Amazon Alexa in Vacation Rentals

Detail Guide: Provide an Interactive, Virtual Concierge for Your Guests


Provide an Interactive, Virtual Concierge for Your Guests

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 providing a virtual concierge that delivers your specific content to 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

Vacation rental owners and managers have insight and knowledge to the local area that can make a big difference to the guest experience.This is nothing new - for years we have had a welcome binder with information for guests or even a tablet with local content. With Alexa, guests can get that same kind of personalized information delivered in a way that is like having a real concierge right at your vacation rental. Just speak a question, and get it answered. This natural interface offers the promise of replacing a welcome binder or tablet with a conversation. The Virtual Concierge is available at your VR via an Amazon Echo. It is also available to guests on their phone prior to their arrival.

By simply saying, “Alexa, use the concierge service”, guests will have immediate access to all the things you would like to make available to them. Your customized content is delivered in a conversational interface. You can extend a personal welcome to each group, and then share your ‘insider’ tips. That can include specifics on your VR property itself, as well as information about the local area - places to go, things to do and events to attend.

Here are some examples of the kind of things you can provide your guests with the virtual concierge:

What You Will Need

An Amazon Echo device

The virtual concierge is available on any device within the Amazon Echo family of products.

A Separate Amazon Account For Your Property

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. There are a few reasons to set up your devices with a separate account:

First, if you were to use your personal account with the Echo at your vacation rental, Alexa can be set up to tie into 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 guest 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 to use 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. Content you define for the virtual concierge to deliver is linked to an Amazon account. Each set of content will have its own associated account. This will allow you to specify customized welcome messages for your guests and provide helpful information specific to each property. If you have multiple properties in the same location (for example multiple units in the same condominium complex), there may be no reason to have unique content for each unit, so the properties could share a single Amazon account.

If you will be streaming music with your Echo device with a service like Spotify, there is a third reason why a separate account makes sense. It 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. Unfortunately, Spotify is only licensed to sell 'personal' subscriptions which means you can only stream on one device (or set of devices if you set up whole house music) 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!

Setup Instructions

Before you get started with the initial setup of your Echo device, be sure to first create that separate account so that you can login with that account in the Alexa app to begin the setup process.

Setting Up a Separate Amazon Account

To create a unique Amazon account for your vacation rental property, the main thing you will need is an email address. If you already have a personal Gmail account, there is a very useful trick that you can use to get a new email address without actually defining one from scratch.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Go to this page to create a new Amazon account.
  2. In the email field add a plus sign and then a reference to your property before the @ sign. For example, let’s say your normal Gmail address is janedoe@gmail.com and your VR is a beach condo. You could then put an email address in of janedoe+BeachCondo@gmail.com. Amazon will consider this a unique account, but Google will route all messages that are sent to it over to your normal personal account.
  3. Complete the rest of the fields and click the ‘Create your Amazon account’ button.
If you don’t already have a Gmail account and therefore can’t take advantage of this trick, you can use this alternate approach:
  1. Create your Google Account
  2. Once you have your new Gmail account setup, you will want to take the additional step of setting up email forwarding on that account. That way, all email that may come to that account can show up in the inbox that you check regularly. Follow these instructions to setup email forwarding on your property’s new Gmail account.
  3. Move forward with creating an Amazon account
    • Go to this page to create a new account.
    • In the email field use the Gmail account you just created.
    • Complete the rest of the fields and click the ‘Create your Amazon account’ button.

Setup Your Echo Device

Now that 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.

Ensure Guests Know About the Concierge During Their Stay

With a voice interface, it is critical that guests know the concierge capability that you have provided them. To communicate this effectively, place signs next to each Echo device. At a minimum the signs should share how to open up a dialog with the concierge (“Alexa, use the concierge service”). For better clarity with you guests, use a larger sign and provide examples of things they can ask about at your property.

We have a prebuilt 5” x 7” sign templates available. You can download it here. Customize it to your liking using Microsoft PowerPoint, and then print and place it in an acrylic sign holder, available here. If you prefer something smaller and orderable, you can find small signs here.

