Amazon Alexa in Vacation Rentals
Detail Guide: Provide an Interactive, Virtual Concierge for Your Guests
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.
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:
- A group orientation when guests arrive
- Check in & check out information
- How to connect to the internet
- Instructions for dealing with garbage & recycling
- Ability to contact the owner or manager
- Upcoming events, and other reasons to come back
- Fun group games available with Alexa
- Restaurant recommendations
- Insider tips on local attractions
- Local shopping opportunities
- Detailed information on things to do in the area
- Spots to rent recreational equipment
- Who to contact in an emergency
- What to know about parking
- Important safety information
- How to use Alexa to help guests sleep better
- History of the residence and area
- Location of the nearest hospital
- How to use the dishwasher and laundry appliances
- How to play music using Alexa
- Telephone, climate control, and lighting info
- How to get meal ideas and instructions from Alexa
- How to use the sound system and TV
- Describe smart home capabilities available to guests
What You Will Need
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.
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!
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.
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:
- Go to this page to create a new Amazon account.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
- Complete the rest of the fields and click the ‘Create your Amazon account’ button.
- 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.
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.
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.
Once your Echo setup is complete, follow these steps to enable the virtual concierge skill:
- Login to the Alexa App on your phone or via your browser here, using the Amazon account you created for your vacation rental.
- Go to 'Skills', and search for 'Vacation Rental Concierge Service'.
- Select 'Vacation Rental Concierge Service', select 'Enable', and sign in, again using that same Amazon account you created for your VR.
Configure Your Property in the VCS Portal
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:
- Navigate to https://portal.virtualconciergeservice.com
- Create a Virtual Concierge Service account by entering an email address that you regularly use for other online services to communicate with you.
- On the next screen click ‘Add Property’ in the upper right corner.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
With the Virtual Concierge, your guests can now check-out with their voice. By enabling this feature, you can be notified when guests check-out. Once inside the Virtual Concierge skill, they can say "We're checking out". You will receive an immediate notification, potentially allowing you to send the cleaning crew in early.
Further, you can also receive immediate feedback about your guest's stay. When guests say "We're checking out" they will be asked if they are willing to provide feedback on their stay via 3 quick questions. If they say yes, they will be asked:
- How they rate their stay overall on a scale of 1 to 10
- Areas they would recommend for future investment (you can customize these)
- If they are interested in rebooking.
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 other 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.
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 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:
- Opt-In or Opt-Out to receive periodic reports via email that summarize the things your guests are asking about. You can also set the frequency of these reports to weekly, monthly or quarterly, as well as select who should receive them. Note: the default is set to Opt-In, and a frequency of monthly.
- Opt-In or Opt-Out to receive real-time notifications via text when a guest asks a question about the property that the Virtual Concierge does not have an answer for. You can also not only choose which point of contact should receive the text, but also the hours during which they should receive these notifications. Note: You must specifically Opt-In to enable this capability, it is not turned on by default.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
- When Alexa sees a comma, a brief pause will be inserted
- When you include a period, a slightly longer pause will be included
- Combining the capabilities of commas and periods, you can help make Alexa speak more slowly and make your content easier to follow. For example, if you would like to share the phone number of 425-555-1212, you might include the following: ‘4, 2, 5. 5, 5, 5. 1, 2, 1, 2’.
- Alexa makes use of a speech syntax construct called SSML. For example, the rough equivalent of a period’s pause is “
” (without the double quotes) in SSML. For more information on SSML, reference this resource.
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.
Be sure to leverage these capabilities of the Virtual Concierge to get full value from the service:
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:
- Let’s say you have an item called ‘Rocky Ridge Lookout’. There may be a great picnic area there, so you could include the tag of ‘Picnic Spot’. Then, if your guests ask the concierge a question like "Where is a good place for a picnic?" the content you provide about Rocky Ridge Lookout will be provided. You can also add the tag of ‘Hiking Trail’, ‘Mountain Biking’ and ‘Scenic View’. This would allow the content of Rocky Ridge Lookout to also be delivered anytime a guest asked about hiking, mountain biking, or places with a great view.
- Tags enable flexibility in how you organize your content. For example, let’s say you may have a favorite restaurant called ‘Bubba’s Place’ that is great for kids, but naturally you have it listed together with other restaurants. Likewise, you might have ‘Fishing’ as an activity together with other things to do at the lake. By applying the ‘Kid’s Activity’ tag to both ‘Bubba’s Place’ and ‘Fishing’, you make it possible for guests to hear both choices when they say “Tell me about activities for kids”. They can then choose to hear more detail about either option.
- You may want to include an item called ‘Garbage and Recycling’ that provides information for guests about how to deal with garbage and recycling. By adding the ‘Garbage’ tag, the words ‘garbage’, ‘trash’, ‘recycling’, ‘composting’, ‘refuse’ and ‘rubbish’ will all be recognized in a guests question. So they could say, “What do I do with the trash?”, or “Give me information about recycling” and either way your ‘Garbage and Recycling’ content will be provided.
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:
- Hit the ‘Connect to Yelp’ button.
- Find and select the restaurant or other business you are interested in and hit Save.
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.
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.
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.
- ‘Some Tips’ - this item is also defined with a ‘Some Tips’ tag. Best practice is to include this item along with the description that begins with “Here are some tips for using the virtual concierge. You can respond to my questions, or you can tell me specifically what you want. For example you can say, tell me about…” Then, enter your own custom information about the items you have defined. For example, you can continue with the phrase “restaurants. You can also ask about: attractions, wineries, hiking, and lots more.” Then, at the end be sure to include “To hear more things, say: What else do you know?” This will then provide connectivity to the 3rd special predefined item with the tag, ‘what else do you know’..
- ‘More things I know about’ - this item has the tag, “What else do you know”. In the content of this item, you can list all of the options that guests can ask about. For example, “Here's a list. Interrupt me at any time by saying, for example, Alexa, tell me about wifi. Here are some options. Wifi. Climate Control. Making calls. Garbage and recycling. Sound system. Lighting. TV. Stores. Ghost towns. Brewery. Palmer Lake. Yard games. Golfing. Winter activities. Horseback riding. ATVs. Gold panning. History of the place. Parking. Transportation. Events. And finally, health and safety.”
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!”
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.
For further information you can reference this short video walk-through of the setup process for Alexa