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Bringing Voice to Vacation Rentals — How an engineer cleverly automated Airbnb hosting.

Amazon Alexa - How conversational AI helps with rentals

Like many, I first tried AirBnB with some reluctance. While it seemed like a good way to supplant my income, it also came over as a risky venture, full of potential nightmares. But after talking a to a few other hosts and reading over the reviews online. I decided to go for it. With a house stocked with expensive looking amenities and a spare key made, my journey with the “Uber for short-term rentals” had begun.

Fast forward a few years, and smart speakers like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home have become almost ubiquitous. A robust developer community and strong support from both these platforms has allowed all sorts of people to use voice technologies in useful, impactful, and creative ways. In May of last year, I left to travel for a few weeks, so I got to thinking about ways I could automate as much of the guest experience as possible.

Convincing a friend to check guests in and give the keys to the cleaning service was definitely one very effective way of automating my apartment’s management. However, I kept on running into the same annoying situation again and again. Guests would frequently get in touch with me; texting me, or calling me to repeatedly ask about the same things.

Every guest or group of guests which arrived had questions about the home, location of amenities within the apartment, local attractions, and of course all the tips and tricks that only someone who had lived there for years would know.

I love making sure my visitors have a great time, and I always have — this is one of the biggest reasons they keep coming back and why my unit is consistently better ranked, more rented, and at a higher price than many of the surrounding ones! However, being an on-call guide and an on-call guest book is both tiring and time consuming. It also seemed somewhat unnecessary.

There’s so much fantastic information to offer, and even the detailed guest books I wrote and all the guides I’d put together would be of minimal use or get lost easily. Guests like asking a question and getting an answer. Studying pages of information is not something they typically do, and from my experience, only really go back to the initial email exchanges where a lot of basic information is forwarded if it’s their only option.

As a software engineer, I knew there was a better way to provide guests with the information they wanted. Early attempts included an app chat-bot, a guestbook website, and a hacked together ‘smart speaker’ which sat on top of a Raspberry Pi (in essence a really small and cheap computer). Thankfully, not long after, along came the Amazon’s Alexa! Soon after its launch, Amazon opened up its voice ecosystem to developers, and with it came the ability to create voice apps (or Skills).

I then decided to build a custom voice app which my guests could use to get all sorts of information about the property, recommendations for local amenities and attractions. As well as any additional information they could want during their stay. I poured through old email exchanges, notes from previous visits, and sifted through hundreds of conversations I’d had with guests on WhatsApp, Viber, and text. I extracted and sorted all the questions they had asked, and ranked them in terms of frequency and urgency.

As expected, there were some outliers, but most people tended to ask the same general questions. Based on my assessment, even with the presence of a detailed guestbook, visitors really liked communicating about these things, and getting direct answers to direct questions.

After a few weeks of planning and learning (nobody really knew how to build voice apps a year or so ago), I hacked together the first version of Yada. It answered the top 20 questions which guests had, and I could always go back to the code and change answers, add questions, and improve the experience as need be. To an engineer and developer, this was a fairly doable task. However, this type of customization and control wasn’t available to most hosts.

A few months went by and I received really, really positive feedback. It was awesome for my guests as they could get whatever answers and support they needed, and I noticed my time spent on guest communication and support was reduced quite a bit as well. A few of my friends who are also hosts on various vacation rental platforms started asking if I could build them something similar as well.

Not wanting to do the same thing over and over again, I began thinking about how it could be scaled to a limitless number of users, and intuitive enough for anyone to use. Balancing a simple but comprehensive interface became my focus. Where I provided enough opportunities for customization without overcomplicating the experience.

A few months of coding and design work lead to Yada in its current iteration. Answer linking using voice tokens has proven to be immensely popular, easy, and successful, and the ability to scale Yada to any smart speaker without going through a lengthy login and authentication process has allowed many people to use it in their vacation rentals and Airbnb’s all over the globe.

In the future I would like to build out an even deeper experience where Yada can act as a guide and communication interface between guests, the host and any other adjacent services they could require. This is especially helpful when traveling abroad where the language barrier might hinder someone from being able to order a cab or find good takeaway.

The idea of a local “friend” or guide is starting to keep me up at night and I look forward to making Yada the go-to assistant for hospitality and vacation rentals.