Voice technology and improving the guest experience

Being able to meaningfully interact with technology might have one time been nothing more than a dream, but the reality is that we are closer to that dream than ever — writes Arthur Chapin, senior vice president & chief product officer at Expedia Group.

With the rise of products like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Home, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, voice recognition technology has evolved to become one of the hottest topics in travel and tourism.

As of now, voice assistants alone aren’t quite ready to support a travel use case. Multimodal solutions – physical devices with screens like Google Home – seem more promising for now, because the built-in visuals help new users feel comfortable and can offer more information than voice alone.

Arthur Chapin

I’m frequently asked whether these devices are equally suitable for use in hotels. Personally, I think it is still early days in terms of these devices creating differentiated travel experiences for guests.

Physical devices in the room are mainly designed to do interesting things for the people who stay there. Think connected IoT devices that can adjust the curtains, turn on the lights, or answer questions about the hotel. This is where a lot of in-room tech innovation is currently happening.

What smart devices are really good at is giving information about the property and letting guests make requests. They’re great at reducing guest friction and increasing communication between the hotel and guests.

“The number one goal of any good hotel is to make their guests feel comfortable”

As an added benefit, hotels that offer those kinds of advanced features will get some valuable insights into the type of requests their guests tend to make. Being able to quantify this information will give them the opportunity to refine their offerings to address what matters most to their guests – ultimately creating better guest experiences.

Comfort levels with voice technology vary a great deal—some people find them useful, while others absolutely hate the idea and are rightly concerned about their privacy. The number one goal of any good hotel is to make their guests feel comfortable, so it’s important to take these concerns very seriously. Whatever arrangement you have in your hotel, make sure your guests are absolutely clear on your data and privacy policies. You may want to ask their consent to be in a room with a voice device at check-in, as it may be an unwelcome surprise to some guests.

Guest experience paramount

Depending on what you decide to offer, you’ll need to have the back-end services to deliver on the requests. At Expedia Group, we’ve invested in a platform called ALICE to help companies fulfil guest requests and streamline the back-of-house. Aside from that, there’s likely to be other tech investment that needs to be made in order to make it ‘cool’. You’ll need developers to build your features, a tech support team to install and maintain the hardware, and a way of monitoring how well it’s performing and satisfying your guests.

It’s paramount to also keep guest experience front and centre. Regardless of the functionality, whatever is built needs to be extremely easy for people to use. Through testing with our own Alexa Skill and Google Action, we’ve learned that having a great onboarding experience is key. Without that, people don’t really know what the assistant has to offer and find themselves at a bit of a loss.

“Take the guest experience to the next level”

Voice assistance is still an emerging technology, and far from a seamless process yet. Hotels will need to call on experts to help with setup and maintenance if something goes wrong, and there aren’t a lot of companies offering this service yet. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And when it works, it can take the guest experience to the next level.

With a system like ALICE, guest requests can be fed right to your existing operations software. I’d strongly recommend that as opposed to trying to maintain a completely separate system just for voice requests. And of course, your voice assistant will need to access the internet, so a strong WiFi signal and network connection is a must.

Both front and back office show a lot of promise. There’s already a lot of innovation happening in the front office—many hotels are already moving toward digital check-in and keyless room entry, which will free-up front desk agents to focus on answering questions. We may see a shift at the front desk toward more concierge and troubleshooting responsibilities, leaving the admin to the robots.

But I think the back-end services are where it’s really at for voice assistants. The possibility to deliver frictionless in-room customer service is huge.

Better service, faster

As always, it’s important to focus on things that solve actual traveller needs. Voice assistants are especially good for transactional requests like ordering more towels or letting housekeeping know that the room needs attention—anything that doesn’t require a personal touch. Automating those routine requests can reduce friction and reduce the chance of human error. And not only does it improve operational efficiency, but it also lets the staff focus on more personal or complicated interactions where their skills are really needed.

Another great thing about many of these devices is their ability to handle multiple languages. This needs to be a consideration from the start, but when done right, travellers are able to communicate with hotels and get information in their native language. This can be transformative to the traveller experience when you consider that breaking down language barriers through voice assistants can be done at a scale that many hotels wouldn’t normally be able to accommodate through on-site employees on their own.

The whole attraction of travel is to have an irreplaceable human experience, so I don’t expect virtual assistants to take over anytime soon. A voice assistant could never replace the personal touch of a talented concierge, for example. What I do see is travellers enjoying better service, faster by going through an automated system.

At Expedia Group, we’re actively working on how we best support our hotel partners in the field of voice technology that focuses on improving the traveller experience. Hopefully, we’ll have some exciting news in the near future.

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