by Matt Alderton | February 15, 2018
If your thumbs have a closer relationship with your smartphone than your voice does, you're not alone: U.S. smartphone users send and receive five times as many texts every day as they do phone calls, according to mobile data tracking firm Informate, which says Americans spend approximately 40 minutes a day texting via SMS or chat apps, compared to 21 minutes a day on voice calls.

The reason that texting is so popular: Compared to voice communication, it's fast, it's easy, and it's convenient.

As it turns out, "fast, easy, and convenient" also is how many travelers would describe their ideal customer service interactions with hotels. Unfortunately, the labor required makes those interactions prohibitively expensive for most properties. At least, it used to. Now, thanks to chatbots -- automated messaging programs that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to generate natural conversations with human users -- hotels across the country and around the world can afford to increase and refine their communications in ways that enhance customer service and improve guest satisfaction.

For meeting professionals, hosting events at hotels with chatbots is a novel way to enhance the attendee experience while also creating a little extra buzz around the coffee urn. Here are five hoteliers whose bots will leave even the most aggrieved group guests feeling gratified:

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
In January 2017, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas introduced Rose, a sassy chatbot that delivers customer service to guests via text message.

"Rose is a virtual VIP host with a witty personality that helps guests have a better time while they're in Las Vegas," Senior Director of Digital, Social, and eCommerce Mamie Peers told Successful Meetings in an interview last year. According to Peers, guests can text Rose to instantly receive restaurant and bar recommendations, have amenities like extra pillows delivered to their room, play games, or even receive guided tours around the resort, whose concierges and guest services staff handle requests submitted to Rose behind the scenes.

"Whatever the guest wants is what Rose is able to deliver," Peers continued. "She fulfills needs quicker than it would take you to probably dial a phone number; it's one of the most convenient ways to get extremely fast service."

Mercure Hotels
AccorHotels' Mercure brand prides itself on creating properties that are firmly rooted in their local destinations. It launched its chatbot, Mercure Bot, in 2017 in order to help guests discover those destinations. Based inside Facebook Messenger, where it lives, Mercure Bot is a digital concierge whose conversations with guests help them discover local gems. Guests must first turn on location services from their smartphone, then search for "Mercure Bot" inside Facebook Messenger. From there, they can simply ask Mercure Bot what they should see or do nearby, at which point the chatbot will commence a conversation that helps them discover their surroundings.

"Offering a hotel experience anchored in a specific locality is the very essence of the Mercure brand and its venues. Everything from design to food is geared towards helping guests grasp what makes a city tick and providing inroads into the history and hidden treasures that form the identity of a place," AccorHotels explains. "But only a bot is capable of memorizing the full range of stories from so many places around the world. This handy tool will enable travelers and neighborhood residents alike to discover the local stories that surround them, simply by geolocating and allowing themselves to be guided."

Hotel Indigo
Another hotel brand utilizing Facebook Messenger for its chatbot is InterContinental Hotels Group's (IHG) Hotel Indigo. The "Neighborhood Host," as its known, is available to guests after they book a reservation at participating hotels, at which point they receive an invitation to engage with the bot. Those who do can ask for details about their reservation, seek recommendations for hot spots in the neighborhood around their hotel, and make special requests for their stay.

"We want travelers to interact with Hotel Indigo the same way they do with their friends, so introducing our digital Neighborhood Host on Facebook Messenger was a perfect way for us to better connect with them through one of the world's most used platforms," explained Lara Hernandez, IHG's chief commercial officer in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (AMEA) -- where three Hotel Indigo properties are currently testing the bot. "By cleverly and accurately serving up recommendations tailored to each stage and purpose of travel, these interactions will add value to every guest's experience. This chatbot technology strengthens and complements the existing personalized guest service provided on-ground at each of our hotels, allowing us to better anticipate and meet the ever-changing needs of travelers today."

Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
Not all hoteliers are embracing chatbots. Case in point: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which last fall launched Four Seasons Chat, a digital service that guests can use to send and receive instant messages with property teams before, during, and after their stay. Consider it the "anti-bot." Like chatbots, it allows guests to ask questions, submit requests, and otherwise interact with hotels via text message -- including the Four Seasons app, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, or SMS. Unlike chatbots, however, the platform is powered by humans instead of artificial intelligence.

"Human connection may be the single most important element of the Four Seasons guest experience," said Four Seasons President of Worldwide Operations Christian Clerc. "There are no chatbots here. Four Seasons Chat ensures guests have access to our people at any time, for any need. We continue to evolve our service offering to incorporate digital enhancements that are powered by people, to facilitate and strengthen personal connections, and to ensure guest expectations are met and exceeded every day."

Four Seasons Chat is equipped to translate more than 100 languages efficiently and in real time, according to Four Seasons, which promises "best-in-class response times … in minutes, if not seconds." In a pre-launch pilot program at 30 hotels, it reports, more than half of guests introduced to Four Seasons Chat leveraged the service on their first stay, and most used it more than six times during a stay.

Aloft Hotels
Marriott International's Aloft Hotels brand tested a robotic butler called "Botlr" in 2014 as a way to help front desk associates respond more quickly to guest needs. Last year, the brand introduced a new generation of Botlr that takes the form of a chatbot instead of a robot. Called ChatBotlr, it's available via text message and allows guests to make service requests directly from their smartphones -- anywhere and anytime they have a need. Guests may ask ChatBotlr to have toiletries delivered to their room, to give them a wake-up call in the morning, to answer questions about the hotel's amenities, or to connect them to Aloft Hotels' #AloftLive music playlist.

According to Marriott, early findings show that two out of three Aloft guests are interacting or making requests with ChatBotlr, and that the service has a five-second response time.