“Alexa, Order More Champagne”: Voice Control and the Modern Hotel
At TalkTalk Business, we recently commissioned large-scale research into the UK hospitality industry. We asked hospitality workers – IT decision makers (ITDMs) and frontline workers – for their views on how technology is changing their ways of working. We wanted to know what they see as being the future of hospitality. (You can learn more about this research below.)
Many of the workers we surveyed were keenly enthusiastic about the new possibilities that technologies afforded their industry; others were more cautious or doubtful.
One technology that emerged as being particularly divisive was voice control. 52% of survey respondents said they believed that most hotels would benefit from introducing voice control for guests. (This compared favourably to 33% who said bars and restaurants were better suited to voice control than hotels, and the 9% who said the same of gyms.)
A sizeable minority – 6% – argued that voice control had no place in any hospitality business of any kind. Interestingly, this opinion was far more prevalent in workers from large hospitality organisations than smaller hospitality businesses. Just 2% of respondents from small businesses were vehemently against voice control in any context, but that number spiked to 13% amongst those from larger organisations.
So what can voice control offer modern, digital hotels – and why is it so controversial in some corners of the industry?
An omnipresent digital concierge
There are a number of reasons why a hotel would want to introduce voice control, chief amongst these being to enhance the guest experience – which, after all, is the one aspect of the business that must be optimised at every available opportunity.
By introducing voice control into rooms, guests can adjust aspects of their surroundings – including the temperature, lighting, curtains, and entertainment system – using their voice alone. This eliminates the need for guests to fiddle with complicated knobs, switches and control panels – which, in turn, helps them to feel relaxed, in control and ‘at home’.
Voice control can be used by guests for contactless check-in; to make hotel reservations; to order room service; to request the replenishment of items such as towels; or to book conference or meeting rooms. Hotels can also use voice control to provide guests with a virtual assistant that can answer questions and provide information about the hotel, the surrounding area and local attractions.
It’s not just guests who benefit from the hands-free, intuitive ease that voice control provides. The technology reduces the workload of hotel staff by automating low-level customer-service tasks, freeing staff up to focus on more important tasks – such as providing memorably attentive service to guests.
Having firmly established itself as the global leader in home smart speakers, it’s unsurprising that Amazon is also leading the way in voice control for hospitality. Amazon’s B2B arm, Alexa for Hospitality, is already making serious headway in the industry, and counts the Marriott chain amongst its high-profile clients.
Marriott began trialling voice-controlled speakers in select US hotels back in 2018. The speakers allowed guests to request items or room service, check the weather, control entertainment, search for information or make phone calls. The technology was immediately embraced by guests: 90% of them rated the in-room Alexas as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ on feedback surveys, while 70% said they would choose Alexa-enabled rooms, when available, in the future.
Alexa for Hospitality launched in Europe in September 2021, making its UK debut in Accor’s Mercure Hyde Park hotel in central London. The hotel subsequently reported a 12% rise in room-service revenue following its introduction of voice-control technology. Guests are seemingly less shy about ordering to their rooms when they don’t have to speak to a real person to do so.
Tracking customers through their requests
Due to the ease with which guests can interact with them, voice control devices provide a wealth of useful information on guest behaviours, which digital hotels can then use to optimise their operations and improve customer services.
Are guests consistently asking voice-control devices about a specific local attraction? Maybe that attraction should feature more prominently in the hotel’s marketing efforts. Are lots of guests requesting a toothbrush be brought to their room? Perhaps the hotel should provide complimentary toothbrushes as standard.
As invaluable as all this data can be, it does represent a challenge in terms of privacy – which is where the potential for controversy lies. No hotel guest wants to feel like they’re being observed, even if it’s only technology that’s doing the observing. For some, the seamless convenience of voice control may be outweighed by a desire for total digital privacy.
There are ways to reassure guests that a hotel’s voice-control technology isn’t logging their every word – beyond constantly listening out for the ‘wake word’ (e.g. “Alexa”) that will trigger it into action. In the case of Alexa for Hospitality speakers, a guest’s voice commands are automatically wiped at the end of each day, while the devices’ microphones can be disabled with the simple press of a button.
For the peace-of-mind of both guests and hotel owners, it’s vital that any data generated by voice control interactions is encrypted and stored securely. TalkTalk Business can help here by providing hotels with scalable, resilient networks that can handle the vast amounts of data generated by voice control. And with SD-WAN from TalkTalk Business, hospitality organisations can quickly and easily control their network, keeping sensitive data away from prying eyes.
It’s also important – both legally and ethically – that hotels are completely transparent about how such guest data might be used in the future, if at all. Somebody will ask, so having an answer ready is essential. If the future of hospitality is to be digital-driven, such conversations will inevitably become commonplace.
All that being said, voice-controlled smart speakers are no longer regarded, in the way they once were, as uncanny or untrustworthy by large swathes of the UK public. A survey found that 39% of adults in England use a voice-activated personal assistant or smart speaker. Most people have grown comfortable with interacting with technology through voice alone.
In fact, at a certain point, it will probably start to feel odd to walk into a hotel room and not be able to order room service simply by saying the magic ‘wake word’...
To learn more about the evolution of the contactless era, read our exclusive whitepaper: The Future of Hospitality: AI, Data and People-Power.
About the research
In September 2022, we commissioned a survey by Vanson Bourne of 300 senior IT decision-makers and frontline employees in business sizes ranging from 1,000-2,999 employees to those with 5,000 or more.