blinds, and other room settings.

For hotel owners, Alexa for Hospitality represents a new and potentially concerning wrinkle in the supply chain. Although there are positive aspects of a having a smart speaker in a hotel room, the downsides are also extremely evident. At their worst, smart speakers are expensive, finicky, and even potentially invasive. If you deploy Alexa for Hospitality (or one of its competitors) incorrectly, you’re likely to incur a large expense for a tool that your guests will reject. How can hotel owners and managers integrate Alexa into the hospitality experience without missteps?

Privacy Issues Are a Serious Consideration for Smart Speakers in Hotel Rooms

A few months ago, a family in Portland, WA, reported that their Alexa device had recorded and sent conversations to a contact in Seattle, apparently without their knowledge or consent. Once the records of the device were reviewed, it became evident that the Alexa device had misinterpreted some background conversation as its wake word and misunderstood the following conversation to as an instruction to send a message.

As more and more Alexa devices appear in hotels, it seems inevitable that similar events will occur. This may result in incidents ranging from unexpected charges on guests’ bills to unauthorized recordings of guests’ conversations. Hotel owners and managers need to tread a careful line to make sure that having an Alexa in a guest’s room doesn’t turn into a liability. There are a few ways they can do this:

  • Have firm privacy policiesAlexa already has a very aggressive privacy policy with regards to hotels. Hotels can’t receive voice recordings from Alexa interactions, and recordings of commands are deleted daily. This is a good privacy policy, and guests need to be made aware of it. Nearly half of US customers distrust smart speaker devices – it’s best to assuage their concerns up front.
  • Be prepared for complaintsAs stated, it’s very possible for Alexa devices to mishear commands. Be prepared for your staff to deliver room service, only for a customer to complain, “I didn’t hear that, my smart speaker misheard me, and I want that charge off my bill.” Whether those complains are genuine or not, it’s necessary to have a policy in place for dealing with them.
  • Be flexibleYou should never surprise your guests with a smart speaker in their room – because, per the statistic above, it might not be a good surprise. Be upfront about what the smart speaker is and what it’s supposed to do and allow your guests to remove or unplug the smart speaker if they’re uncomfortable.

Are Hotel Smart Speakers Inevitable?

In a word? Yes. If not Amazon speakers, then speakers from someone else. As of October 2017, the Chinese Alibaba Group began providing smart speakers for over 100,000 hotel rooms, with the aim of adding technological responsiveness to the Chinese hotel experience. Similarly, a startup known as Roxy aims to provide an alternative to Alexa for the hotel industry, with stricter built-in privacy controls and customizable wake words. Outside the hotel industry, almost 50 million Americans own a smart speaker. They have passed the threshold into ubiquity.

In many ways, this ubiquity is good for hotel chains. Competition in the marketplace means that hotels can demand smart speakers with better performance, customizable controls, and more reassuring privacy options. On the other hand, the flourishing of smart speakers means that a choice has been taken away from hotel managers in some sense. No longer will they get to choose whether or not to have a smart speaker in their rooms – now the only choice is what brand to pick.

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