Amazon Alexa in Vacation Rentals

Provide an Interactive, Virtual Concierge for Your Guests

By Dana Young

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 Echo Device and the Virtual Concierge Skill

The virtual concierge is available as an Alexa skill on any device within the Amazon Echo family of products. If you are unfamiliar with the platform, Alexa skills are like apps. You can enable and disable skills, using the Alexa app or a web browser, in the same way that you install and uninstall apps on your smartphone or tablet. Skills are voice-driven Alexa capabilities.

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 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 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.

Enable the Virtual Concierge Skill

Once your Echo setup is complete, follow these steps to enable the virtual concierge skill:

  1. Login to the Alexa App on your phone or via your browser here, using the Amazon account you created for your vacation rental.
  2. Go to 'Skills', and search for 'Vacation Rental Concierge Service'.
  3. Select 'Vacation Rental Concierge Service', select 'Enable', and sign in, again using that same Amazon account you created for your VR.

Provide Your Custom Content

Your 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. Select your property and follow the instructions to save your tailored content.

Start by uploading a picture, which will make it easy to identify which VR you are developing content for if you have multiple properties. Defining your 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 to your liking. 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.

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 ‘Passcode’. 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.

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. You can create your own signs, or if you prefer something premade you can find small signs here.

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.

Deliver a Personalized Welcome to Guests

With the virtual concierge you can take the knowledge you have about your guests based on the communication leading up to their arrival and communicate a warm, personal welcome. Do you know more than just their names? Are they celebrating something special? Make that welcome count!

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 may offer a small thank you to your guests. To reference this, your content could include a description like one of the following:

Hometown Pizza in Oroville has great pizza and a fresh salad bar. Pizza Connoisseurs will want to try the Nolte Special, with fresh garlic with pepperoni. You'll be tempted to visit the bakery counter. Tell them the lodge sent you and get a complementary chocolate eclair!

Trino's in Oroville isn't fancy or big, but what you can expect is authentic Mexican food, large portions, reasonable prices and the best Margaritas you'll find. Mention that the lodge sent you and get 15% off drinks!

Located near the Okanogan River in Tonasket, at the natural food store you can find top notch sandwiches and coffee. Ask Barry behind the counter for great tips on local fishing holes.

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 couple of 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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

Walk-Through Video

For further information you can reference this short video walk-through of the setup process for Alexa


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.