Amazon Alexa in Vacation Rentals
Using Amazon Alexa to Voice-Enable Smart Home Systems
By Dana Young
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 how Alexa can voice-enable smart home systems in vacation rentals. You will find a description of the value proposition for guests, what you need in order to deliver that value, and setup instructions.
The primary benefit of smart home systems in a vacation rental isn’t equipping a guest with the ability to to turn on the lights with their voice. That said, adding an Alexa does add incremental value to the smart home system. Alexa helps make smart home tech visible to guests. Tech investments that may have otherwise gone unnoticed are showcased with voice control. Adding a voice assistant device provides a futuristic sort of interaction model with smart home components.
An August Lock survey in 2016 found that 82% of guests are more likely to complete a reservation when they see smart tech listed in the rental description, and 60% of guests will even pay more for smart home enabled rental properties.
Modern smart home systems allow for the automation, through a calendar, of many of the tasks that you normally do on guest-arrival and departure days. For example on arrival, the system can automatically:
- Set the thermostat to maximize guest comfort
- Turn on lights in strategic areas of the driveway, entry, porch etc.
- Make sure the entertainment system inputs and source settings are set properly
With the proper setup and programming, Alexa, working together with your smart home system, can actually minimize the technology challenges that guests often face with your property.
Rather than having to learn how the thermostat works, just say “Alexa, raise the temperature by 2 degrees”. This is true for the entertainment system as well. If the guest can’t figure out the remote controls, they can just say “Alexa, turn on the TV and change the channel to ESPN”.
What You Will Need
To provide voice-enabled smart home capabilities, you’ll need one or more products within the Amazon Echo family, as well your choice of smart home devices. To find devices, be sure to look for the ‘Works with Alexa’ badge on products. This is an Amazon certification that ensures responsiveness, reliability, and functionality. There are a broad range of devices available with this certification. They include:
- Light bulbs (no wiring changes required)
- Light switches
- Outlets (turn on the coffee maker for example)
- Smart Locks
- TV & Video displays
- Audio & Home Theater components
If you want to control your lights from your phone or with your voice, you have two options to consider: buy smart bulbs or buy smart light switches. Smart switches are the recommended approach. Here are some reasons why:
- If you purely base the comparison on cost, smart light switches are likely to be far cheaper than smart bulbs, especially since one light switch can control multiple light fixtures, depending on how your house’s wiring is set up.
- If you put smart bulbs behind normal ‘dumb’ light switches, it can create confusing scenarios for your guests. If the switch is off, no amount of yelling for Alexa to turn the light on is going to work, because there is no power to the smart bulb. Similarly, if the switch is on but someone has told Alexa to turn the light off, the next person to enter the room may turn the switch on and off trying to get the lights on. They won’t turn on because the smart bulbs have been told they should be off.
A smart light switch won’t work in every house. This is because most smart light switches need to be wired up to a neutral wire, whereas traditional light switches don’t. Modern wiring will include a neutral wire, but if you have an old house it is worth checking. If this is a problem, you can always go with smart bulbs, which will work in any house that has traditional light sockets.
It is important to note that having a remotely controlled thermostat and lights (possibly together with a smart lock or other components) isn’t a smart home “system”. It is a bunch of separate devices that don’t work together and don’t have any ability to be scheduled. It is important for a VR property to implement a system where all of the devices/components work together and know what each other is doing, and can be scheduled weeks or months ahead of time. With that in mind, you will also want to consider a smart home controller that makes this possible. You can find more information on an integrated system here.
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.
Follow the manufacturers’ directions to install your various smart home devices. Most smart home gadgets will include a companion app that will walk you through the setup process in a matter of a minutes.
Part of that setup process typically involves giving your device a name. This is an important step because that name is what Alexa will use to identify the device when you give a command. To pick a good one, keep things clear, short, and as plain-spoken as possible.
Once your devices are up and running, you'll need to introduce them to Alexa to let her start controlling them. In many cases, can just say, "Alexa, discover new devices." After about 10 seconds of scanning, Alexa will add whatever devices she finds into the Alexa app, and you'll be ready to start controlling them with voice.
In other cases, you might need to pull up the Alexa app and enable a special skill before telling her to scan. Just go to the app's smart home section and select "Smart Home Skills." From there, you can search for the skill you want to enable -- some, such as Lutron and Nest, might need you to supply your login credentials in order to authorize Alexa to take control.
If you're using Alexa to control more than one or two devices, then you'll probably want to start grouping things together so you can control more than one device at a time using a single Alexa command. You've got two ways to do this: groups and scenes.
Groups are just what they sound like -- multiple devices tied together behind a single group name. For instance, if you have two smart bulbs in your living room called "living room light 1" and "living room light 2," you might create a group called "living room lights" that includes both of them. Then, you could turn both lights on at once by saying "Alexa, turn on the living room lights.". To make a group, just go to the smart home section of the Alexa app and tap on "Groups." Select "Create Group," then give it a name and select the devices you wish it to include.
Scenes, on the other hand, let you bring multiple devices to pre-established settings all at once. Scenes are a little different than groups, because you don't create them in the Alexa app. Instead, you import scenes in from your devices themselves, provided that those devices' apps offer a way to create them. To import a scene, go to the Alexa app and under Smart Home, click Scenes. Hit ‘Discover Scenes’ to initiate the process.