Lessons learned from a failed Amazon Alexa deployment

By David Berger – Volara | April 10, 2019

Over recent weeks, I’ve read multiple articles where Best Western International CEO David Kong lambasted Amazon’s Alexa. TravelWeekly, PhocusWire and WebInTravel have published snippets of Mr. Kong’s rhetoric without challenge.

I did not work with Best Western on its corporate-level “test” of Amazon Alexa, but I am familiar with it. When Best Western announced that it would be piloting Alexa in its rooms (without Volara’s software overlay), I was curious how the brand planned to do so while protecting its guests’ privacy and ensuring a positive guest experience.

Mr. Kong did not agree to meet me, so to learn more, I spoke with his colleagues – current and former – about the test, read the online reviews to garner the guest perspective and personally visited the pilot site at the Best Western Oceanside Palms.

The answer to how Best Western would deploy Alexa, I learned, was poorly, sloppily and dangerously.

While I understand that Amazon can make a good punching bag, in this instance, Best Western should take responsibility for poor choices, rather than pass a negative judgment on a technology that – all signs show from hundreds of deployments to date – underpins the future of the hotel guest and staff experience.

Let’s begin with something that most every hotelier understands.

Dropping standard consumer technology into a guest room is at best a promotional stunt and at worst a disastrous, even negligent, act that adds no value, opens exposure to liability and can endanger hotel guests. The hotel technology community has built business critical modifications – in the form of software, hardware and deployment processes – that adapt consumer technology, whether thermostats, casting devices, tablets or televisions, to meet the needs of hotels.

It’s hotel technology solutions that make consumer hardware suitable and valuable for the hotel room. The Amazon Echo and Echo Dot are no different.

This article aims to highlight some of the very basic mistakes made along the way to ensure that other hoteliers do not make the same mistakes. Here are some key takeaways to consider:

Don’t deploy Internet of Things devices of any kind without great Wi-Fi infrastructure

Mr. Kong noted in a WebInTravel interview that Best Western, “found that only 20% [of Echo Dots] connected, the rest disconnected.”

Yes, that will happen to internet-connected devices when you have poor internet. Having visited the property, I can confirm the preposterously poor Wi-Fi that took me back to 1995. The deafening silence of the blue ring circling brought me nostalgically back to the iconic screech of a dial-up modem connecting.

Build utility that aligns to your guests’ needs

Upon entering a guest room at the Best Western Oceanside Palms in sunny Southern California, I found a table tent promoting specific interactions including, most illogically, “Alexa, how many ounces in a cup?” “Alexa, what’s the capital of France?” “Alexa, what’s the definition of serendipity?” “Alexa, Wikipedia Abraham Lincoln.”

I could go on, but if any readers would like copy of the table tent, just ask. I think these use cases – which drive no value to the guest or hotel – speak for themselves (pun intended).

Don’t direct your guests to your website

Guests who are seeking a frictionless experience using a voice assistant want answers, not a redirection to your brand’s website. Even at a Best Western, I would be appalled if a staff member told me to go look up the answer to my question on its website.

When asked, “Where can I get a bite to eat?” the in-room Alexa replies, “For local restaurants, tours and attractions, visit BWGuest.com and select Best Western Plus Oceanside Palms.”

Mr. Kong noted, “We didn’t see any lift in satisfaction scores.” Right, that will happen when you send your guests to your website rather than answering their questions.

Don’t make presumptions; collect actual data

Mr. Kong stated, “We found that when most people got into their hotel room, they disconnected it, presumably because they didn’t want Alexa listening to them in the room.”

It is true that if a hotelier sets up Alexa without enterprise tools like those used by Volara, recordings of guests will be found in the Alexa app and will be stored by Amazon, which should make everyone nervous.

That said, had the solution been set up using hotel-grade software like we use in all our deployments, neither of the above would be true.

Regardless, had Best Western collected actual feedback from its guests, as we have from thousands, Best Western would have found that the reason guests unplug the Echo Dot Gen 2 is quite simply to use the micro USB connector for charging their Android phones.

Beyond the guest feedback, we know this because the Echo Dot Gen 3 uses a different connector and – as Volara’s tools allow the monitoring of devices’ online/offline status – we have not seen near the same rate of these newer devices being unplugged.

