Why the world’s busiest smartconcierge, Ivy, is a woman

“Can we call her Sandy instead?” The first time we heard that question from someone considering Ivy for their hotel, we froze. And a second later, cheerfully refused to change Ivy’s name.

Naturally, we are attached to Ivy as the name for our smartconcierge. More importantly though, we are proud of the results driven by the consistent persona and the thinking that led to the decision to call Ivy, Ivy.  

Gender and AI: Smartconcierge Ivy is a woman

The first (and more) obvious reason we will never change Ivy’s name to Tim, Sally, Mark or anything else is because we want to offer guests a consistent persona who is available to take care of their every need. Regardless of the hotel they stay in, guests can text Ivy and expect immediate help. This promise of a consistent experience isn’t merely for Go Moment’s benefit. It is in our clients’ interests too. A recent loyalty study shows that while effective brand representatives drive 3.9X higher member satisfaction (!), only 19% of end customers say that brand representatives make them feel special and recognized. That’s an instant win for 81% of guests that Ivy delivers right out of the box.

Let’s say that as a guest, I called the front desk to order a bottle of Nebbiolo. Tim answers the phone and then transfers me over to Mark from room service, who then passes me to Sally at the bar to check if that particular wine is available… that is a fail. I am unlikely to remember anyone’s name later, and already feel like a hot potato being handed off among a dozen people for (what seems to me) a simple request for some wine. Sound exaggerated? Here’s how a long-time hotel front desk worker reported feeling about the question “Don’t you remember me?”:

Let me think about this…average of 500 guest interactions a day…it’s been two years since you stayed with us. So that’s a clean quarter of a million separate interactions since your last stay. Wait…Wait! No. No, I don’t remember you.

Let’s jump to the more important reason why Ivy is called that. Ivy is a woman – that’s how we have thought of her since early design stages. As an aside, I consciously switched from female to woman after several conversations with friends. This is probably an old debate now since almost no one I know uses the word female anymore. Right? Right. If you are still using female, read this Buzzfeed article.

Why did we shape Ivy, an AI assistant, to be a woman? When designing our smartconcierge, we wanted to create a personality that would be attentive, warm and caring. Seems like an easy jump from here to creating an assistant that is a woman? Not quite.

Even back then, our group was aware of stereotypes and the raging debates of why most AI assistants are cast as women. The default setting for Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana is a woman’s voice. Ask your Google Assistant something – a woman’s voice is likely to answer back. Chandra Steele, over at PC Mag, had another example to share:

Consider that IBM’s Watson, an AI of a higher order, speaks with a male voice as it works alongside physicians on cancer treatment and handily wins Jeopardy. When choosing Watson’s voice for Jeopardy, IBM went with one that was self-assured and had it use short definitive phrases. Both are typical of male speech—and people prefer to hear a masculine-sounding voice from a leader, according to research—so Watson got a male voice.

The Real Reason Voice Assistants Are Female (and Why it Matters)

Gender bias in AI is real. And we need to address it. Julie Teigland, Managing Director at EY, talks of why we need to look at this urgently: Why we need to solve the issue of gender bias before AI makes it worse. I can’t agree more.

And yet, Ivy is a woman. While creating Ivy, we went back to evolutionary biology and learned that in general, we find higher pitched voices more comforting and less likely to trigger fight or flight-type reactions. For example, if you said something inappropriate to an AI named “Mark” as a test, and he told you to “cut it out,” it may come off more aggressive than intended in a lower timbre according to evolutionary biology.  

Then there were practical considerations, like text message message character length limits and CUI (Conversational User Interface) design best practices (though the term CUI didn’t exist in any meaningful way when we created Ivy!).

We fell in love with the name Ivy. It’s short, playful, powerful and global – Ivy is a common name across the US, Europe, Australia and large parts of Asia. It was exciting to be able to communicate all the complexity of a system powered by billions of dollars of AI R&D in three letters.

Were we right in designing Ivy as a woman?

I am watching the launch of Q, the first genderless voice (as the creators call it) with interest.

In the hospitality industry, are we ready to embrace this concept? Have any thoughts to share?

How digitally advanced are we?

This isn’t pretty. In April 2016, McKinsey Global Institute looked at how digitization has taken hold across various industries in the US economy.

They looked at 27 different indicators and grouped them into three categories: organizations’ spend on buying the latest tech assets (computers, servers, software, etc), how these assets are used across the organization, and how employees integrate these tools in their day-to-day tasks.

