Siri and Alexa Are Fighting to Be Your Hotel Butler

  • Hotels are new frontier for voice-command technologies
  • Wynn Las Vegas was first to install Alexa devices in December

Beating Amazon's Echo: The Virtual Assistant Face Off

Amazon.com Inc.’s battle with Apple Inc. over digital assistants is moving to a new venue: hotel rooms, where Alexa and Siri are both vying to be the voice-controlled platform of choice for travelers.

Marriott International Inc., the world’s biggest lodging company, is testing devices from the two tech giants at its Aloft hotel in Boston’s Seaport district to determine which is best to let guests turn on lights, close drapes, control room temperature and change television channels via voice command. In December, Wynn Resorts Ltd. became the first hotel company to install Alexa-powered Echo devices, starting with suites at its flagship Wynn Las Vegas property.

Amazon Echo inside a Wynn resort.

Source: Wynn Resorts Ltd.

Technology companies are using hotel rooms as showrooms for new services and devices that can also control so-called smart homes. Amazon and Apple are competing for dominance in the nascent market, which promises to let consumers access and manage household systems such as heating, cooling, lighting and entertainment by speaking a request at home or using a smartphone from afar.

Marriott expects to decide whether to adopt the technology for one or more of its chains as early as mid-year, potentially boosting sales for the device of choice. More important, it will increase the winning company’s exposure in the market for voice-activated devices, which are gaining more mainstream traction.

“Those two players are in the game right now,” said Toni Stoeckl, who oversees the Aloft, Element, AC and Moxy chains as global brand leader for lifestyle brands at Marriott. There are almost 130 Aloft hotels in the U.S., and more than 100 additional ones planned.

Pioneer Gates

Two decades after Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates first installed smart-home software in his compound on Lake Washington facing Seattle, businesses from homebuilders and carmakers to hotel operators are adopting such technology for the average consumer.

Hotel rooms are an ideal place for Amazon and Apple to showcase their devices and let guests see how they can be used to make their lives more convenient, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at San Jose, California-based research firm Creative Strategies Inc. She likened it to hotel rooms installing iPhone docking stations years ago so people could enjoy their own music in their rooms.

A key question is whether the interaction will be personalized, allowing guests familiar with the devices to log into their own accounts, or instead use a standard set of skills relevant to a hotel stay, like getting news reports, checking weather forecasts or calling for an Uber -- commands more appropriate for those unfamiliar with the technology.

“It will be interesting to see how much education they have to go through to get guests to use them,” Milanesi said. “This is not mass-market technology.”

Growing Market

Crestron Electronics Inc., a closely held residential and commercial automation company that enables technologies such as Alexa to work with various applications, says hotels are a newer market -- and one it expects to grow. Lodging currently accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of the firm’s annual sales of about $1.5 billion.

“You’re starting to see more of this home-automation technology being deployed in these spaces,” said John Clancy, vice president of residential systems at Rockleigh, New Jersey-based Crestron. “Initially, there was a big fear about whether it works and what the customer expects.”

The new Waldorf Astoria luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, California, operated by Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. and set to open in June, will have Crestron technology in iPads that let guests control things such as lighting, temperature, TVs, alarm clocks and room service, but the application relies on typing, not voice commands.

Being Considered

“We are currently working with various voice assistants and, while we do not have Siri integration at the moment, it is definitely something we continue to explore and consider,” Clancy said. Siri works on Apple mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads.

The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, a Texas property with 1,002 rooms, has installed Alexa devices in 10 of its most popular rooms, with plans to equip an additional 100 rooms next month. The digital assistant can be used to control lights in five of the rooms, but the focus is on using Alexa as a personal concierge for ordering room service, or requesting towels or toothpaste from housekeeping. The resort said it has been testing the Amazon technology since October.

Similarly, the Four Seasons in Washington this month put Alexa devices in its rooms to allow guests to find music or information such as weather and destinations. Alexa doesn’t yet control functions such as lights or temperature at the hotel.

Marriott’s Stoeckl said his company is “looking for the ideal solution to make this a global platform.” Aloft hotels act as a “tech incubator” for new concepts, and a successful test may determine whether digital assistants -- and which ones -- are installed at other Marriott chains, he said.

Concierge-Like

Eventually, the digital assistants will be able to perform more concierge-like services and connect with a guest’s personal device to do things such as set an automatic wake-up temperature or have the drapes open at a certain time, Stoeckl said.

Wynn Resorts has said it plans to equip all 4,748 rooms at the Las Vegas hotel by this summer. The company is considering installing Echo at other resorts, hotel spokesman Michael Weaver said in an email. The Vegas property is expanding the range of functions controlled by Alexa. It recently enabled guests to listen to music via most radio stations and is about to add a station of songs chosen by Chief Executive Officer Steve Wynn personally, Weaver said. Also in the works is an audio guest directory to replace the printed version.

Hotels are just one new avenue for Amazon to get its technology in front of more customers. Ford Motor Co. said in January that it plans to begin offering Alexa this summer in vehicles equipped with its Sync 3 infotainment system. An automotive version of the Echo assistant will let drivers order items on Amazon, listen to audio books, play music, check news, search for restaurants and get directions. Amazon also is working with BMW to integrate Alexa into its luxury cars. Alphabet Inc.’s Google has the Google Assistant, which powers its Home internet-connected speaker and Android phones, including its in-house Pixel handsets, and is collaborating with Hyundai Motor Co. on voice commands for its cars.

For Marriott’s Aloft, a decision between Alexa and Siri could come by summer.

“Probably by the end of the first half of this year, we’ll have a pretty good indication of where we’re headed,” Stoeckl said. “The race is still on.”

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