I interviewed Dana Young, Founder of Virtual Concierge Services, to learn more about how the technology works and how it benefits bed and breakfast owners and innkeepers.
- How about you share with us a little about your background and how you entered the hospitality industry?
I’m an engineer by training and over the course of my career I’ve focused on technology and software. About 12 years ago we bought an old lodge on the shores of a lake in north central Washington. Built in 1933 as a summer getaway for a local lumber baron, it had never been updated other than some Linoleum and Formica put down in the 60s. To fund renovations, we began renting the place out to families for summer vacations at the lake. I knew nothing about hospitality at the time, but dove into the community to learn best practices, like those you share in your blog.
With my background in technology, I constantly look for ways to differentiate our property with new tech. That’s what led me to the application of voice assistants to hospitality. Since then we’ve added talent in both software development and business operations, built a strong relationship with Amazon and continued to enhance the Virtual Concierge platform.
- Will you tell us about the growth of smart speakers with voice assistants?
In 2016, only 1% of US adults had access to a smart speaker. In 2 years, that number went up by 20x. By next year, 75% of households will have one. A study by Edison Research revealed that 42% of smart speaker owners now say these devices are “essential” to their daily lives.
- Will you elaborate on the benefits of interactive Virtual Concierge for hospitality providers (including guest communication)?
The benefits are largely around the guest experience. The Virtual Concierge platform provides hosts the ability to define a custom virtual concierge on Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Content can be individually tailored to each property. This platform is built on a flexible natural language understanding model, allowing guests to ask questions in many ways. Guests can say things like, “We’d like some restaurant recommendations”, or “What’s the wifi password?”, and get immediate answers. But these aren’t answers like you get from Google. They are personal recommendations from the innkeeper, and specific details about the property. In addition to providing quick answers in a way that guests enjoy, it also helps offload the burden of fielding these questions by the host’s staff.
- What instructions and recommendations can innkeepers provide ahead of check in through this technology?
The principle way of engaging with the Virtual Concierge during a guest’s stay will be through a smart speaker device like an Amazon Echo or Google Home. In addition though, guests can get access to the Virtual Concierge as they prepare for their trip. The host provides them with a passcode, and the guest can then use Google Assistant on their phone to access all the property’s custom content.
- How can it help with lights, temperature, security, entertainment system, and other smart home features?
Voice technology is a way to simplify interactions with smart homes. Sometimes this tech can be daunting. It is wonderful to be able to simply say, “Hey Google, turn the heat up”.
- Will you let us know some of the features having to do with music, ambient sleep sounds, and group games?
These are all great examples of use cases for a smart speaker in a hospitality setting. Music is a feature used by almost everyone. Ambient sleep sounds are a wonderful way to help guests sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. There are dozens of options available, from the sound of a thunderstorm, to crickets chirping or just pure white noise. Many group games are available on these voice assistant devices as well. For example, Name That Tune, or a variety of trivia games are very popular. Some of the best times I’ve had on vacation were playing games with the family, and voice games are a new way to spend time together. The hidden value for innkeepers is that there are no small pieces to get lost or stuck in the vacuum cleaner!
- What can it do with regards to “routines” that can be set up?
A great example of Routines that you can set up is a ‘good night’ routine. If guests say the phrase, “Alexa, good night,” the virtual assistant will proceed to turn off all the lights, lock the doors, and shut off the downstairs heating system.
Routines can be initiated with either a trigger phrase, or you can assign a specific time for the routine to run. Routines can control smart home devices, as well as including elements like news, traffic and weather. You can also make it so that music begins to play as part of a Routine, or play a podcast.
Another interesting capability as it applies to hospitality is that a routine can also including having Alexa speak something of your choosing. An example that ties together a full guest experience is a morning Routine for guests. Alexa could start the coffee maker, turn on the lights, read the day’s weather forecast for your area, and then offer concierge services to help plan activities for the day. For example, “If you would like to hear the owner’s recommendations for places in the area and things to do, just say Alexa, use the concierge service. Have a great day!”
- I know this is becoming more popular for rental properties to have, but why is this something bed and breakfast innkeepers should consider for their own properties (when many innkeepers are available to answer questions from their guests)?
There are times when an innkeeper may not be available, but probably a bigger reason is that some people actually prefer not having to trouble their host with questions. As people begin to get accustomed to Googling information, they expect technology to be able to help them. With the Virtual Concierge, innkeepers can have it both ways – engage with guests that seek them out for answers, and enable others to get the same answers using technology.
- Is there any research that shows a greater increase in guest return rates (and guest referrals) when you compare lodging that does and does not have this technology?
Probably the best examples we’ve seen are where guests leave glowing reviews, and specifically mention their delight in having the Virtual Concierge available to them, together with other features from the voice assistant. As we know, positive reviews are critical to the success of independent hospitality providers.
- What do you say to innkeepers who do not consider themselves to be “tech savvy” and are hesitant about using this?
This kind of tech used to be too complex and costly for the average user. But Amazon and Google have done a fantastic job of making voice technology easy to use and accessible to everyone. I’ve heard from self-proclaimed “technology dinosaurs” that they have successfully set up the Virtual Concierge, and I’ve received a lot of happy emails about the way it functions. This space is evolving very quickly. Both smart home and digital assistant technology has hit the mass market, and while it is good today, we will see even better reliability and functionality over time. The important thing is to get started, and not be left behind.
- What are the options available, and costs involved, for innkeepers?
From a hardware perspective, devices like the Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home Mini are available at less than $50. On the software side, the Virtual Concierge is available in 2 options: VCS Standard and VCS Pro (Pro is only available with Amazon Alexa). VCS Standard is $5/month, and VCS Pro is $10/month with discounts for larger deployments.
The Pro version has everything that Standard has, but it also includes centralized management and monitoring of all Amazon Echo devices. It also includes calendar integration, so that when a guest checks out, the device will be reset, clearing any alarms, timers or notifications that may have been enabled. With the Pro version, guests will soon be able to say “Alexa, add my account” which will then enable them to play their own music, audio books, and so on.
- How can innkeepers contact you?
More information about Virtual Concierge is available at their website
Innkeepers can email Dana directly at (firstname.lastname@example.org) and they can
Connect with Dana Young on LinkedIn
Thank you, Dana, for sharing this valuable information with us.
Top Image by Marcus Berg of Unique Angles Photography