Alternatives to the phrase "Alexa, use the concierge service"

If you would like to change the way that guests access the Virtual Concierge, you can do so. Here are some examples:

To do this, create an Alexa Routine in the Alexa app (the app is available for iPhone or Android). Here are instructions for creating an Alexa Routine. Specifically for the Virtual Concierge:

Using the VCS Portal

Provide Your Custom Content

You are now ready to use the Virtual Concierge Management Portal to equip the virtual concierge to deliver the custom content you would like to provide your guests. To get started:

  1. Navigate to https://portal.virtualconciergeservice.com
  2. Create a Virtual Concierge Service account by entering an email address that you regularly use for other online services to communicate with you.
  3. On the next screen click ‘Add Property’ in the upper right corner.
  4. You will see two login buttons, one for Amazon and one for Google. Click on the Amazon button and login with the Amazon account you created for your vacation rental.
  5. Follow the instructions in the wizard to get started.

Defining additional custom content is easy. simply add items that you would like to share information about with your guests - what the item is, and what Alexa should say about it. No programming is necessary. The portal also enables you to manage multiple properties all within one account. You can also copy content from one VR property to another, and then modify it from there. To get started quickly, you can make use of the predefined template and modify to your liking.

All content can be completely customized. Guests can ask for specific things (such as “Tell me about restaurants in the area”, or there is also a menu of options that is available for them. The menu can be tailored as you see fit, and presented in any way that you would like to organize your content. You can drag and drop items, reordering them or making them children of another item. This provides for maximum flexibility.

Add your points of contact

Further down in this document you will see that there is the ability to be notified for a variety of reasons. You can add points of contact that can be selected under any given property for a particular communication. To do so, choose 'Contacts' from the Account menu in the upper right corner of the Portal screen. You can add either a phone number to receive text messages, an email address, or both.

Share the Virtual Concierge with Guests Before Their Arrival

One of the key use cases of the virtual concierge is to provide all the information you have defined to a group of guest before they arrive at your property. This is made possible by the capability to access the virtual concierge on your guest’s smartphone or tablet. Guests can hear all about places to go and things to do before they even arrive. The virtual concierge is available on smartphones via Google Assistant without any additional content setup. Guests can speak to the app and get a verbal response, or use it silently with text and buttons.

Here's how to provide the concierge to your guests before their arrival:
On Android phones, the Google Assistant app is built in. On iPhone, guests can add it, here is the link to the app. In the virtual concierge Portal, there is a menu on the left called ‘Mobile Access’. That is where you can get the passcode that is assigned to a given property. Give your guests the passcode, and tell them to open the Google Assistant app and say "Use the Mobile Concierge." They will be prompted for that passcode, and will then have access to your customized Virtual Concierge.

Leverage Calendar Integration Features

The Virtual Concierge platform integrates with your property’s reservation calendar, enabling some great features. Here are two that you will want to take advantage of:

Greet Guests By Name

You can provide custom welcome messages using your guest’s name. Support for custom welcome messages with your guest’s name are available for a variety of reservation calendar systems. Here’s how to add a calendar to your property in the VCS Portal.

Enable Guest Check-Out Reminders

On the day of departure, your guests can get proactively reminded about important things to remember as they leave the property. With check-out reminders, the Virtual Concierge will send a notification to your Amazon Echo device(s) on the morning of the check-out day. When a notification arrives, the device chimes and the light indicator pulses yellow. Guests can then say "Alexa, use the concierge service" to hear your custom departure instructions.

This feature is available with Amazon Echo devices. To take advantage of it, you need to have an item in your custom content with the "Departure" tag, and have Alexa notifications enabled. Click here for instructions on how to enable notifications.

Provide a One-time Welcome Message for each Group of Guests

Providing a warm welcome to new arrivals is a great way to use the Virtual Concierge. In your welcome message, you can also give guests information that you consider important, without depending on them to ask for it. Even better, you can provide this welcome using your own voice. This is optional but highly recommended, as it provides a great way to personalize your welcome.

When a guest uses the Virtual Concierge for the first time after their arrival, they will hear the custom welcome message that you have defined. This is a one-time only welcome for each group of guests. When they use the VC again, they will get the normal greeting.

