Everyone’s talking about smart homes these days. To find how smart home technology can help those of us who swap or rent out our homes, we talked with someone who knows: Smart Home Expert Dana Young, Founder of the Virtual Concierge Service.
Thanks for talking with me, Dana. We hear the term “smart home” all the time. For tech newbies like me, please explain what a “smart home” is.
A smart home system includes a number of devices that “talk” to each other and take direction from a central hub. Common devices include thermostats, door locks, light switches, appliance modules, video management devices, and water leak detectors, but there are more. A smart home setup may also include a ”virtual concierge,” using Alexa or Google Home to provide guests a valuable resource for their stay.
Why should I use these devices? How do they help me as a host?
For hosts, one of the most compelling benefits of a properly designed smart home system is that it is all managed through a calendar. You enter the guest’s arrival and departure dates. When the system sees a guest arriving, it “wakes up” the house, setting the temperature, adjusting the lighting, activating codes, and so on. When the guest is due to check out, the system puts the house back to sleep by changing the temperature, re-adjusting the lighting, and locking the doors.
Another terrific benefit is that the system provides immediate notifications via an app if conditions in the home change: e.g., if it’s occupied or unoccupied, there’s a water leak, the temperature is out of range, the door is locked or unlocked. Smart home locks, where the code is automatically changed after each guest, add a layer of security. Even if you have to provide a building key, a smart lock protects your unit. The online calendar automatically generates a code that works only from the time a set of guests arrives until the day and time of their departure.
What about my guests? How can smart home technology help them?
Anyone who has been a guest knows how unpleasant it can be to arrive at a cold, dark home where you have to struggle to get keys from a lock box or hiding place, then locate a 3-ring binder to figure out how to change the temperature, access the internet, and do other important things.
When you have a smart home, your guests will arrive at a warm, bright home where they get in easily by entering a code they’ve been sent ahead of time. Once inside, they can say “Alexa, use the concierge service,” and they’ll get a personalized welcome (“Goodies on the counter”) and an orientation. While they’re there, the virtual concierge answers their questions and does other tasks to help them enjoy their stay.
I wish I’d had that in some of the places I’ve stayed! Can you tell us more about what a “virtual concierge” can do?
A virtual concierge is software that has been written specifically to allow a digital assistant like Alexa or Google Home to deliver concierge services to short-term guests. The virtual concierge can replace your Welcome Binder or information packet by answering guests’ questions about your home and suggest things to do in the area.
For example, the virtual concierge can provide:
- A personalized welcome for your guests
- Check in and check out information
- Internet access codes
- Instructions for dealing with garbage and recycling
- Restaurant recommendations
- Insider tips on local attractions
With virtual concierge software, these kinds of capabilities are added on top of Alexa or Google Home’s native features:
- Fill your vacation rental with voice-controlled music (“OK, Google, play Brazilian jazz”)
- Let you and your guests send messages to one another
- Help guests in the kitchen (“Alexa, where can I find the salad spinner?” “Hey, Google, what’s a recipe for tacos?”)
- Provide ambient sounds to help guests sleep better
- Control lighting and temperature with voice commands (“Alexa, turn on the porch light”; “Alexa, turn off the air conditioner”)
I’m impressed. But doesn’t all this tech cost a lot?
This is an area where we have put a lot of focus. There are costs, of course. But our approach to smart home systems is to provide standardized kits that come pre-programmed and are easy to deploy for a price that works even for part-time hosts with modest homes.
We’ve worked hard to make this technology available to any host. But everyone needs to do a personal assessment and calculate the cost-benefit ratio in order to decide what smart home technology, such as facilitating safe, easy access to the home, would most benefit them and their guests.
What about privacy? I’d worry about whether my guests might think I’m spying on them – or whether they might use the system to spy on me?
Privacy when using these devices for hospitality is an area that both Amazon and Google have been very focused on. It is still evolving, and we have begun working directly with them. Hotels have been leading the way in terms of using voice assistants and dealing with privacy concerns. Many thousands of hotel rooms are now equipped with these devices.
To ensure privacy, however, you will likely want to turn off certain communication capabilities your device has, such as Alexa’s “Drop In” feature. “Drop in” works like an intercom, providing instant communication between two devices. That feature could be a significant privacy concern if not disabled.
I had to ask my grandson to update my router and still haven’t figured out how to use my “smart” TV. I worry that non-technical folks like me will go crazy trying to set up and manage all this technology.
This kind of technology used to be too complex and costly for the average user. But Amazon and Google have done a fantastic job of making voice technology easy to use and accessible to everyone. I’ve heard from self-proclaimed “technology dinosaurs” that they have successfully set up the virtual concierge, and I’ve received a lot of happy emails about the way it functions.
I would say two things: First, start small and get familiar with how to operate smart home technology on a relatively limited scale. The pre-programmed kits are a great place to start. Then you can add more devices and more capabilities as you get more confident.
Second, this space is evolving very quickly. Both smart home and digital assistant technology have hit the mass market, and while it is good today, we will see even better reliability and functionality over time. The important thing is to get started, and not be left behind.
That makes sense. But we host all kinds of people in our home, and I know for a fact that some of them are even more non-technical than I am. I don’t want to scare them!
This is a very important part of the story. A 2016 August.com survey found 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.
But guests won’t know what the smart home is capable of, or what they can ask the concierge, unless you share it in some fashion. Good ways to do that are to put together a description of what is available and what guests can say to Alexa or Google Home. Include that description in the welcome pack you send before guests arrive. In the home, you can also set up some acrylic signs with the same kind of instructions.
Somewhere I read a concern that guests might change all the settings or even walk away with the devices? Could those things happen?
Device settings can’t be modified without the credentials associated with the account. However, in a rare occasion, tech-savvy guests might reset the device and change the account that it is linked to. As a part of the newly announced Alexa for Hospitality, there will be new capabilities to remotely and automatically reset devices that have been altered.
If someone is determined to steal a device, there really isn’t a way to stop them. There are some wall mount options available, but the device should be included in your cleaner’s inventory like other items.
Finally, technology is changing so quickly that it makes my head spin. How is smart home tech likely to change in down the road?
That’s a fun question to end on. Interactions through voice are going to be a dominant way of using technology. For example, Google recently did a demo of Google Duplex, which uses an automated system with a natural-sounding human voice that places calls on your behalf to book appointments, and more. In the coming years, we’ll see more ways that smart home technology can make life easier for you as a host and differentiate your property by providing an incredible guest experience.
We’d like to know about your experiences with smart home technology. Please share them with us in the Comments or on our Facebook page.