Hotel Tech Worth Applauding: Bunking with Alexa

 

By Robert McGarvey

Finally a hotel technology push – a big one – that is worth applauding. Wynn Las Vegas has announced that its 4748 rooms will be equipped with Amazon Echo, the voice driven answer machine, aka Alexa.

Much – most – hotel tech “innovation” leaves me bored or cranky.  It’s an industry that generally is at the rear of the curve when it comes to technology adoption and I point you to the silly in-room phones that hoteliers continue to talk about. No, I haven’t used one in a decade and can’t say I miss this.

Hoteliers also babble about robots which, I suppose, are okay but I have not personally seen one yet and can’t say I care. Ditto for beacons, which are the buzz in some quarters.

Alexa is a different matter. I have owned an Alexa since January 2015, and just recently installed a second, the diminutive Dot – in another room in my house. I don’t go a day without talking with the Echoes I own. Alexa has dramatically simplified my life and is a poster child for technology that works.

Here is why I am excited about what Wynn is doing: Let me take you back maybe five years when I checked into a Strip hotel.  I don’t name it not to protect the guilty but because I don’t remember which one. In Las Vegas I have no brand loyalty and generally stay close to whatever meeting brings me to town.

But Wynn may be winning me over to the Wynn brand with Echo because this solves a big problem for me.

Back in Las Vegas some years ago – I come back to the room late one night, the window’s drapes are to the sides, the lights of the Strip cascade into my darkened room. I have to close the drapes to sleep.  Honestly, it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to use the electronic system to close the things so that I could go to sleep.

In some rooms, too, in-room lighting is a mystery to me. Occasionally so is the thermostat.

Wynn Hotels plan to solve exactly that pain with its Echo installation.  The device will roll out with a limited range of skills but they are exactly what I want in a Strip hotel.  In a press release Steve Wynn said, “The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient. In partnership with Amazon, becoming the first resort in the world in which guests can verbally control every aspect of lighting, temperature and the audio-visual components of a hotel room is yet another example of our leadership in the world of technology for the benefit of all of our guests.”

That’s a helluva tangled sentence but as I parse it, Wynn is saying you can ask his Echoes to close the drapes, turn lights on or off, raise or lower the temperature, probably control the TV.

And exactly those are the things that too often confuse me in Las Vegas rooms.

Wynn’s Alexa should also be able to handle the questions and tasks I throw at mine daily: What’s the weather? What time is it? Set an alarm for 6 a.m.. Give me a news update. Etc.

You can do the latter – much of it – with Siri, certainly with Google’s voice recognition tools. But neither of them can handle your in-room comfort and what matters more than opening/closing the drapes, setting the temperature and the limited range of Wynn specific skills enabled on his Echoes.

If I had to predict a hospitality tech trend for 2017 and beyond it is that we will see more voice activated devices in hotel rooms, at least those with somewhat sophisticated in-room equipment.  And probably the winner will be Dot, mainly because of the price point.  Amazon sticker s $50 – but I got mine for $25 (net), by combining various Amazon offers.

The big brother Echo costs $140. That’s what Wynn is installing.

Google Home costs $129. It’s doubtless a good device – Google voice rec works superbly on my Pixel phone, vastly better than Siri on an iPhone. But Amazon already has a vast user base and that’s a plus for any hotelier. Guests need no instruction with Echo.

Watch, too, as Wynn enables more skills – that’s my bet. Soon guests will be able to make restaurant reservations, book spa treatments, buy show tickets just by talking with their in-room assistant.  Program the device to know the room it is in, that connects to a credit card and right there commerce is enabled. Send the guest a confirming email and there’s some verification.  I’d use it.

Now if only hotels would finally eliminate the front desk check in routine, a process that is honestly unchanged in my 40 years of checking into hotels.  Okay, way back when, accounts were usually settled with cash, not credit cards, but really nothing else has changed.  For many years hoteliers have talked of eliminating the front desk check in.  I’m still waiting.

And you know what? Alexa already is Expedia enabled and, probably with some minor tweaks, Expedia could handle check-in, even issue an electronic key to my phone.

I’m ready. Are you?

 

Beware the Siren Call of Hotel WiFi

By Robert McGarvey

 

rjmcgarvey01

 

What part of hotel WiFi is dangerous to your data don’t you understand?

I ask because, according to a new report from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), 64 to 69% of you say you would book a room directly with a hotel for free WiFi.

That stuns me.

I get why 35% of business travelers in that survey say they want more outlets in rooms – I certainly do and I find it mind boggling that it is 20 years now that I have had to rearrange hotel room furniture on check in just to find enough outlets. At least nowadays I don’t carry a powerbar with me, something I routinely packed in the 1990s. Hotels have made progress but not nearly enough

But color me also curious why 32% of business travelers want inroom chargers for phones and laptops – I suppose they have never heard of “juice jacking.”  Read about it and you will never again use those charging kiosks at airports (I never have, never will) and I doubt you will use such tools even in a hotel room.  The risks are too high.

Which brings us back to the siren call of free hotel WiFi.

You’ll recall that in the Odyssey, Odysseus had his crew tie him to the mast so that he could safely ignore the call of the Sirens – who enticed sailors into shipwrecks and drowning.  Odysseus steeled himself to sail right by.

Do likewise my friends, when it comes to hotel WiFi.

If you absorb nothing else from me, remember these two realities:  Never, ever use a credit card at a hotel restaurant, bar or gift shop is number one and that is because a month does not go by when there isn’t another reported hotel data breach and the real question is how many are ongoing but have yet to be discovered by the hoteliers?

It just is dangerous to use plastic at hotels – although, so far, reservation systems appear not to have been compromised.

Hotels have however had epidemic issues with compromise of their loyalty programs and also their restaurants, bars and gift shops.

If you must use the latter, pay with cash, or sign the purchases over to your room. You’ll probably be safe. Just don’t use a credit and definitely not a debit card because – these days – you have to assume there’s a good chance the system has already been breached.

Hotels just don’t put enough – or the right – emphasis on data security.

Which brings us back to the second lesson and that is the pervasive dangers of hotel WiFi. For at last a decade, information security experts have warned that public WiFi in general and hotel WiFi in particular are playgrounds for hackers.  Packet sniffing technologies make it easy – even for the technically unsophisticated – to scoop up posts on public WiFi networks.

Don’t think it doesn’t happen. It definitely does.

The cure? Do as I do and – whenever doing anything remotely sensitive in a hotel room (banking, for instance) – I create a hotspot with my cellphone and use it to power the connection. There’s a reason I am paying for 6GB of data on T-Mobile and the same amount on Project Fi and it’s not because I stream college football games on ESPN.

It’s because I prefer the safety in creating my own hotspot.

Should you never use inroom WiFi? Sure, use it to stream that ESPN game, to watch YouTube Ted Talks, to play blackjack – however you fill down time on the road.  Read newspapers online too. Just avoid sites where you sign in with a username and password – because you don’t want a hacker to grab those credentials and work mischief with them.

Another option: use a VPN when on hotel WiFi.  That will probably cost you a few shekels and it may slow your connections – VPNs usually do – but a VPN encrypts data and that probably will be enough to thwart hackers and data sniffers. This way, you get the free WiFi access but the VPN gives you a measure of protection.

Bottomline: assume hotel WiFi is hacked.  

Is it always? Of course not.  

But it’s porous enough of the time that the security savvy know to avoid it.

Do likewise.

Or at least take steps – such as VPN – to protect yourself.