To enable this feature, go to the 'Calendar' menu. Once your calendar has been imported, you will see a tab called 'Integrations'. Choose that tab, and click the button to enable 'Host Welcome Message'. Then specify what welcome message you would like the Virtual Concierge to deliver.

Proactively tell guests important things to know, or your top recommendations for their trip

Host Highlights is your opportunity to bring any topics to your guest's attention - without them specifically having to ask. Like the Host Welcome Message, if enabled the Host Highlight will only be shared once during a guest's stay. Here's how it works: After delivering an answer to an unrelated guest’s question, the Virtual Concierge will say: "Oh yeah, before I forget..." which will then be followed by your Host Highlight.

Here are a few examples:

Enable guests to leave a review just by speaking

VCS has introduced the industry's first voice review - the easiest possible way for your guests to leave a glowing 5 star review by simply speaking. Following the voice check-out process, the Virtual Concierge will ask: "Would you be willing to share a quick voice review of your stay with us?". Upon agreement, VCS will allow them to leave a voice review on the go as they leave the property. You will receive their review via email, including both the actual recording as well as the transcribed text.

There's also a secondary option available, where a guest may elect to complete a 3-question check-out survey if they aren't up for doing a free-form guest review. That gives you as the host an additional avenue for guest feedback. If they agree to this option, they will be asked if they are willing to provide feedback on their stay via 3 quick questions. When they say yes, they will be asked:

  1. How they rate their stay overall on a scale of 1 to 10
  2. Areas they would recommend for future investment (you can customize these)
  3. If they are interested in rebooking

With these answers you will have direct feedback that you can use toward continuous improvement and repeated bookings.

To enable guest reviews, go to the Guest Communication menu item in the Virtual Concierge Portal.

Configure VCS to handle questions when there are no answers defined

Virtual Concierge Service includes patent-pending technology that will protect the guest's experience in cases where you as the host have not yet provided answers to questions they might ask. To take advantage of this, there are a couple of configuration parameters you will want to set in the VCS Portal.

In the Virtual Concierge Host Portal, you can configure how this system works. Under Settings, you will find a section called 'Notification Preferences'. There you can:

Allow your guests to contact you via the Virtual Concierge

You can provide your guests the ability to contact you regarding specific issues that you define. For example, requesting late checkout, reporting damage, ideas for improvements, questions about the house, or anything else you would like to specify. Guests can say "contact the host" (or a variety of alternative phrases) to initiate contact. They can then pick from the list of things to contact you about. You will then receive either an email or a text message with the request.

Multi-Property Management

In the 'Properties' menu at the top of the screen, you will see an option for 'Multi-Property Management'. This feature will allow you to quickly copy your custom content and configuration settings from one property to multiple others.

By selecting a source property as well as one or many destination properties, you can have all the settings that you apply to one property copied across to your other properties. The ability to copy the custom content from your source property is optional as well.

Tips and Best Practices for Defining Your Content
You Are the Expert

When you think about the kind of information to provide, consider the expert local knowledge you can share with guests. Your guests can google almost anything - what are the unique perspectives or insights that you can offer to make their trip truly special? You may not realize the extent to which you are truly a subject matter expert - include that personal knowledge of your vacation rental and the surrounding area. Think about ‘insider tips’ that only locals may know about, or how to leverage relationships you have in the area to truly differentiate your guest experience.

Collaborate with Local Businesses

One of the amazing experiences you can offer through the Virtual Concierge is to offer them personalized connections to local businesses. For example, you can send customers to your favorite local establishments, and in return those proprietors can give you a special discount or other benefit that you can give your guests. The Virtual Concierge makes this easy, by making digital coupons available for your guests.

Here is how to do this:

Keep It Short

The best content is brief - in a dialog with a voice assistant, we generally want relatively quick answers without waiting through a long monolog. A good rule of thumb that the portal will help reinforce is to keep your descriptions at 500 characters or less. If you have a lot of content for an item and just can’t make it short, consider breaking it up by making it a ‘parent’ item and adding ‘children’ below it as additional options that guests can hear about. That will help make your guests' experience with the virtual concierge more conversational.