How did we in the hospitality industry fare? Third from the bottom, just above agriculture and construction.

hospitality industry digitization

This isn’t pretty. As an industry, we’ve made progress in some fields (interactions with guests, service providers, vendors) but have barely scratched the surface in areas that can vastly improve productivity and efficiency. Take a look, for instance, at our industry’s score when it comes to the everyday digital tools that employees have access to.

I take some comfort in the fact that this study is three years old. Beyond that, all I have are questions. And some ideas – watch out for a post soon.

What do you think we can do as an industry to level up and grab the advantages of digital advancement?

Why authenticity is overrated

I’m in the business of helping craft guest experiences in the hospitality industry.

Without fail, I draw hoteliers’ and hospitality leaders’ attention when I tell them what I do. Why? For years now, guest experiences have been considered central to a hotel’s success. And within the realm of guest experiences, authenticity has been the lodestar. I’d bet that if our industry leaders are asked to define what drives unforgettable guest experiences, the word “authenticity” will be in the top five.

Nothing surprising or new, really.

The buzz

Marriott CEO, Arne M. Sorenson flagged authenticity as “the biggest watchword” for the group back in 2014. Hilton launched a new Luxury Experiences platform in July last year – designed to enable guests to book “exclusive, authentic, local experiences.” I’ve cited two examples here  – but really the idea seems universal. Large chains as much as boutique, independent hotels aim to craft “authentic guest experiences.”

I want to take a closer look at authenticity and how we understand it. I find three concepts intertwined with our understanding of authenticity within the hospitality industry:

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13627120
  • In both examples above (and in general within the hospitality industry), authenticity seems to be a strategic organizational decision that hotels undertake to create or aspire to. “We want to create authentic experiences for our guests” is a mantra we have heard repeatedly.
  • Second, machines or technology can’t deliver authentic experiences because they are by definition robotic, machine like, and not human.
  • And finally, people associate authenticity with money. If they are paying more, they expect to walk away with more authentic service.

Beyond the buzz

An acquaintance recently joked that in the pursuit of authenticity, hotels are likely to start charging premium rates for “human only” interactions. I find these concepts interesting, because I disagree with them. And I think it is time we, in the hospitality industry, moved beyond authenticity.

Guests and hotels approach authenticity differently. While hotels think of crafting authentic experiences as a strategic brand/organizational strategy (Micah Solomon captures some wonderful examples here), guests more often than not look at their interactions with hotel staff while defining authentic experiences.

Seth Godin called authenticity overrated. In his words:

Seth Godin: Authenticity is overrated

Authenticity is totally overrated, totally…I don’t want an authentic surgeon who says, “I don’t really feel like doing knee surgery today.” I want a professional who shows up whatever they feel like, right? So there are days that you will see me give a talk or see me write or something where it is not my authentic monkey brain saying whatever pops into its head. This is me playing the role of Seth Godin, being the professional who does what he said he was going to do. If that bothers people that I’m not always authentic, I’m sorry. But at least I’m consistent.

Seth Godin on The Tim Ferris show

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, Godin’s entire conversation with Tim Ferris on this is well worth a listen.

“Such a doll”

I’m in the business of crafting guest experiences in the hospitality industry – through Ivy, the world’s first smartconcierge. The first line you’ll see on Go Moment’s site is currently “Guest Engagement, Automated.” And yet, guests who interact with Ivy routinely praise the prompt service, even stating things like “Ivy… was such a doll” on TripAdvisor.

Statistics show that Ivy enhances not just guest experiences, but even staff engagement at all the hotels she is in. After all, how authentic can we expect the front desk associate to be on the 45th time they answer the same question in one day?

As for people paying more for authentic experiences… personalized, fast, and luxurious experiences are neither synonymous with authenticity, nor must they be expensive. Service on the guest’s terms is today’s ultimate luxury.

Where ideas take flight and inspirations land

A week ago, I was in Austin, Texas.

Hospitality Upgrade EVS Austin, TX, 2019

Hospitality Upgrade hosted their annual Executive Vendor Summit for the 15th year in a row.  Since its inception, The Summit has been an invitation only event. This was my first time. And what an honor it was to be asked to attend; not only becauseGo Moment was invited as a hotel technology company on the rise. Friends and colleagues always talked of The Summit as an important one in the industry events calendar.

