Amazon Alexa in Vacation Rentals

Fill Your Vacation Rental with Voice Controlled Music

By Dana Young

Amazon Echo Music Applications

Overview

As a vacation rental owner or manager, you may have begun exploring the use of Amazon Alexa at your property. I’ve had many VR pros reach out and ask, “How can I leverage an Amazon Echo at my vacation rental?”. This series of guides is intended to help with that question, and provide actionable information that will help you improve your guest’s experience.

In this guide, we are going to focus on making music available to your guests using an Amazon Echo with Alexa. You will find a description of the value proposition for guests and owner/managers, exactly what you need in order to deliver that value, and setup instructions, including specific resources to take advantage of.

Value Proposition

Music needs no justification - most VRs will already have some sort of sounds system because guests have always wanted it. Chances are though, your stereo setup may be quite dated. Gone are the days when CDs were the norm, much less radio. Today music is streamed digitally. Further, people expect a massive range of genres to choose from. Millennials have the expectation that millions of songs will be available on a sound system. It isn’t just young people however, collectively our expectations are that any song will be immediately available.

The Amazon Echo is a perfect way to deliver against this expectation. Alexa integrates with Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and others. Once you set it up, guests can simply say, “Alexa, play smooth jazz”, or basically anything else. Simple, voice controlled tunes and a massive music library - that’s the value proposition for your guests. No more fiddling around in the stereo closet trying to make it work!

This brings me to the value prop for the owner or manager - you may have had a chill run down your back at the mention of guests tinkering with your stereo closet. This has certainly happened at my VR. When guests are struggling to make things work, they can unplug wires that can cause untold grief for you. It may not be caught until you get that phone call from the next group, complaining about why the stereo doesn’t work. With music through Alexa, guests use nothing but their voice, eliminating that problem.

What You Will Need

As with most things, there are lot of options. To keep it simple, my recommendation is to get a device with decent sound quality (not the best and not the worst), and choose between two options for a music service.

Hardware
If you have begun experimenting with Alexa in your VR properties, you may have begun with an Echo Dot. That is a great place to start, because if you decide to move forward with providing music through Alexa, you can always re-deploy a Dot from a common space to a smaller room, such as a bedroom. Then replace it with an Echo that has great sound quality in the living room and other common areas.
The 2nd generation Echo has a dedicated tweeter, a 2.5” down-firing woofer, and Dolby processing. Amazon says the improvements help the device to deliver crisper vocals and stronger bass throughout the room. The Echo Plus sounds even better, if you are comfortable with the $50 premium. I recommend the 2nd generation Echo (not the Plus), as most guests aren’t radically finicky audiophiles and will appreciate the ability to get music with voice commands and think it sounds terrific.
Music Service
My recommendation is to use the 2nd generation Echo in conjunction with either Pandora or Spotify, depending on if you want to pay for the music service. While both companies have both premium and free services, I believe the choice should be between the Pandora free service, and the Spotify premium service. The reasons are that Pandora Premium is playing catch-up compared to Spotify Premium, yet they are the same price, $10/month. Also the free version of Pandora works with Alexa, while the free version of Spotify does not. So with that, we’ll compare these two.
When comparing the music libraries of Spotify and Pandora, they are roughly the same. Both have millions of songs - basically anything your guests could want. There aren’t any notable artists who appear on one service and not the other.
Spotify Premium
Spotify is an on-demand music platform, with more than 140 million active daily users and more than 70 million paying monthly subscribers. You can tell Alexa to play any song, and it will immediately start. One key feature with Alexa is that once you set up Spotify as the default music service, your guests can say “Alexa, play XYZ” instead of “Alexa, play XYZ on Spotify”. Guests can find readymade playlists to match their mood that have been put together by music fans and experts. They can play music ad-free. They can also skip songs as much as they like (speaking from personal experience, this is helpful with large groups, especially with teenagers around!)
Here are some examples of ways your guests can play music on Spotify via “Alexa…”:
  • “Play <song name>”
  • “Play <artist name>” (Shuffles songs by that artist)
  • “Play <composer>” (Shuffles music from that composer)
  • “Play <playlist name>” (You can also say “Shuffle” instead of “Play”)
  • “Play <genre> on Spotify” (90s music, rock, hip-hop, etc)
  • “Turn it up”
  • “Skip”
  • “What song is this?”
Free version of Pandora
Pandora originates from the Music Genome Project which began in 1999. The system today is reported to use around 400 different ‘genes’ in its genome in order to accurately identify music tracks and organize them.
The free version has some limitations to be aware of. First off, with a free Pandora account subscribers are limited to radio-like functionality — pick a song (or an artist, or an album, or any combination), and it builds you a station. The second thing to consider is that unfortunately it is only available in the United States. The third one is that you'll notice songs come with short advertisements. This is so Pandora can afford to keep this free option going by slipstreaming ads that generate some revenue every time they are played. The fourth consideration is that with Alexa, you must specify Pandora when requesting music. For example, your guests will need to say “Alexa, play ABC on Pandora” instead of just “Alexa, play ABC”. This is because Pandora is a ‘Station Service’ as opposed to a ‘Music Library’ in the Amazon Alexa App. Fifth, users of the free option only have access to a lower-quality audio stream (limited to 64 Kb per second). Your average guest probably won’t notice much of a difference though. Finally, the last limitation in using the free Pandora Radio account is song skip limits. There is a maximum number of times you can use the skip feature in order to go to the next song. For the free account you can only skip 6 times per hour in any one station with a total skip limit of 12 for the day. That is relatively easy to get around though, just tell Alexa to play something else instead of skipping the current song.
The key limitation here is whether the free version of Pandora is available to you based on your property location, with the unfortunate constraint of only being available in the US. If you are in the States, none of these other limitations are really showstoppers for use in a vacation rental. Pandora with Alexa offers a great value prop for your guests. With no cost to you as the owner or manager, it allows guests to listen to a massive range of music using only their voice for control.
Other Considerations
Unique Amazon Accounts
I recommend setting up a unique Amazon account to be associated with the Echo(s) in a given vacation rental property. This is for a few reasons:
First, if you use your personal account with the Echo at your vacation rental, Alexa can be set up to tie into to a number of things that you would not want to share with your guests. For example, voice purchasing. You may have heard the story of the 6 year old ordering an expensive dollhouse and 4 pounds of cookies - that might be cheap compared to what an enterprising guests with free reign in your Amazon account might order! There is also your personal calendar to consider, as well as shopping lists and the like.
The second reason why I recommend a separate account involves digital rights with music. The Amazon account that you use when setting up the Echo(s) at your VR will be linked to the music service that you subscribe to (either Pandora or Spotify). If you have more than one VR, you might think ‘OK, I won’t use my personal account at my vacation rental, but I will just set up one Amazon account for all my VRs, and that way I will only need to buy one subscription to Spotify’. Unfortunately, Spotify is only licensed to sell 'personal' subscriptions which means you can only stream on one device at a time with a given account. That means if you used the same account at multiple VRs, a guest in one VR might be happily singing along until a guest in a different VR tells Alexa to play music. At that point, the music will stop playing at the first VR, and start playing at the second VR. This is clearly not the best situation for building a great guest experience!
The third reason it is best to set up a unique Amazon account for each of your VR properties is that it will allow you to establish unique custom content for that property that can be delivered through the virtual concierge. Your properties can all be managed together in the virtual concierge portal, but with unique accounts you can specify customized welcome messages for your guests, provide helpful information specific to each property, etc.
Your Internet Connection
One final consideration is the internet connection that is available at your vacation rental. From a streaming music perspective, one hour is about 72 MB of bandwidth usage (15 hours would then equal out to 2 GB). If you have a low bandwidth cap from your Internet Service Provider, you may want to consider how much streaming your guests will do vs your cap. One way to help control this is to use the lower quality stream via the free Pandora service, which as described above is a 64 Kbps stream setting. Make sure you’re getting at least 1–2 Mb per second download speeds on your web service. If you have any question about your internet connection, Use an Internet speed test to determine this.

