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Volara CEO reveals how Amazon Alexa can make you a better hotelier

Hotel Tech Report
8 months ago

Most of the ‘artificial intelligence’ being sold to hotels isn’t actually artificial intelligence.  The drones used to deliver room service champagne to the ultra elite back in 2014 was just a PR stunt.  Don’t even get us started on Google’s attempt to outfit hotel staff with Google Glass lenses.  The list goes on and on. While we’ve been bullish on the use of voice activated technology for business use such as IDeaS Revenue Solutions’ smart revenue assistant we have historically taken a more bearish stance on voice technology for guest use until recently. Admittedly, we first thought that Alexa for hotel rooms was just another PR stunt but after meeting Dave Berger and trying Volara's technology for ourselves - our skepticism quickly became enthusiasm for Volara's impact on hotel operations and the overall guest experience. Back in 2015 Dave Berger was a lawyer and AirBnB super host.  As his vacation rental business grew it began to interfere with his day job due to an increasing volume of text messages from guests asking lots of similar questions.   Berger was an avid user of Amazon Alexa’s smart assistant in his personal life and decided to hack together a solution that could help answer lots of these questions for guests.  Doing so instantly made managing his budding vacation rental business significantly easier.   That’s when he had his “ah-ha moment”. Berger knew that if he could solve this much friction in his startup vacation rental business with Alexa that hotels would benefit from the use of this new technology due to the massive amount of complexity involved in their operations. Berger didn’t just jump in and start selling his device to hotels.  He spent 2016 identifying the areas where voice technology could make a meaningful impact on the guest experience.  During this research phase, he developed a partner strategy and built a platform that could easily connect with other software solutions. To this day, one of the biggest pain points for guests in a hotel room is waiting on hold when calling guest services. Volara integrates with all the leading work order management systems - like Alice, Amadeus HotSOS, SynergyMMS, Knowcross, and HMobile - so guests can can make requests and get instant confirmation that the item or service they need is being delivered Another massive pain point for hotel guests lies around the fact that hotel room TV remotes are ridden with germs and bacteria.  Volara integrates with in room entertainment systems like Sonifi, BeyondTV and Innspire so that guests never have to pick up that filthy remote control ever again.     One by one Berger has identified areas where voice can help other tech products perform better and faster.  Volara has racked up dozens of these technology partnerships to date and its platform approach has paid off in spades for Berger resulting in an exclusive partnership to provide voice technology for Marriott franchisees and even securing a nod straight from Amazon CTO Werner Vogels - no small feat.     Amazon CTO Werner Vogels talks about Volara at Reinvent 2017   While we were tempted to speak with Alexa for this interview, we felt like sitting down for a chat with Berger might be a bit more productive.   Dave, what was your background before starting Volara? After five years practicing law at a big law firm, I ran like hell.  I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have been following my entrepreneurial passions since 2008.   I had been an AirBnB Superhost for three years and one day in January 2016 a particularly needy guest began peppering me the most mundane questions in rapid succession.  "Where are extra towels?" "How do I use the dishwasher?" "Where can I park?" Alexa was one year old at the time and I decided that she could help me serve my guests in a fun and more efficient way. After receiving great feedback from my own guests and measurably reducing the number of guests messaging me, I saw the opportunity for a business venture and began to consider suitable markets.  I spent 2016 speaking with hoteliers and learning everything I could about technology in hotels. Thanks to some great mentors early on, we were able to identify specifically what it would take to turn a consumer smart speaker and natural language processing platform into an enterprise grade solution that's suitable for the most complex hotel environments. Today, Volara's software addresses the most common concerns about consumer smart speakers deployed in hotels - guest privacy, data security, reply accuracy, and seamless integration into existing hotel technologies.  While others are charging for a "skill", Volara gives its conversation models away for free to its clients and enables others to build creatively atop of those conversation models.   Who was Volara’s first customer? The Acme Hotel in Chicago was the first hotel to deploy our solution in every room.  