Title image for article Let’s Chat!
TEXT Jürgen Baltes

Let’s Chat!

There was a lot of hype about chatbots in 2017, with a number of hotels installing virtual concierges to answer questions quickly and automatically via web chat, Facebook etc. They promise better service for guests – and a lighter workload for staff. We look at how things work in this new era of communication with guests.

A chatbot isn't artificial intelligence. It needs to be fed with answers.

For nine months the virtual concierge James performed his duties at the Ameron Hotel in Hamburg's Speicherstadt district, waking guests in the mornings, giving them directions to the station and informing them of breakfast times or the conditions for bringing pets. But now James is history. "It was a test," the hotel says, explaining that it wanted to find out the extent to which a bot could take over from staff at the reception desk and in taking reservations and telephone calls.

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Sebastian Grundner-Culemann: "A chat is a channel that's relevant to bookings"

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Christin Neumann saves an hour every day

Meanwhile, the i31 hotel in Berlin sees itself as a step ahead. A chatbot from the Munich-based company LiveRate has been in service here since March 2017. Christin Neumann, "Chief Happiness Executive" at the innovative boutique hotel, has so far filled in the answers to the fifty most important out of 200 pre-set questions.

If the bot is able to help a guest, Neumann won't know anything about it. Otherwise the query will wash up on her desk, or, if outside office hours, with reception. "By cutting down on telephone calls and e-mail responses, I'm probably saving an hour of working time every day," Neumann estimates. The bot has "long since paid for itself," she says – particularly as it can even handle complete bookings on its own.

For LiveRate CEO Sebastian Grundner-Culemann, a chatbot is "somewhere between a website search and a phone call" and in many cases is "simply a more convenient alternative". An example is the policy on pets: "That's a question that's often asked, but the information is usually hidden somewhere on the website or isn't even provided."

The LiveRate boss also believes that chat is "a channel that's relevant to bookings", as 37 per cent of all questions relate to a forthcoming booking. An interesting point is that guests can actually also communicate via a chat during their stay, for example to ask what time breakfast is served or request room service. "But it hasn't happened much so far," Grundner-Culemann says. "Most queries are concentrated in the time before arrival."

Someone who understands everything

In hotels themselves, voice systems could take over communications in future. Amazon has just launched Alexa for hotels, with Marriott as its partner. The smart speaker will provide information on hotel services, contact room service or housekeeping, play guests' own music and control the air conditioning, blinds and television.

This certainly isn't a far-off dream, and it's not just an issue for the big players. In a budget design hotel in the tranquil little city of Ulm, a small hotel group is currently testing Alexa – but very discreetly. When they check in, customers are offered an Amazon Echo to take up to their room. Initial results are promising, says Marc Frauenholz, CEO of the Nuremberg-based developer Hello Guest. However, he feels it's important not to overwhelm guests by presenting them with a "Starship Enterprise". The smart speaker will initially only answer questions relating to the hotel and the surrounding area.

Chatbots and voice systems could in future have a trump card to play in an international context. The hotel industry deals with more guests from different cultures and language areas than virtually any other sector. If we look at how fast Google is advancing in speech recognition, for example – the Google Assistant has just learned to understand two languages at once – we can assume that there will come a time when the virtual concierge won't mind whether a guest addresses it in French, Italian or Chinese.

More than chat

Not least, chatbots and voice systems are more than just innovative communication channels. They can also collect a whole lot of data and "remember" every conversation, even years later. It doesn't take rocket science to filter out those customers who have chatted about children, for example, and then send them targeted news about offers for families.