Hotel industry explores voice tech, smart speakers
Hotel industry explores voice tech, smart speakers
07 MARCH 2018 1:16 PM

Some hotel companies have moved quickly to introduce voice technology as an in-room amenity through smart speakers, but the technology is still new, so hoteliers should be aware of some of the risks as well as how it could evolve.

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Hoteliers are well aware the industry isn’t usually on the leading edge when it comes to the adoption of new technology, but as consumers have quickly taken to devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, the hotel industry saw its opportunity to introduce voice technology into its guestrooms.

Hotel companies have begun switching over some requests that would normally go to a concierge, such as restaurant recommendations, to voice-activated smart devices, while some have gone a step further and let guests control lights, shades and the HVAC system, said Victor Idrac, project coordinator at HTNG.

Best Western Hotels & Resorts works with a company that provides its entire mobile engagement platform, SVP and COO Ron Pohl said, which allows it to communicate with consumers through their mobile devices as well as providing the connection through Amazon’s platform.

The company created its initial platform a year ago, he said, and it’s in more than 600 hotels now as a way of messaging customers before they arrive, on their day of arrival for check in and then throughout their stay until check out. It’s also testing this platform in about 30 hotels internationally, he said. Among those hotels connected to the platform, he said, the company is testing a couple of hotels in the U.S. with the Amazon Echo Dot.

Through the smart speaker, guests can request information, such as hours of breakfast or for the fitness center, and they’ll receive an immediate “canned” response, he said. For other more specific requests, such as asking for more towels or for a late check out, the platform converts the request through a tablet, which triggers hotels staff to respond accordingly and complete the request.

“The beauty is it provides better tracking capability,” he said. “We always want to know how long it takes to respond to a guest request.”

Creating best practices
Anecdotally, HTNG is aware that many hospitality management companies are exploring voice technology to some degree, Idrac said. There is an appetite to move quickly by many closely involved, he said, but there are many risks to accept and challenges to solve with new guest-facing technology.

HTNG launched a workgroup in July 2017 to look at in-room voice technology, he said, and it has been tasked with developing a list of best practices and use cases for the implementation and operation of voice interactions in the guestroom. Hoteliers and vendors have been working together to help the industry adopt this emerging technology, he said, and he expects their work to be ready to share by the middle of 2018.

Though still in development, the workgroup has set up some guidelines for implementation and operations of voice-based solutions.

“During the early adoption phase of any guest-facing technology, guest education is critical to utilization, experience and value,” he said. “Another equally important part is staff training, as implementation of voice-based solutions can impact the staff in a multitude of ways.”

Security concerns
As these devices come with microphones meant to listen for users to speak the command phrase, there have been concerns over how secure these smart speakers are. Solving security and privacy issues for the guest is key to their adoption, Idrac said, and it is fully reflected in the deliverable from the workgroup.

“We are making a number of recommendations,” he said. “Hotels should have referenceable materials for guests and staff answering guests’ questions to answer a multitude of frequently asked questions, including privacy and security concerns. Devices have an off switch that is clear to the guest and easy to use. Some hotels may also decide to ask guests to opt-in or out of the voice features.”

These devices were originally sold directly to consumers for private use in their homes. The security threat vectors for use in a private setting compared to a semi-public setting like a hotel room is like comparing the rules of basketball to soccer, said Kevin Thomas, client success manager at Independent Security Evaluators. Each type of use has its own set threat vectors, he said.

“In most cases, physical access to these devices is essentially game over,” he said.

The concern over physical access to the device in order to tamper with it is somewhat negated in a private setting, he said, because if someone breaks into that person’s home, they have bigger concerns than someone trying to tamper with the device. The nature of how these devices are used in a consumer environment assumes a certain level of protection from these types of threats, he said.

When used in the semi-public setting of a hotel room, the threat vectors change, he said.

“Every guest will have physical access to any of the connected devices in the rooms, leaving these devices susceptible to be tampered with unobserved,” he said. “The guest would be able to deploy attacks in ways that are not part of the original threat model for how consumer grade connected devices were designed or intended to be used.”

Thomas recommended that hoteliers should try to limit physical access to smart home devices when possible. Unless a guest needs to physically touch it, he said, hoteliers should try to install it in such a way to prevent that type of interaction. Hoteliers should also properly segment the guest-facing networks from the hotel’s corporate networks, he said.

Routine updates on the devices are a necessity, he said, and software updates should not only introduce new features but also fix any security bugs ore vulnerabilities that have come to light.

Scrutiny of the vendor is also important, he said.

“Don’t be satisfied with commodity approaches like scanning or basic penetration tasks,” he said. “Ask your vendors to safeguard the guest experience as much as you do.”

Future use
The world is more and more connected to mobile devices, Pohl said, and as much simplification and consistency the brand can provide, customers are going to want more and more. At some point, they’re going to be in their guestroom requesting a driverless Uber to pick them up to take them to the airport, he said.

This technology will eventually be as commonplace as a television is in guestrooms, Idrac said. Guests will also be just as educated in and comfortable speaking to voice activated devices as clicking a button on a remote. Unlike televisions and other more one-dimensional guest-facing tech, voice devices will not only delight guests but be fully integrated in hotel operations, fully modernizing their infrastructure and increasing operational efficiency, reducing costs.

Voice is one of the greatest emerging technologies of this decade, and hotel brands should get comfortable with this tech now, he said. Some brands that will come later to the game will need to listen to their customer base, he said, where this technology has become more and more prevalent, and hoteliers could get left behind if they don’t act now.

“CES 2018 had a large majority of vendors integrating voice,” Idrac said. “The automobile industry has adopted this with open arms. If hoteliers don’t follow suit, this industry will continue on its trend of being lagging behind other industries when it comes to technology.”

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