“Alexa, can I get a toothbrush?”
At the mention of Amazon’s digital assistant, the light ring on the white Echo Plus sitting on the end table lights up, then blinks for a second after the question is asked. Ordinarily, if you made that query to the Echo in your home, Alexa would respond by simply adding a toothbrush to your shopping list.
But I’m not in my home, and this isn’t your ordinary Alexa. I’m sitting in a suite on the 17th floor of the Brooklyn Marriott, and the person bugging Alexa about his dental-hygiene needs is Daniel Rausch, vice president of smart home for Amazon.
“OK, how many toothbrushes do you need?” Alexa responds
“10,” Rausch says. Whoa, you opening up your own drugstore, buddy?
Alexa clearly has the same thought: “Sorry, but I can only bring up to five of any item. How many toothbrushes would you like?”
“OK, to confirm, you would like one toothbrush sent to your room. Is that correct?”
And boom — or rather, knock-knock — a hotel staffer arrives at the door with the toothbrush, in a rather classy gray plastic box, about 20 minutes later.
The privacy question
This is Alexa for Hospitality in action, Amazon’s new push to bring its digital assistant into even more aspects of your life besides just your home. Following a move into business and a slow-but-steady encroachment into car dashboards, Alexa for Hospitality officially puts the voice assistant in your hotel room. Marriott will be the first major hotel chain to offer the service.
The idea has two motivations. One is to give Echo customers what Amazon says they want — putting Alexa into more “contexts,” giving them the convenience of voice control in places it didn’t previously exist. And Marriott says that synced up nicely with its goal of reducing the friction that travelers experience by virtue of being in a new place.
“We saw an opportunity to bring over the experience that consumers are having today in their homes — to simply use your voice to get information, to make requests, to take notes — and bring that over into a hotel environment,” says Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of customer experience innovation for Marriott International.
Isn’t there a third goal here, though, that being the opening of another avenue for technology companies to harvest your data? That may be true, but at least Amazon appears to have thought through the privacy concerns.
For starters, the hotel doesn’t have access to any voice recordings or interactions that don’t involve the hotel itself. In the case of the toothbrush example above, Alexa will hand off the request to the hotel’s back end, but that’s it. There is no “god mode” for the hotel to see what you’re doing with Alexa; all it gets is a dashboard that shows whether or not specific devices are offline (ostensibly an anti-theft measure) and some aggregated, anonymized data from Amazon. Voice recordings are also deleted daily, Amazon says.
At launch, Alexa for Hospitality will provide a generic experience customized by the hotel, but Amazon plans to offer customers the option of connecting a personal Amazon account to the in-room experience, so guests will be able to access their own playlists, audio books, contacts, and more.
Perhaps too convenient? Amazon says the hotel gets zero access to your personal data.
“If you connect to your personal account, it’s exactly like home,” says Rausch. “We consider that data, at that point, yours. All of your voice utterances work just like at home. You’d see them on the Alexa app or online — you can delete them one at a time, you can delete them all at once.”
What Alexa for Hospitality can do
OK, so Amazon did its privacy homework. But what can you do with this traveler-oriented version of Alexa?
For starters, you don’t need to have an Amazon or Prime account to use it, and hotels will hand-hold guests with in-room brochures. Of course, Alexa for Hospitality will field everyday queries (“what’s the weather?” “who is president?”), but its special abilities fall in three main areas, each customizable by the hotel:
Hotel stuff: Ordering toothbrushes and the like, calling the front desk, room service checking out — now you can do all of that via voice. Depending on how the room is set up, you may even be able to control various smart home gear like lights and blinds. (Notably, Drop In, the service that lets you make quick calls to other Echoes, isn’t enabled.)
Get recommendations: The hotel can preprogram Alexa to give tips on restaurants and activities in the area. However, if you hear something you’re interested in, it’ll connect you with the concierge — Alexa for Hospitality can’t make reservations on its own.
Play media: With access to default audio services TuneIn and IHeartRadio, Alexa for Hospitality can play a decent amount of music, and hotels can create their own custom playlists that suit the mood of the hotel.
There’s nothing special about the hardware. The Echoes in hotel rooms — limited to screenless models like the Echo 2, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot — are no different from the consumer versions, with two exceptions: they can’t be factory reset, and they’ll only connect to the hotel Wi-Fi (so don’t bother trying to stuff one in your bag on the way out).
Amazon’s partnership with Marriott extends to several of the hotel chain’s brands: Westin, St. Regis, Aloft, and Autograph. The company says it’s been quietly piloting the service, and that 90 percent of customers who used it rank the in-room Alexa experience as “good to excellent.”
It’s not surprising. Amazon consistently ranks highly in consumer-trust surveys, and users who’ve already bought into the Alexa experience at home likely won’t hesitate to bring it into their hotel room, too.
In the future, in-room voice control could be as essential as in-room Wi-Fi, with one difference: This game has a winner. By extending Alexa’s tendrils into into yet another part of our lives with one of the biggest hotel chains in the world, Amazon is still making Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant look like also-rans, eye-popping tech conference demos notwithstanding.
Alexa may speak softly, but she carries a big stick of influence. It’s very early days for Alexa with Hospitality, but as more people associate the service with posh hotels, the more in the digital-assistant space looks like Amazon’s world. Everybody else is just renting a room.