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Staying at a hotel? Amazon might be listening

Alexa, order some room service and turn on HGTV.

Staying at a hotel? Amazon might be listening
[Photo: Business Wire/Amazon]

For guests staying at Marriott, Westin, or Aloft hotels, many rooms will now have a minimum occupancy of two. Because an Amazon Echo will be waiting for you inside, with the Alexa voice assistant there to listen and help.

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The new program is called Alexa for Hospitality, and it offers hotels and vacation rentals the opportunity to set up customized versions of Echo products that work like a digital concierge right in your room. These Echos are specialized to answer questions about your reservations, the pool hours, and local amenities. You can order room service or housekeeping, too. Basically, anything that might lead you to dial 0 on that in-room phone sounds like it will be a job that Alexa can tackle instead.

On top of that, Alexa’s countless skills will also be available to guests, like creating white noise or checking airport delays. And if you have your own Amazon account you’d like to use during your stay, you can actually log in to the device to make the experience more customized.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Every major hotel chain is investing in smart rooms filled with internet of things-powered controls . . . that no visitor wants to take the time to learn. A voice interface is perfect for bridging these sorts of customer experience gaps. Saying “Amazon, turn on the air conditioner” is so much easier than prodding an unfamiliar thermostat. And by embracing a more ubiquitous service like Alexa, rather than some bespoke assistant, hotel chains can lean in to personalization options to make their rooms more welcoming to frequent travelers. Hilton’s new Connected Room promises the option to control your environment through an app, but, in theory, an Alexa room could just know you as well as Amazon does. Imagine checking into a Westin only to find your favorite Amazon-purchased snacks and soaps waiting, let alone simple vocal controls to dim the lights.

But the risks of installing these always-listening devices into private spaces seems tone-deaf at best, and risky at worst. Amazon promises The Verge that users’ voice recordings won’t be saved beyond 24 hours or shared with the hotel operators, and Amazon states clearly in its press release that logging yourself out of a hotel Echo will be automatic at the end of your stay. Even if you forget, your information should disappear like the heat of an auto-off iron.

Even still, these privacy promises aren’t ironclad, given Silicon Valley’s terrible track record on breaches and privacy failures. One Echo recently shared the entire conversation of a family with a random contact across the internet–and Amazon isn’t the only company to make such mistakes. It was recently discovered that Google Home is sharing users’ locations unwittingly. Keep in mind, these are controversies that have unfolded over the past few weeks, not years. I’m not exactly scraping the barrel to find massive privacy scandals from the two most popular and competent voice assistants in the world today.

To me, the simple equations facing the hospitality industry are as follows: Is having an Alexa in a hotel room such a wonderful experience that it’s worth a more paranoid guest feeling like they’re in a surveillance state rather than a relaxing retreat? And is an always-listening voice assistant worth the almost inevitable privacy breach that will happen–but this time, with a major hotel chain’s brand name attached?

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I certainly don’t envy hotel operators. They must constantly invest in routine maintenance alongside competitive trends to keep their rooms up-to-date to match a consumer’s expectations. Every three to six years, a room needs new furniture and fixtures, at a cost of about $10,000 dollars–and the wrong decision at scale can leave a big company with, say, a few hundred thousand iPod docks that lack a proper lightning connector for the next iPhone. Imagine looking six years down the road, and reading the tea leaves on voice interfaces. Will they truly become ubiquitous? Or will they be seen as an auditory peephole into an otherwise trusted, private space?

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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