This solution is live and loved by guests today. The ownership group has since deployed our solution in another one of their hotels as well.   If I recall correctly, the Acme Hotel found us.  It's an incredibly tech forward property with management and ownership that immediately saw the value in our solution.   Why do hotels need voice activated technology? Voice technology enables hotels to engage their guests in a fun and scalable way. Volara turns leading consumer voice technologies that your guests will know from home into a compliant, flexible, and accurate fully integrated hotel business tool that will yield measurable results.   Who is one mentor that has really helped you scale Volara? Armand Rabinowitz.  Armand is currently the Senior Director of Strategy and Workgroups at HTNG, but at the time we met he was Director of Innovation at Hyatt.  Armand was the very first hotelier to contact us through our website and helped us understand the intricacies of working with large hotel brands.  Thanks to the insight he shared early on, we have managed to develop successful relationships with four of the largest hotel brands in the world.   What's the most common misconception that hoteliers have about voice technology? Some hoteliers believe Amazon's Alexa is a hotel product.  We've seen this mistake lead to disastrous outcomes at The Wynn Las Vegas and Best Western.  In the same way that Google Chromecast needs a hotel technology overlay, so does Amazon's Alexa.  Volara has built this software overlay and I'm proud to say it is being used by every successful deployment of Amazon's Alexa in hotels today.   What's the most surprising thing you've learned about scaling technology into hotels since founding the business? Hoteliers don't like to take risks on startups.  Its sad and holds back innovation in an industry that is in dire need of new ways of doing business.  Three years on, Volara is now well established in the industry, but we didn't reach the success we have today without a fight.   Volara has built deep technical integrations for 30 plus hotel technologies - from work order management systems to guest engagement platforms to IPTV solutions to room controls to valet and safety products.  Our vision has been to be the voice interface for everything in the hotel and that helped us bring credibility in those early days by associating with partners who the hotels were already working with.   If you could partner with any vendor in hotel tech, who would it be and why? Hotel Tech Report, because they are trying to bring transparency and efficiency to an old fashion marketplace.  Hoteliers should consider vendors based on the quality of their reviews on Hotel Tech Report, rather than by the size of their booth at HITEC.   How will voice technology for hotels change in the next 5-years? Hoteliers will become more educated on voice technologies and value the solutions that provide guest privacy protections, data security, improved interaction accuracy, flexible management tools, and seamless integrations. Volara will continue to lead the pack and will be voice enabling 80 hotel technologies across 8 natural language processing platforms in 26 languages on 60 different pieces of hardware in hotels across the globe.   Do you have any new products or feature launches to share? While our Alexa based solution continues to scale rapidly, we are committed to providing platform agnostic conversation management for our clients.  I think most folks are aware of our joint solutions with Google and IBM Watson by now, but there is more to come. Stop by to meet us at HITEC or reach out for a confidential preview.   Is there anything that the community can do to be helpful for you? Keep collaborating in the best interests of our clients.  I love working with partners to achieve truly remarkable outcomes.   What's one piece of advice that you have for any entrepreneurs in the hotel tech space? Focus on measuring the ROI for the hotels immediately.  Nice to have solutions inevitably fail.   What is the best book you've read lately and why? It’s not a book but I’ve been really passionately reading the At War section of the New York Times for quite some time and I think it’s critical reading for anyone in global business.  It chronicles the experience and costs of war across the globe. The impact of war - whether on combatants, civilians, the environment, lost innovation or other aspects of our world - is something we all need to try to understand better.   What is your favorite podcast I enjoy listening to the investigative reports by 60 Minutes - yes, the same 60 minutes that my grandparents watched on their black and white TV.  Sometimes complex stories take time to investigate, unwind and convey in a thoughtful way.   What is one thing that most people don't know about you? I lived atop a butcher shop in Hong Kong.  Each morning a noisy truck would drop a pig in front of our door and my wife would say "Breakfast is here."