Don’t select your app developer to build your voice solution

When Best Western announced its test, it noted that they were “working with a company to test the Dot.” They selected a successful hotel technology vendor who has built fantastic mobile apps and other market-leading hotel technologies, but had no experience building voice-based solutions. (I’ll leave them nameless as I’m sure they did the best they could with the project, and they haven’t been pointing fingers.)

Best Western hiring its app developer was the equivalent of hiring a skilled plumber to build a PMS. Voice is a new medium, and the deployment of voice-based solutions – particularly guest-facing voice-based solutions – is specialized work.

Don’t share your data, or your guests’ data, with Amazon

As a business, Best Western surely understands that some monthly per-room fee is not going to move Amazon’s needle. Amazon’s interest is not in the subscription revenue, but in something more valuable over the long term. Think building data-driven relationships with guests and the monetization of that relationship; think distributing hotel inventory and disrupting the brand’s primary value proposition entirely.

If you believe you own your data and have a duty to your guests to protect theirs, don’t integrate your hotel systems directly into Alexa. Leverage the powerful technology built by Amazon but protect your data so you don’t inadvertently hand Mr. Bezos your company on a silver platter.

Don’t be beholden to any major platform

No brand, but particularly not a global brand like Best Western, should find itself beholden to any one natural language processing platform.

It appears Best Western has given up on voice because of a negative experience with Alexa. There are now countless natural language processing platforms and 5x the voice-enabled hardware in the market, any of which can be leveraged, with the right hotel-grade software overlay, as the front end of a voice-based guest experience.

Conclusion

Volara’s solutions are deployed at, and integrated into, the proprietary systems of Marriott, Two Roads, Viceroy, Melia and many other leading brands. Our secure integration hub provides a voice interface for over 30 leading hotel technologies – while protecting the hotel data maintained in those technologies from exposure – and turns Alexa (and other popular voice assistants) into a hotel business tool.

Our software protects guests’ privacy and proprietary hotel data and improves the interaction success rate, thereby measurably increasing the guest experience with the technology.

I am candid about the limitations of Alexa and will be the first to call out Amazonian overreach. Our software was built to overcome those limitations and protect against the potential of Amazon being Amazon. If Amazon ever attempts to crack our encryption, break our architecture, eavesdrop on our clients’ guests or access our clients’ proprietary data, we will fight the incursion and I will be the first to alert the hospitality industry.

Thus far, Amazon has been a good partner, offering its groundbreaking natural language processing technology at affordable prices and APIs that allow Volara to turn its consumer technology into a compliant, enterprise-grade business tool.

The hospitality industry is in need of a fresh means of managing and optimizing its customer experience. Alexa and other voice technologies – properly implemented with the necessary software overlay – provide a foundation on which this may be built.

With respect to the “test” of Alexa conducted by Best Western, the responsibility for poor outcomes lies with Best Western, and the brand should learn from the experience rather than point fingers.

The Bottom Line: 

This article follows up on a previous post about Best Western’s inclusion of “Alexis” in its hotel guest rooms. “Alexies,” Amazon’s newest gadget that employs listening technology to voice-control TV channels, radio, internet, even the room’s lights and temperature, was placed into each one of Best Western’s guest rooms– but not without controversy. Many guests disconnected the device, and felt “creeped out” by its presence. Here, travel expert David Berger analyzes why this occurred, and reveals Best Western’s biggest mistakes in the process.

 In essence, Best Western failed to incorporate the technology to fit its business’s and guests’ needs. Instead, the hotel chain “copied and pasted” a device commercialized for private, individual use, into the system of a large corporation. This resulted in a multi-leveled failure: over-run and slowed-down wifi systems, lack of utility for specific and contextual needs, over-advertising of the hotel’s website, and potential liability in (or fear of) privacy breeches. 

While including new and cutting-edge technology into the travel and hospitality sector is a trending theme, businesses must be careful with how they integrate such changes. From this instance, everyone can learn the basic take-away: technology is a tool, make sure that it is logically leveraged for your customers’ needs and desires, and is not giving them an extra hassle. 

For the source of this original article, and more fascinating and cutting-edge travel news, visit: https://www.phocuswire.com/booking-speaks-out-private-accommodation

 

Author: Shannon Cantor