This year proved to be no different. The speakers lineup included Dave Berkus (Managing Partner, Wayfare Ventures), Michael Levie (CEO, CitizenM), Carlos Flores (CEO, Sonesta Hotels), Mike Cowles (CEO, Rainmaker) and Luis Segredo (CEO, Data Travel) – veterans of the hotel and the hotel technology industry. What’s more is that the event was organized by Hospitality Upgrade (Rich Siegel, President) and HFTP (Frank Wolfe, CEO). Consequently, the presentations, discussions and networking events were of stellar quality because of the group’s experience and expertise.

Key learnings

A week later, I find that I’m still mulling over these:

Dave Berkus at the Executive Vendor Summit, 2019
  • The insights I gained from Dave Berkus’ sharing about building businesses, valuations and exit scenarios. With 100+ investments in ~40 years, Dave’s experience is unparalleled in the hotel tech industry.
  • Michael Levie and the innovative success that is CitizenM. They’ve perfected the process of manufacturing of prefabricated rooms in Europe. Once done, they shipping them over for assembly, keeping the builds modular and the costs down. This was innovation in an unexpected area. Unsurprisingly, CitizenM has grown from a single Schiphol Airport hotel to 30 hotels with 7,000 rooms across three continents.
  • Carlos Flores’ experience as a web designer and “IT guy” resonated with my own deep experience with these elements. His logical approach to financial management has seen Sonesta growing to a reported 77 hotels in 2018 within a decade.

I know now why folks have attended the Executive Vendor Summit for 15 years in a row (I’m looking at you, Luis!).

For everyone at Hospitality Upgrade, well done and thank you.

(And if you’re wondering about the photograph of me in a helmet, Hospitality Upgrade hosted an indoor skydiving experience at The Summit.)

Immerse

The worlds of Mixed Reality (MR) and Extended Reality (XR) are moving fast, relative to Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Here’s a quick summary from What really is the difference between AR/MR/VR/XR?:

  • VR is immersing people into a completely virtual environment
  • AR is creating an overlay of virtual content, but can’t interact with the environment
  • MR is a mixed of virtual reality and the reality, it creates virtual objects that can interact with the actual environment
  • XR brings all three Reality (AR, VR, MR) together under one term

And here’s a video showing just how immersive these experiences are likely to be in the near future:

Artist: Front Pictures is a Kyiv-based creative studio that delivers immersive experiences.

More projects here: https://www.frontpictures.com/projects

(Beautiful images are inspiring; I’ve been collecting these since 2010. Check the archives under vwls.)

What’s happening at independent hotels

Two days ago, I spoke at the Stay Boutique Live Trifecta event at Los Angeles.

Organized by the Boutique & Lifestyle Leaders Association (BLLA), the Trifecta brings together an eclectic mix of boutique/lifestyle hotel owners, representatives, consultants and industry publications. As the CEO of Go Moment, I was honored to have been invited to lead a workshop and to be amidst the discussions. It was a fast-paced learning opportunity.

Learnings & Discoveries

Here are top learnings spotted from our team’s conversations:

Boutique hotels
  • The boutique hospitality industry is on an upswing from a growth perspective. Here’s a study that pegged the revenue for the industry at $17 billion dollars in 2018. The 7% growth rate seen in 2017, clearly continued into 2018 as well. There are more numbers at the link about the number of employees, businesses and growth rate. This makes intuitive sense as guests continue to seek more differentiated experiences that are Instagram-worthy.
  • Meeting ever-rising guest expectations is a challenge for boutique and independent hotels. They operate with smaller budgets relative to branded hotels; often working outside the infrastructure that is at the disposal of franchised branded hotels. Mobile apps, booking websites, marketing toolkits aren’t on-hand, ready to be “switched on.”
  • Perspective matters: are we dealing with challenges or opportunities. In an inspiring way, boutique hospitality leaders have leveraged the absence of out-of-the-box infrastructure as an opportunity to innovate. Unsurprisingly, they look to technology to play a significant role to meet and exceed guest expectations pre-booking and on-site.
  • Not having a brand standard to meet has oftentimes resulted in the boutique hospitality industry innovating and exceeding expectations. We are surrounded by examples – Equinox Hotels with its health focus, Public Hotel with “luxury for all” and Yotel adopting the cabin concept, offering lower ADRs in markets like NYC and SF.
  • There were several discoveries on hotel guest behaviors – I want to call out only one.  I learned that TV viewership has remained steady or grown in hotels where relevant content can easily be displayed on screen, and that Netflix is the most-watched ‘channel’ by hotel guests! Clearly, the fact that guests need to type their login and password into the TV to access Netflix is not a deterrent. Thank you, Vanessa Ogle, for this insight.  

