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?


Can You Hear Me Now at 30,000 Ft?

By Robert McGarvey

Voice calls are coming to airplanes – rather they are coming back.

Loud – protesting – voices are getting raised but, really, this is progress, baby, and it won’t be derailed by people with no memory of history.

First: here’s why I am convinced we will soon be permitted to make voice calls inflight.  The US Department of Transportation has issued a proposed rule to protect passengers “from being unwillingly exposed to voice calls on aircraft.”

DoT is not seeking a ban on such calls. Quite the contrary.  What DoT is seeking is “to require airlines and ticket agents to disclose in advance to consumers if the carrier operating their flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices.”

The Federal Communications Commission, by the way, has sway over cellphones’ cellular radios and the FCC continues to ban voice calls inflight.

DoT is looking instead at WiFi calling – available via Skype, Google Voice, What’s App, many more apps, also T-Mobile and at least some other cellular carriers.  Said DoT: “As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase.”

Meantime, the big air carriers have been pushing WiFi providers – mainly GoGo – to up their game.  There is every indication that will happen and, truth is, WiFi calling with What’s App, Skype, et. al. is not bandwidth intensive anyway.  Skype, for instance, says the minimum bandwidth for voice calling is 30kbps. It recommends 100kbps.  That is not a high hurdle.

DoT admitted that the last time it raised the topic of inflight voice calls – in 2014 – the people spoke and they weren’t happy.  “In February 2014, the Department had issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding the use of mobile wireless devices for voice calls on commercial aircraft.  In response to the ANPRM, a substantial majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

This ire puzzles me.  I recall getting a call from a business associate who was inflight in the mid 1980s.  He was using Airfone – the inflight system birthed by John Goeken, founder of MCI. It debuted in the early 1980s and was still in at least some planes until 2006.

Airfone never enjoyed much use.  We all saw the phones – usually in the seatback of the middle seat in coach; in every seatback up front. But high prices – in 2006 calls cost $3.99 plus $4.99 per minute – seemed to stall usage.

Publicist Richard Laermer in fact said the price of an Airfone call was why the service triggered few complaints. “With Airfone, it was so expensive you made it and hung up.”

He’s right. Airfone calls generally were minimalist.

Laermer said that won’t be so with WiFi calling.  “The Wifi calls are going to be ‘Hey. Hi. Just calling to see how you are.’ And that’s going to eat people up inside. It’s bad enough listening to someone drone on and on with their seatmate, but to listen to half a conversation will start a revolution in the air. I think this is a very bad idea. Coming from someone who travels every week…it’s going to cause people to start knocking phones out of people’s hands.”

San Diego PR executive Antoinette Kuritz said similar: “For many of us, plane time is time to read, relax, disconnect.  Others are prepping for the meetings to come when they land.  Then there are those who nap.  The chatter rampant cell phone use will allow makes all of that impossible.  We will be subjected to the often inane one-sided conversations of those who need to display their connectivity to others.”

I can’t disagree with those who wish phones would stay off planes.

But here’s the deal: Satellite phone calling already is available on at least some flights

Then, too, WiFi calling already is happening inflight. Yes, the air carriers and their WiFi providers seek to block access to the known WiFi calling services such as Skype. But the Internet is ever inventive and new services multiply like cockroaches in a New York tenement.  A whispered reality is that calling already is happening, maybe mainly in hushed tones inside a locked bathroom.

My belief: inflight calling will come to airplanes, probably by 2020, very possibly via captive services and with high tariffs involved.  It’s unlikely that carriers – who seek to shake a dime out of every passenger interaction – would let this opportunity pass.

Couldn’t it still be an annoyance? You bet. That’s why frequent flyer Andy Abramson has said for this to work, there will have to be guidelines monitoring when calls can be made and more. His list – which includes a ban on profanity – is here.

Abramson also wants no calling rows so those who want silence can find it.

Read Abramson’s suggestions because – bet on this – calling is coming to planes.

There might even be a plus in this for all of us, whether we personally make and receive calls at 30,000 ft. or not.  If enough revenue comes in from calling, the carriers just may – really – seek real upgrades in inflight WiFi.  And that is something I can applaud.