As one of the most exciting trends in hotel marketing and distribution strategy, voice search has galvanized the hospitality industry, both in preparation for evolving consumer behaviors and technology advancements. Termed 'the next billion' by the Wall Street Journal, voice search through digital assistants is here and the possibilities for the technology are endless.
With the forthcoming generation of Internet users worldwide preferring communication with images and, most importantly, voice activation, there is a great opportunity for hotels in this landscape. Speaking to a digital voice assistant that can understand and execute a request comes naturally to humans. Seventy-three percent of users would like to be able to complete tasks by speaking to a virtual assistant, and the world’s tech giants are striving to meet that want.
Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana dominate the market in digital voice assistants; Amazon alone has sold over 20 million Alexa units so far. By 2021, more than four billion mobile assistants will be used globally, and many of them will have the functionality to execute travel bookings (Juniper Research).
Microsoft claims that travelers in Great Britain are increasingly researching accommodations through their Cortana digital assistant on mobile devices with hotel searches seeing an increase of 343% year-over-year and flight searches increasing by 277%.
So, what is the reason for the surge in digital voice assistants? The advancements in mobile devices has been the main reason for the incline. Remember Apple’s Newton, the much-heralded personal digital assistant (PDA)? This product failed miserably in the early 1990s due to the absence of the mobile channel at the time.
In the future, the adoption rate of voice search and digital voice assistants, and especially their mobile versions, will increase even faster with technology becoming even more sophisticated, and voice assistants will become integrated into consumers’ everyday lives.
There are many iterations of the voice-assisted technology in travel and hospitality, including:
- Voice Search Assistants: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and other speech-recognition agents with artificial intelligence (AI).
- Mobile App-based Digital Voice Assistants: these are specialized assistants that can help navigate a particular application, product or service, already used for customer support by many online retail companies.
- Auto Digital Voice Assistants: installed in many new models of upscale automobiles, Google Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Nuance being good examples in this category.
- Home Digital Voice Assistants: Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home fall into that category, already used in millions of households.
- Smart TV-based Voice Assistants: these allow consumers to search for movies and video content through their TV. Amazon FireTV and Direct TV’s voice-activated remote are good examples in this category.
- Wearable Voice Assistants: Apple Watch’s Siri and other examples are already being used by many consumers.
How do digital voice assistants make money in the hospitality industry?
The main players are jumping into voice search with a single objective in mind - to make money. In hospitality, it’s expected that all three business models for digital voice assistants will be used:
- Licensing Fees: examples include licensing the use of Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant on Marriott.com.
- Cost-Per-Voice-Request (Referral Fee): fees that Amazon Alexa or Google Home may charge a hotel or an OTA to include them in their accommodations voice search results.
- Cost-Per-Acquisition (CPA): fees in the form of commission Amazon Alexa or Google Home may charge hotels or OTAs for a voice search-powered booking.
Why hoteliers should care
Today’s online travel consumer demands seamless, intuitive travel planning experiences, including the ability to search and book hotels using voice search by using their favorite digital voice assistant.
Voice search and digital voice assistants already enable travel consumers to search accommodations, and in some cases – book hotels. Amazon Alexa, working with Kayak.com, offers voice search-powered hotel bookings to any travel consumer with a Kayak.com account, though there are still some notable limitations to the technology:
- Alexa does not allow visitors to compare prices, instead returning just a single highly ranked result; similarly, there is no payment via Amazon yet.
- Kayak’s voice search integration requires users to have a Kayak account; currently, this only affects Kayak’s results, although this may extend to Google results should they expand this feature in the future.
In addition to Amazon, all of the major players in the voice-recognition field (Apple, Google, and Microsoft) have already enabled voice search for hotels and are working on applications to for users to complete bookings.
However long it may take for the full effects of voice search to emerge, we can already see some shifts taking place, and observe some common customer behaviors. This is a positive development for hoteliers, as there are some key strategies available in order to get ahead.
What should hoteliers do in order to get ahead?
To begin with, hoteliers must understand that if they do nothing about voice search, the OTAs and metasearch players like TripAdvisor, Kayak.com and Trivago, will do it on their behalf. The question is, at what cost?
There are several major areas of opportunity in the hospitality industry for capitalizing on voice search. By investing in the following strategies, hoteliers can be prepared for upcoming changes in the landscape and position themselves ahead of the competition by enhancing the “visibility” of their properties for the digital voice assistants:
Voice Search Optimization (VSO)
VSO is a combination of traditional SEO, technical SEO, and the science of studying patterns inherent to voice search. VSO is very important for the voice recognition agents of the main search engines like Google Voice and Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Apple’s Siri. Here are some practical steps:
- Analyzing and suggesting keywords likely to be used by potential local search customers.
- Reviewing, editing, and optimizing website text using phrases and keywords that have been identified as common in voice searches. For example, “Siri, where should I stay in Midtown Manhattan?”
- Linking voice search optimization with personalization, which can lead to increased retention.
- Performing Local Search Optimization on the main search engines and main data and directory providers, which are powering the mapping and driving directions applications like Google Android Auto.
Having a robust content strategy is paramount for all phases of the customer lifecycle. In the dreaming phase, customers may have their voice search device read them travel press about places they’ve been eager to visit or ask Alexa questions about where celebrities have stayed. In the purchasing phase, customers will simply say, “Siri, find me the best hotel rates in downtown Boston.” They’ve already have made up their mind to go on a journey, and voice search will be just another factor in getting there. All of this means that hoteliers must:
- Prioritize having rich, compelling content optimized for the ways people use voice search.
- Create content designed to appear in the most user-friendly voice search formats, such as Google Quick Answers. This will make it likely that your hotel will show up in the context of destination searches, such as “What hotels have two-bedroom suites near me?”
- Revamp the property’s content strategy to favor voice search results for a smoother browsing and navigating experience.
CRS Voice Search Enablement
The property Central Reservation System (CRS) and Channel Manager providers can play a crucial role in voice search enablement.
- Understand that a direct connect type of a relationship with the digital voice assistant providers is far more beneficial to the property compared to the property being available on voice search via the OTAs. Example, a 10% CPA model direct booking via Amazon Alexa is better than an OTA booking via Alexa with a 15%-25% commission tag.
- Talk to your CRS provider and make sure they understand how important voice search is becoming.
- Urge them to negotiate terms and build APIs with the main digital voice assistant providers like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft.
- Ultimately, big CRS companies like SynXis and Windsurfer CRS, and Channel Managers like SiteMinder and RateGain with their vast portfolios of hotels, can offer the digital voice assistant providers not only geo coverage and global reach but far better CPA rate (ex. 10%) than the OTAs.
DHISCO Inc., hospitality industry’s original “Hotel Distribution Switch” that enables more than 16 billion transactions a month for more than 514,000 hotels can play a very important role here in enabling their significant portfolio of hotels on the main digital voice assistants.
Much of voice search is prospective, and so the lasting impacts on the hospitality industry remain to be seen. However, based on past and current trends, we can anticipate that as the voice search landscape evolves, we will continue to see rich areas of customer engagement via voice search and revenue opportunity develop.
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