Listen and Tune Your Content

Be sure to listen to the content you define and make sure you are happy with the way it sounds. As necessary, make tweaks if Alexa isn’t able to say something quite right. Here are few tricks that you can incorporate as well:

Incrementally Improve Your Content Over Time

Don't worry if your content isn't perfect after the first draft. You will get further inspiration over time, and there is no need to complete all the items at one time. Simply hit save and your responses will be available at the next login for further expansion. Plus, the Virtual Concierge will notify you about things your guests are asking about that you haven't yet provided content for, so you can follow their lead in terms of what items to include.

Chat with the Virtual Concierge to Test Your Content

No Echo device handy to test your content? No problem - the Portal has a built-in capability to chat with the Virtual Concierge. You can find the button labelled 'Test Content' on the Custom Content page, right next to 'Save Inputs' at the top of the screen. Please note that not all features are available here. For example, you won't hear Alexa include information about a digital coupon that you may have added to an item. Also, this interface uses the Google Assistant version of the Virtual Concierge. Most interactions will be the same, but sometimes Alexa may respond a little differently.

Content Features You Will Want to Take Advantage Of

Be sure to leverage these capabilities of the Virtual Concierge to get full value from the service:

Use Tags

Guests can find the content they are interested in by using the menu. This is useful, but it is also important for guests to ask for information directly, with a simple question. Tags make it possible for guests to ask for information directly. They also include built-in synonyms, so that different ways of guests asking the same thing are recognized. Use tags wherever you can.

Here are a few examples of how tags work and add value:

Further, the Natural Language Understanding (NLU) capabilities of the voice assistants are much better at recognizing tags than they are at recognizing item titles. This is because tags are included as part of ‘training’ the interaction model, and item titles are not. There are hundreds of tags available and in general, you will want to include a tag for most items to provide flexibility for your guest experience. You can add multiple tags to an item, and use the same tag on multiple items.

Respond to guest questions with your own voice

We know that one key to success in the vacation rental business is maintaining a personal connection with guests. One way to do that is to have them hear your own voice as part of their experience in your property. With this feature of the Virtual Concierge, you can record an audio file and attach it to a content item. When guests ask about that item, the VC will say "I'll hand it off to your host for that information", and then your own voice will provide the response to the guest's request.

To record an audio file on a PC, you can use a free utility like this one to record an audio file, or here is a resource that describes how to do it with your phone.

To add an audio file to a content item, click on the item to edit it. In the pop up window, you will see a link for 'Show More Options'. There you will see the ability to attach various file types to that content item.

Leverage Yelp Integration

When a guest requests information from the virtual concierge, your custom content for that item will be delivered. Some of your items will be local businesses in the area, such as a restaurant, coffee shop, golf course, place to rent paddle boards, etc. This is a great opportunity to leverage the built-in integration between the Virtual Concierge Service and Yelp. If you use the integration with Yelp in your items, once your content is delivered, the guest will be asked if they would like the address, phone number or business hours for that place of business. This information will be automatically delivered, there is no need for you to specify any of those three things in your content. Should this business information change, we will automatically update your content.

To connect an existing content item to Yelp, select it in the virtual concierge Portal as you normally would, then:

That’s it. You can also add new Yelp-connected items by using buttons we’ve made available in the Portal.

Make Use of Automatically Updated Local Events

Guests can say "tell me about events in the area" (or similar phrases), and they will get a list of top events happening nearby. This information is constantly updated and requires no data entry on your part. Events are provided based on their proximity to the address of your property. They are sorted by date and presented to guests with events underway at the time of their request listed first.

The ability for the Virtual Concierge to share local event information is enabled by default. However, if you choose to not have this feature available to guests, you can disable it in the Portal. On the left side menu you will now see a tab for Local Events, where that selection can be made. You can also go there to see the list of events that will be shared with guests when they request it.