Markers

Over half of Go Moment clients are currently independent, boutique, and casino resort clients. We’ve learned a ton from this group of enterprising hoteliers. And yet, questions at the workshop excited me – questions that included how today’s guest experience works with Ivy, how guest conversations can be completely personalized, and how the future of data security and privacy may work given the addition of IoT and smart speakers in the guest room.

Questions that pique are markers of a curious, engaged audience, in my book. And a clear indicator of the standards that the boutique hospitality industry will break in 2019.

Were you at the event? Or are you from the industry and have trends to share? I’d love to hear more.

Will AI destroy the economy?

In a recent New York Times article (Tech Is Splitting the U.S. Work Force in Two), Eduardo Porter examines the impact of automation on the US labor market. His conclusion? “Robots aren’t taking ALL the jobs. They are leaving the crummy ones for humans. The Luddites, it seem, weren’t entirely wrong.”

We’ve read reports (see this and this) before that argued that frontier tech like AI, automation etc would create more jobs than they’d kill. Or reports that predicted that the race to the end had started with the emergence of this tech.

Porter’s argument though is a marked departure – he is looking specifically at the impact, of the tech revolution we are in the midst of, on low to medium skill workers. He cites several studies to argue that while jobs are being added, the ones that are available to a certain category of workers are falling in quality.

Judging by the stream of comments and responses, it is obvious that Porter has hit a nerve.

The Impact

I want to address some of  the concerns flagged in the article – and not merely because it hits close to home. There is an important question that I think we are not asking when we discuss the impact of tech automation.

Go Moment, where I am currently CEO, created Ivy, a smartconcierge that automates guest engagement for the hotel/hospitality industry.

We are currently looking at 30-40% reduction in queries hitting reception desks at hotels with Ivy. We are driving efficiency no doubt. But, and this is an important corollary, we know that Ivy frees up hotel staff to handle face-to-face guest interactions. Cornell University, in fact, corroborated this – they found an 8% increase in employee engagement per year of Ivy usage. Engagement that went up because the hotel staff didn’t need to repeatedly respond to questions about WiFi passwords, for instance. (Connect with me if you want access to the study).

Tech automation and humans
Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Ivy won’t, and may never, replace human interactions and interventions to satisfy guests. We are not aiming to achieve this either.

Time & Money

There is another point I want to respond to. Porter cites a Boston University study that argues that “businesses are not even reaping large rewards for the money they are spending to replace their workers with machines.” I don’t know about this; I don’t have enough information at this point to agree or dispute the claim. At face value though, I believe that automation driving profits for businesses is a long term game and that enough time hasn’t passed for us to map this cost-benefit ratio accurately. We are far too young in the tech automation industry to be labelled as job snatchers and profit eaters.

I agree though with the warnings implicit in Porter’s article. Today’s job markets are demanding different skill sets – and we are only starting out on this journey. To up-skill, to work with different classes of society, to ensure everyone rides along are challenges we need to address. Tech organizations (including Go Moment) as much as the US government have a role to play here.

Also, what do y’all think about Universal Basic Income? Is it time to talk about this alongside discussions of tech automation leaving people out in the cold?

How to talk tech

Gong Xi Fa Cai. Happiness and Prosperity. We’re in the year of the pig.  

About 1.45 billion (population of China and the Overseas Chinese population) people ring in the lunar new year – sparking, possibly, the largest human migration in the world. Why? People travel home for the reunion dinner.

To help with those dicey dinner table conversations, the Singapore Government pulled together translations and explanations of tech terms.

I’m glad someone is thinking of us all and helping us come to grips with these complex concepts. Read the full article for the explanations.

And if you don’t smile, laugh or are not amused in anyway, maybe ping me. You might need beer.

Scott Galloway’s Winners and Losers: 2014-2018

Three weeks ago, NYU Stern professor Scott Galloway signed off for the last time on Winners and Losers. Galloway’s weekly series, Winners and Losers, had a brilliant four year run.

The series chalked up 50 million views over the years; a fact that Galloway doesn’t exactly shy away from in the final installment. Personally, I’ve been a fan of the sharp, incisive, and sometimes even wilfully incendiary commentary that Galloway has been turning out through the series. Add zany cultural references and crystal clear infographics to that mix and we had a presenter who truly knew how to hold our attention. A skill he probably picked up while teaching at NYU Stern. Check out the series finale here:

Or an episode that’s emblematic of his story telling style, and among the most popular: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO6nUTFsYEs

Episode 196: Disrupting the Disruptors

I picked a different episode from the series to discuss today – mostly because I believe that Galloway’s assessment in that is far too simplistic. In Disrupting the Disruptors, Galloway warned the hotel industry that they “should fear Google the way retailers fear Amazon.” Google (and other tech monopolies) he says “operate with a very simple playbook: moving from “‘We are here to help you” to “We are you” to finally saying “We are here to kill you.’”

