Voice control is the latest trend in the digital world. At least since Amazon's Alexa made its way into people's living rooms... and hotel rooms! But there's something more to digitalisation, and it's turning the hotel world upside down. Mostly for the benefit of guests and hoteliers.
text: Jürgen Baltes
Alexa, turn the light off!" Anyone who travels to the USA these days has a good chance of finding one of Amazon's Echo smart speakers on their hotel room desk, to which they can give this and many other commands. Examples include the EMC2 by Marriott, The Wit, the Thompson or the Acme Hotel in Chicago, the Alexis by Kimpton in Seattle, the Westin Buffalo in New York, the JW Marriott San Antonio, the Marina del Rey in Los Angeles or the Wynn and Encore Resorts in Las Vegas – to name but a few.
Amazon's smart speakers seem to be a big hit in the US hotel industry at the moment. The voice-based solution provider Volara alone helps more than twenty hotel chains to kit out their guest rooms. In China too, Marriott, for example, is intending to give 100,000 hotel rooms a voice with local internet giant Alibaba. In the UK, Village Hotels has just fitted its 28 hotels with Alexa.
Many a hotel operator will be wondering, "What's all the hype about?". Who would want to talk to Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant or any other virtual helper to arrange a wake-up call, find a TV show, control the air-conditioning, hear what's on the restaurant menu or order additional hand towels from room service? "People are increasingly going to use voice control in their everyday lives and will then, by extension, want to use the service in hotels as well," states Marc Frauenholz, CEO of Hello Guest Solutions. He has developed a special "Alexa Skill" for hotels, marketing for which is just getting underway.
Skills are small programs that teach the digital Amazon helper certain skills; she has a good 30,000 of them so far. Another interesting fact is that even hotel employees can use Alexa, for example to make a quick, easy announcement regarding a light bulb that needs changing in room x.
If the experts' forecasts are to be believed, voice control will change our everyday lives in the same way as smartphones did ten years ago. Hotels will then be just one part of an infrastructure that stretches from homes to the business to the car. BMW, for example, has just started to integrate Alexa into the car.
Meanwhile, it's not so much voice control as smartphones that are driving digitalisation in the hotel industry. These smart companions, which today are found in every jacket or jeans pocket, are set to become the key means of interaction between hotel and guest. Check-in and check-out, opening the bedroom door, payment and much more can be done quickly and easily using a smartphone.
Apps for checking in and out, which double as the room key, have been around for some years, with a large number of IT companies offering the appropriate technology. Large hotel chains, such as Marriott and Hilton, mostly provide these apps to registered regular customers and have successively equipped their hotels with the necessary technology. It's a topic firmly on the radar of almost every hotel chain. The apps aren't just something for the "big players", though.
The newly opened KVi Hotel in Budapest shows that apps really can do everything, claiming the title of the first true smartphone hotel in Europe – "developed for the travellers of tomorrow". In the 40-room hotel, the aim is for guests to be able to manage their stays themselves as much as possible. Their specially developed app allows guests to check in and select their room, just as they would a seat on a flight. The smartphone acts as a room key using Bluetooth and can also open the main entrance if arriving late.
Guests can also use the app to control the air conditioning in their room, even when out and about, order a cleaning service, activate the "Please do not disturb" sign or chat with a service employee as needed. In addition, customers can check out, pay their bill by credit card or PayPal, and, if necessary, order a taxi, all via the app. There's actually no need to talk to hotel staff at all any more, and in any case, there are only a few of those left now. The app ensures that the best use is made of their time too. "It's the perfect way to save costs and at the same time offer guests a fantastic experience," says hotel manager Peter Palicz.
IT expert Mr Frauenholz from Hello Guest agrees. Digitalisation has two objectives: to offer guests digital worlds of experience and simultaneously optimise the internal processes of the hotel. This in turn gives staff more time to look after the guests.
But no hotelier has to go the digital route alone. HRS, for example, recently expanded its own app to include a smarthotel service. There, travellers can store their profiles and a range of preferences, such as a room with a balcony, proximity to a lift, a room with bath, an allergy-friendly room or a smoking room. They can use the HRS app to check in and out and pay directly on the go. In a feature intended to save guests even more time, the obligatory registration form is filled out in advance and needs only to be signed upon arrival. To offer their guests this service, hotel partners just need to be able to support the technology.
The hotel industry is by no means alone when it comes to digitalisation: the development is being introduced across the entire travel industry, but particularly in business travel, where "end-to-end" or "door-to-door" are the buzzwords of the moment. This essentially means that the companies' online booking systems are being transformed into all-rounders offering seamless control over all aspects of organisation and each individual stopover on a business trip. The business travel industry, therefore, also has an interest in smart solutions for the hotel industry.
The online booking system Cytric, for example, which is popular with a large number of companies, recently integrated with the technology of HRS subsidiary Conichi. Cytric Mobile users can now check-in, check-out and pay using their trusted app, provided, of course, that their chosen hotels support the technology. There are currently a good 500 of those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the USA, a number said to be growing constantly.
Cytric's stated objective is "to make business trips as seamless as possible through integrating third-party technologies into Cytric Mobile." As the key link in the travel chain, it is likely that the hotel industry can contribute a lot to that.