‘Alexa, turn the coffee machine on’: How AI is coming to a hotel room near you

JOHANNESBURG — There’s no doubt in my mind that voice-controlled artificial intelligence technology will increasingly take root in our lives. I’m constantly astounded by how far Google’s Voice Assistant technology has come – it almost flawlessly translates South African English accents with very few (if any) mistakes on my Android smartphone. Amazon is obviously also a major player in the voice AI space with Alexa. And as Dominique Herman explains in this article, major hotels are eyeing rolling out the tech in a big way in years to come. Calling room service will get that much easier… – Gareth van Zyl

By Dominique Herman*

When I asked Alexa to make me a cup of coffee, she said: “I’m sorry, but cooking is beyond me right now.” It’s beyond me too, I muttered, while skimming the in-room manual to see what the magic command was to get the coffee into the cup. 

Alexa is a newfangled technological gizmo: a machine that lights up when you call it by name, and then responds with “Okay” to a variety of commands. Other times it issues quite wise remarks (the cooking one I resonated with deeply). 

Alexa at theLAB Lifestyle.

“Alexa: Turn the coffee machine on.” 

This step she did splendidly, and I could then very easily have pressed a button to get it brewing, as I do every day of my life in my own home. But when a euphonious voice in the ether is available to do your bidding and you’re only booked to have one night of this action, doing things yourself becomes unthinkable. 

It’s something of a wonder that I made it out to dinner that night what with the Ian Schrager-type range of lighting options at one’s disposal, not to mention the possibility of having Alexa “flatter you”. 

When I relayed the coffee-making fail to a friend who was staying at the same guesthouse – a new one in Franschhoek called theLAB Lifestyle – he replied that he too had asked Alexa to make him coffee and she had said the same thing about it being beyond her. “Are you f****** useless?” he then asked her, to which she replied: “I prefer not to answer that question”.

Home is where the technology is

According to an article published in Forbes last year, the Starwood group was the first major hotel chain to launch keyless entry for its guestrooms. That was in 2014. Now it’s unusual to be handed a key upon check-in at a hotel. However, key cards will soon become obsolete as well. In more and more American hotels, your smartphone will unlock your door.

Srikanth Beldona and Zvi Schwartz, professors at the University of Delaware in the United States, have found that guests want the technological features of their hotel room to supersede those they have at home.

At the moment that balance is flipped. As an example, in their recently published paper, “Evaluating hotel guest technologies: Does home matter?”, Beldona is quoted as saying that virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa are available in between 10 to 15 percent of American homes, but are largely absent in hotels.

“In the hotel industry, that’s where the focus is now: leveraging smart technologies to provide superior experiences,” he says. “That is going above and beyond: that’s the way it’s perceived now. But it’ll become very common in a few years.”

He added that this research demonstrated a strong argument for redefining the hospitality industry, using the essential concept of “home” as a standard for hotels against which to compare, rather than other hotels.

“Hospitality is rooted in ‘home’ because hotels are giving a service that is unlike any other. They have to be intertwined with the customer’s lifestyle,” Beldona says.

Alexa at theLAB Lifestyle.

As it turns out, last month Amazon announced “Alexa for Hospitality”. In partnership with Marriott, the company will test the placement of the Amazon Echo device in two pilot hotels in the US with plans to expand it to select properties in Marriott, Westin, St. Regis, Aloft and Autograph Collection hotels this year. Echo is the brand of smart speakers developed by Amazon which connects to the voice-controlled digital assistant, Alexa.

Vice president at Amazon Daniel Rausch’s statement that “Alexa for Hospitality makes your hotel stay a little more like being at home” reinforces the findings of the US study.

Among multiple options, guests will be able to ask Alexa to order room service, request housekeeping, call the concierge for dinner recommendations and get a quick guided workout. Features similar to the ones on offer at theLAB Lifestyle, including being able to control in-room lights, blinds and TVs, will be individually configured by each hotel.

Yahoo Finance technology editor Daniel Howley wrote in a review of the collaboration that Amazon maintains the user data is completely anonymous and hotels don’t get access to it. “So you’ll be able to ask Alexa all of the same ridiculously offensive questions you ask it at home and not have to worry about the hotel staff giving you dirty looks when you leave,” he writes.

In due course, hotels will offer guests the option to personalise their Alexa in-room experience by connecting their Amazon account to the device, with automatic disconnection upon check-out.

“Preteens and teens today do not type out messages; they voice activate messages and they use Siri/Alexa to direct Netflix search and remote control. As this generation enters the workforce over the coming years, hotels will be more interactive to voice control,” says Laurie Meiring, Marriott Middle East & Africa area digital field marketing specialist.

“A more simple addition regarding technology in the rooms is the current renovation/refresh of our rooms at the Westin Cape Town. My favourite new addition following the refresh is the multiple ports on each bedside so that I (as an Apple nerd) can simultaneously charge my watch, phone, iPad and air pods bedside without having to request an adaptor or spread my equipment around the room, like I often have to do in hotels,” he says.

Q&A With Ross Baines, director of marketing at The Westin, Cape Town

Q: Do you find technological features in hotel rooms are an increasingly important part – and an expected part – of the guest experience?

Absolutely. In today’s information age everything we can and could imagine has been impacted, shaped and transformed to facilitate global communication and data sharing. In the hospitality space we have seen rapid and disruptive innovation and continually invest in more and more technology to ensure we remain relevant to our ever-changing customer preferences and buying patterns.

Q: Will the Alexa technology (or something voice command-oriented like it) become standard, do you reckon, in major hotel chains?

High possibility, however at the moment due to security concerns around privacy using such connected devices, we don’t foresee a sudden rush by the hospitality industry to adopt and introduce this technology. Should privacy be addressed and technology more widely accepted, we imagine we would see certain millennial-based brands introducing the technology first. This type of technology would require smart technology connected to many different areas of a room and would be a costly exercise.  

Q: Does technology help hotel management better service customers? [if so, how so?]

A hundred percent, particularly around automated data collected used to personalise each guest experience on property, loyalty management systems and team collaboration. Hotels today have enormous IT infrastructure and investment which is ongoing to maintain and innovate to ensure we are remaining connected and relevant to our changing customer expectations.

  • Dominique Herman is a writer and editor in Cape Town. She previously worked as a senior staff reporter for the Cape Times where she covered trade and industry, and property stories.