Marriott announced a joint venture with Alibaba in early August to provide new services for travelers in China. Alibaba revealed to the South China Morning Post earlier this month that Marriott would install the company’s Tmall Genie smart speakers in 100,000 hotel rooms.
The reason for choosing the hotels market as the first place to offer large-scale commercialisation of its own smart speaker is because hotel guests are likely to have more demand for such services, according to Du Haitao, product director of Alibaba’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Labs…A ‘Westin’ branded hotel in Sanya in China’s southern island province Hainan – part of the Marriott Group – is already testing the voice-command service.
Voice Activation Everywhere
Hotels are a logical destination for smart speakers in commercial settings. Guests have a number of needs ranging from operating the climate control and television to ordering room service and towels that can be conveniently fulfilled with voice interaction. In addition, guests that are familiar with the devices can access their favorite voice apps such as weather and music from their hotel room. Those features can make the stay away seem more like being at home.
Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas was the first hotel to announce in-room services provided through Amazon Alexa and Echo Dots. That announcement came in December 2016. Reports in March 2017 suggested Marriott was testing smart speaker solutions from both Amazon and Apple in a Boston Aloft property. Marriott’s commitment to Alibaba for the China market suggests those smart speaker tests were successful. While smart speaker usage started in the home, the utility and convenience of voice-based services will lead to more availability in commercial settings. The early arrival of these devices in hotels is logical since the routines are similar to the daily habits of consumers while at home.
The Race for Voice Assistant Dominance in China
Marriott’s announcement in China is good news for Alibaba. Alibaba is competing against smart speaker solutions from big rivals such as JD.com, Baidu, Xiaomi and soon Huawei. Smart speaker competition in the U.S. is fierce between Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple and it looks like a similar battle is shaping up in China. Amazon used its early market entry and position as the leading online retailer to capture market share leadership in the U.S. Alibaba wasn’t first to market in China with a smart speaker, but the company is now using its own market leading online commerce and travel services to build a lead among Chinese consumers. Consumers that experience their first smart speaker in a Marriott Hotel room may be more likely to choose that brand as the first device for their own home.
The U.S.-based smart speaker providers are not currently offering Chinese-language support for their voice assistants so this deal was destined to go to a Chinese company. Tmall Genie today is only offered with Mandarin language support. Alibaba’s recent joint venture with Marriott made the agreement more likely and it will no doubt be a boost to Tmall Genie sales and product reputation among consumers. The bigger question for global audiences is when the Chinese voice assistants will move outside the country and compete directly against Amazon and Google.