I’d suggest watching the 5 minute video before you read more:

If you know anything about my work, you’ll know that this episode hits close to home. I work in the hotel tech industry, come from a hotelier family, and Go Moment, the company where I serve as CEO, is backed by Google. If I line that up – tech industry innovators, a hotelier background, Google backed company – naturally I’d want to discuss this episode.

Precision, anyone?

When Galloway says that the hotel industry isn’t adapting fast enough to disruptors like Airbnb – I agree with him. I’d add though that this is primarily true for big brand, chain hotels. Smaller and more focused outfits, including casino resorts and independent hotels, are, in fact, pace setters in the fast-changing world of travel. They are well aware that consumers have declared war on lodging-as-a-service and now instead seek experiences-as-a-service, with lodging being merely one component of their decision. At the risk of plugging Go Moment, take a look at this NBC report of what Caesars Palace in Las Vegas has done:

Galloway, though, doesn’t distinguish between hotels. Consequently his point of view of hotels is a universalised, simplistic one. That may make sense in the US, where a majority of the ~55,000 hotels are branded.

And about Google wanting to demolish the hotel industry? That isn’t universally applicable either. Google’s Hotel Tools in fact positively impact the revenue streams for smaller, independent hotels since they don’t have the massive budgets for ad campaigns that the larger players do.

We are not “on the precipice of a war against the hotel industry” as Galloway says. We’re definitely on the cusp of major change away from a lodging industry and towards an experience industry.

What do you think — agree or disagree with Galloway?

What can the Google walkout teach us?

Let’s talk about the Google walkout.

We know the details. On November 1, 2018, 20,000 workers in Google offices across 50 cities walked out. The move attracted tremendous attention – The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo called it “a watershed moment”. Kara Swisher hosted all six of the organizers, at once, on her podcast, Recode Decode.

The Google walkout

Before we go further, know this: Google has backed Go Moment (the official announcement), where I serve as CEO. Besides the investment, I’m fortunate to have a ringside view of the burgeoning voice assistant market, including Google Assistant. I’m not a Googler or a TVC (Google lingo for Temps, Vendors, Contractors) by any means, and I have no access to their messaging boards or discussion groups. I’m an interested, inspired bystander.  

I’m deeply inspired by the energy that defined the Google walkout. To me, the walkout signalled the Googlers admiration for the company they worked for and their determination to hold the company accountable.

What went right

That said, I’m curious about something: why did the walkout get all the media attention that it did?

  • Was it the number? Over 20,000 people is a significant number – considering that people have taken on companies alone.
  • Was it the number of people protesting at a tech company? Unions enable protests and there are no unions at tech companies (right?). Perhaps the collectivization was surprising.
  • Did the walkout get the timing right? A central issues of the walkout was the $90 million dollar payout to Rubin despite sexual misconduct allegations against him. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, a walkout on the issue was bound to garner attention.
  • Or did the walkout hit headlines because it happened at Google?

Maybe all these reasons had a role to play. If you read an article that explained the contributing factors behind the popularity, link me please?

It matters

Why do I care about the attention that the walkout managed to garner?

There is a lesson to be learnt there – about attracting media attention.

Protests within the tech industry are spreading. Amazon has had a long history of workers protesting against the wages and working conditions (reports here and here. The Guardian has just announced a new column Amazon Diaries). They have happening over at Microsoft, Salesforce and elsewhere.  Even non-technology companies like Marriott recently experienced labor problems around in part due to their adoption of tech. And yet, more are likely on the way. Swisher, at the end of her podcast, calls on the walkout organizers to “get over to Facebook and help those people over there immediately”.

I agree completely with Kara – the walkout is an inspiration. Googlers are a role model for the rest of industry.

The exponential rate of change we’re all facing now necessitates some tough conversations. The response by Sundar Pichai (Google CEO) was along expected lines for the tech giant, and will no doubt serve as a precedent for other titans of industry. Empathy and great listening skills are both essential for leaders.

If we are going to see more and more protests – protests that are as inevitable as they are necessary – media attention can help underrepresented stakeholders have a voice. And that, in my book, is a very good thing.