Set Up Instructions

Amazon Echo Setup

You will want to set up the Echo(s) in your vacation rental property with a separate Amazon account that is specific to that property. If you have more than one Echo at your property, use that same account for all the devices at that location. Details for how to do that (including a great trick to simplify the process) as well as the reasons why it should be done are described here.

Once you have a separate account for the Echo(s) at your vacation rental property, you can follow the basic Echo setup instructions here. There are options for either downloading the Alexa app for IOS / Android, or using the app from your PC’s browser via https://alexa.amazon.com.

Setting Up Single-Room Music

Getting music to stream through your Echo is pretty straightforward. Obviously the first thing you are going to want to do is set up your Alexa device using the Amazon Alexa App, either on your phone, or the web version of the tool. As described above, be sure to use a unique, separate Amazon account for each vacation rental property. Then open up an account with either Pandora or Spotify.

Next, in the Alexa App:

Setting Up Multi-Room Music

Multi-Room Music allows your guests to play and control music across multiple Echo devices at the same time. To create a Multi-Room Music group, first complete the steps above under Setting Up Single-Room Music. Then in the Alexa App:

  1. From the menu, select Smart Home.
  2. Select Groups and then Create Groups.
  3. Select Multi-Room Music Group.
  4. Use pre-set group names from the drop-down, or create your own with Custom Name.
  5. Select which devices to include and then select Create Group.

Note: Your Echo devices must all be on the same wifi network in order to be joined to a Group.

Playing Multi-Room Music

To play music across multiple rooms (and Echo devices), a slightly different phrase is used with Alexa. Once multi-room music is enabled, instruct your guests to say, "Play <music selection> on <group name>". Reminder: do set up a laminated cheat sheet or acrylic sign with instructions for your guests on things they can do with your voice controlled vacation rental.

Setting the Explicit Filter

Some people will appreciate the ability to not have potty-mouth music playing at their vacation rental. If that is you, leverage the explicit filter to block all devices on the account from playing music with explicit lyrics. You can turn on the filter by saying, "Block explicit songs."

Summary

Whether you are providing your guests one Echo device or many, music with voice control will be a welcome addition to your vacation rental. Now try it out with one of your favorite artists! For me, I always like to run a test with a little Johnny Cash :).


Dana Young
Dana Young is a vacation rental owner in the technology industry. Along with founding the virtual concierge, he also developed TrackVacs, as a way to give back to the vacation rental community and help single property owners manage their business.