What is the difference between vacation rental technology and hotel technology?

Hotel Tech Report
11 months ago

‘Hotel tech’ has been a catchall for the various segments of hospitality. It’s even in our name: Hotel Tech Report, where we distinguish between property types as a means of connecting hospitality professionals to the best software for their property. In a recent session on the future of property management software at HomeAway’s RezFest, the conversation around the trajectory of vacation rental technology highlighted how the needs of the industry diverge sufficiently from hotels to merit its own category. In comments reported by PhocusWire’s Jill Menze, one solution provider preferred the term “vacation rental software” to reflect these divergent needs: “The answer is simple: We aren’t property management software companies,” says Vinny Dicarlo, chief operations officer at Ciirus Vacation Rental Software. “We’re using the concept of ‘property management’ based on what hotels or long-term rentals were doing. We should change the term; it should be vacation rental software.” Indeed, many of the technology solutions overlap between these two segments of hospitality -- but there are some critical distinctions. With this view in mind, what exactly is the difference between vacation rental technology and hotel technology? What are the key differences between hotels and vacation rentals? To understand how technologies differ, we first need to understand how the products themselves differ: Hotels Vacation rentals Hotels priced per room Vacation rentals priced per unit Multiple room types, bookable individually or as a block One room type per booking (either shared room, private room, or whole home) Leans towards standardized Leans towards individualized Large databases of previous customers Small (or non-existent) databases Amenities may be extra Amenities usually included Upsells common Upsells rare Highly collaborative staff, large teams Less staff, small teams Ongoing recruitment of new staff Employee light On-site amenities require software No on-site amenities to manage via software In-house housekeeping and maintenance Mix of in-house and third-party (depending on size of property manager) GDS for broad distribution, plus direct booking Specialized booking channels for short-term rentals, direct booking less frequent Loyalty/CRM across properties Loyalty/CRM limited to vacation rental management company brand More guests; more complex reputation management Fewer guests; increased importance of quality of reviews   What are the unique operational needs of vacation rental owners? Efficient operations matter to vacation rental profitability. Systemized operations keep the rental in top-shape for each new booking, with automations and checklists helping to maintain a consistent guest experience. Since most vacation rentals are whole homes, there are far more things to manage when making a vacation rental “guest ready” than with a standard hotel room. The size of checklists is much longer, as is the list of items that need to be checked and potential maintained regularly: individual hotel rooms rarely have hot water heaters, while most vacation rentals do, for example. The average vacation rental requires more operational finesse. Given this complexity, vacation rentals have far different needs for their property management software when compared to hotels. Other areas that vacation rental software must distinguish itself from standard hotel technology: Integration with other services. From third party cleaning services to maintenance and repairs, good vacation rental software facilitates the logistics of managing many vendors in one place. Also: must work reliably with various smart home devices for remote management. Guest communications. Constant and consistent guest communications is essential for vacation rentals. Whether pre-booking or for an emergency during a stay, 24/7 support via multiple communications channels is different for vacation rentals than hotels. Intelligent routing and AI-driven support help property managers be more responsive to guest communications. Check-in/check-out management. Without a front desk to welcome guests, there has to be a process in place for key/code management, welcome packet, and overall welcome. Proper vacation rental software makes this happen. Website and marketing. Direct booking is also a focus for vacation rentals; however, these sites often do better when fully integrated into a property’s management software for seamless bookings and real-time calendar updates. Mobile too. Works well on mobile, since many property managers are out in the field. On-the-go property management is typical so functionality cannot be limited. There's also a lot of coordination between parties that are not stationed on-site, which creates the potential for lapses in communication that affect the guest directly. Whereas hotels have crews on property, vacation rentals often do not. For example, what happens when the property manager forgets to tell the cleaners about an early check-in? The guest is frustrated, and, despite the team’s best intentions, the property looks disorganized. Vacation rental software alleviates these issues through automation and functionality that enhance transparency across the vacation rental operation. Image Source   Why do vacation rentals need specialized Revenue Management Software? Hotels often have teams of revenue managers and data analysts; vacation rentals much less so. The most profitable property managers leverage tools, such as BeyondPricing, to accurately forecast the types of properties in the highest demand among a destination’s key demographics. While hotels also use this type of data-driven dynamic pricing, vacation rentals have unique needs that require specialized pricing optimization and revenue management. Since vacation rentals don't have many room types, revenue management is even more important. There's no making up lost revenue from a mispriced room; If unit is booked, it needs to be booked for the highest possible price. The only way to do this is to have dynamically priced inventory that accounts for both local availability and inbound demand. Pricing optimization must also be as seamless and automated as possible. With fewer staff resources at vacation rentals, tools must be more automated than their hotel tech counterparts.   Why does vacation rental demand data differ from hotels? While demand data matters to both hotels and vacation rentals, it matters in different ways. For example, it's much harder to know how many vacation rentals may be in the pipeline for a given market. Property managers could look at total permits issued, and any limits imposed by the city. But some rentals may be incognito, so there’s less understanding of how inventory will impact future pricing. Another difference with demand data is which types of properties are popular with which demographics. As vacation rentals are less standardized as far as amenities, design, and guest experience, there are deeper nuances when it comes to demand data. For example, if Chinese demand is increasing locally, it’s important to not just work to gain visibility in local booking channels but also to tweak amenities during periods of high demand to accommodate traveler preferences. Data delivers these insights, especially for off-peak demand generation, says Dicarlo: “It’s all about Asia and working with a channel in that market. If I didn’t have data, I’d assume Chinese people travel in summer, but they travel in February or March.” The way traveler data is aggregated is also quite different with vacation rentals, said HomeAway President John Kim in another session, as there’s a different imperative for larger booking platforms to facilitate better use of data: “We have to combine all data from travelers so we can build useful products in all of these environments and change quickly for interactions we haven’t even yet seen.” The thread here is that the way data is captured, presented, and acted upon is different enough to merit standalone solutions for the vacation rental industry.   Agility matters in the growing VR industry Freedom from legacy technology allows vacation rental software to be nimble and evolve alongside -- or even ahead of -- the growing industry. Old technology hinders progress, as hospitality operations mold to limitations rather than grow with innovations. Vacation rentals need the agility to integrate and build a software backbone that supports each unique operation. Ciirus’ DiCarlo sees this ability to change as a core differentiator, saying: “There have been hotels since day one. That industry is set in stone. To get them to change how they do business is very hard. [Vacation rental software has] the ability to change because we’re not a 4,000-year-old industry or old technology. If we use data correctly, the way we do business isn’t set in stone.” For property managers looking for the best vacation rental software, we’ll continue to offer a comprehensive view into solutions targeted to this growing segment. In an industry challenged by change, candid insights into hospitality solutions foster transparency and encourage partners to serve such a dynamic industry better. Agility pays dividends in today’s hospitality industry!   Browse honest reviews to find the ideal vacation rental software or hotel software for your property.