Include Special Items
Welcome Message

The first special item in the custom content section of the portal is the Welcome Message. Here you can define any message you would like guests to hear when they initially open up a dialog with the virtual concierge. Guests open up that dialog by saying, “Alexa, use the concierge service”. If you leave the Welcome Message field blank, when the dialog is opened up Alexa will say, “Welcome to >Your Property Name Goes Here<. Would you like a menu of options?”.

You can alter that behavior by specifying a welcome message. For example, if you put “We’re glad to have you.”, when the dialog with the concierge is opened up Alexa would say, “Welcome to >Your Property Name Goes Here<. We’re glad to have you. Would you like a menu of options?”. It is important to keep the welcome message short. This is because the welcome message will be heard every time a guest opens up a dialog with the virtual concierge. If it is too long, it becomes boring and repetitive. Instead of personalizing this field with guest names and a warm welcome, instead create a separate item. For example, you could create a content item with the title ‘A personalized welcome from the owner’. In fact the predefined template contains this item. That way, you can convey something special to a guest without setting up a situation where they will hear it over and over.

Whatever you decide to use for a welcome message (or if you decide not to add anything), the best practice is to close your custom welcome message with the text “To get started, say, give me some tips, or,”. Leaving the trailing ‘or’ may seem a little strange, but when you put it all together it makes sense. If we continue the example of the custom welcome message of ‘We’re glad to have you’, adding that best practice means that you would instead fill in the welcome message field with “We’re glad to have you. To get started, say, give me some tips, or,”. Then when the dialog is opened up, Alexa will say “Welcome to >Your Property Name Goes Here<. We’re glad to have you. To get started, say, give me some tips, or, would you like a menu of options?” That is a nice welcome message, it isn’t too long, and importantly, it provides the linkage to the ‘Some Tips’ Tag, described below.

Special Items Included in the Pre-Defined Template

Included in the template are two special predefined items that are associated with the best practice welcome message described above. You should definitely take advantage of them, because they can expose things that guests can ask about without going through the entire menu.

Do You Arrange Guest Activities? Make Use of Daily Itineraries

We know the importance of building an independent brand. Thought leaders in this community are constantly finding new ways to do this. Some have begun building custom itineraries for their guests, providing activities, attractions and dining selections with a personal touch. They are engaging local business owners and providing connections that make their visitors feel special.

You can provide your guests custom itineraries through the Virtual Concierge. To use this feature, simply add the "Today's Itinerary" and/or the "Tomorrow's Itinerary" tags to custom items you define that contain the plans you set up for your guests. Here’s an example of how it can work:

Guest: “What is the plan for today?”

Virtual Concierge: “You've got a fantastic day ahead. At 9am, Bob is going to meet you at the house and you'll head out with him to go white water rafting on the Okanogan River. You'll have a gourmet lunch riverside. At 6pm you have dinner reservations at Campo Marina Italian Restaurant.”

Guest: “What is the itinerary for tomorrow?”

Virtual Concierge: “Tomorrow the adventure continues. Your day begins with a visit to the Osoyoos Desert Mountain Railroad, a world-class exhibit. Then you'll have lunch at Inka Meep cellars, where Jenny will meet you at 2pm and lead you on a wine tour of the Okanagan valley. Along the way you will visit Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, Burrowing Owl, and our personal favorite, Hester Creek winery. The day concludes with reservations at Dolce Thai Bistro. Try the mango salad!”

Do you have an Echo with a Screen? Show Pictures and Video!

Have you purchased an Echo Show or Echo Spot device for your properties? If so you can now provide your guests pictures and video on these Alexa devices with screens. To do so, attach a picture or video to an item in the Portal. When a guest asks about that item on a device with a screen, the picture or video will be shown. If the device does not have a screen, Alexa will respond verbally with the text content you provide. This capability can be really useful for explaining how something in the property works, such as how to light the fireplace. Pictures will also be appreciated by guests looking for your recommendations on places to go and things to do.

This capability can be really useful for explaining how something in the property works, such as how to light the fireplace. Pictures will also be appreciated by guests looking for your recommendations on places to go and things to do.

To add an image or a video to a content item, click on the item to edit it. In the pop up window, you will see a link for 'Show More Options'. There you will see the ability to attach various file types to that content item.


Virtual Concierge Service