Hotels Encourage Guests to Throw Away Their Keys
Hotel companies are racing to create a better room key.
Some chains are adopting permanent keys that repeat guests can carry in their wallets and use for multiple trips at a variety of properties. Other establishments are doing away with physical keys altogether; instead, guests can open their room doors by holding their cellphone next to the lock.
New hotels are moving away from key cards, allowing guests to use their mobile phone near the doorknob to enter their room. But as Andrea Petersen reports, the move is also raising questions about privacy and security.
The big selling point of the new keys, executives say, is that they let travelers skip the front desk and go straight to their rooms. That could be particularly welcome at big convention hotels and Las Vegas spots where check-in lines can be maddeningly long.
“Think of the business traveler who goes to the same hotel every week. He can go straight to his room, drop off his bag and get right to his meeting,” says
Pete Sears, senior vice president of operations at Hyatt Hotels Corp. The company, which goes through five million key cards a year in its North American properties, has been testing an “Express Welcome” service at two of its Andaz hotels in California where guests can use their Gold Passport loyalty card as a key. Hyatt will be testing the service at two more hotels in San Francisco and Vancouver,
British Columbia, in the next few months.
The new systems cut down on one of the big annoyances of typical key cards that use magnetic strips: the cards sometimes demagnetize and stop working. Carrying your key next to your cellphone is often all it takes to make one of these keys conk out. “We want guests to be able to get into their room on the very first try,” says Josh Weiss, vice president of brand and guest technology at Hilton Worldwide Inc. The company just completed a test at its Doubletree hotel in downtown Nashville of technology that lets travelers use their cellphone as a key.
Hotels don’t see much cost savings from the changes but expect the moves will help them stand out in customer service. So far, tests of new types of keys have been limited and it is unclear how widespread the new technologies will become.
There may be security and privacy questions. Hotels generally send travelers their room number via text message or email, a potential concern if someone else gets access to your phone.
Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group PLC are experimenting with technology from OpenWays, a closely-held Chicago company. The system usually works like this: Travelers who sign up are sent their hotel room number to their cellphone via text message. They also receive a phone number to dial. When guests arrive outside their room, they dial the phone number, which accesses OpenWays’ server and sends an audible tone to the phone. The traveler puts the phone’s earpiece next to the lock to open the door. For security reasons, OpenWays says each tone is active for only a few seconds to prevent, for instance, someone from recording a tone to try to access a room later.
IHG, which tested OpenWays at a Holiday Inn & Suites near Chicago and a Holiday Inn Express in Houston late last year, said there was a “learning curve” for users to figure out how to position the phone so the door would unlock, according to a statement from Verchele Wiggins, vice president, global brand management at Holiday Inn. Hilton said that during its six-month test, only a small portion of guests invited to try the technology did so.
A Doubletree hotel tested letting guests unlock rooms with a cellphone.
Hotels experimenting with permanent keys tend to be using what’s known as online lock systems with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. The cards include an RFID chip. The hotel can remotely turn those cards on and off and assign them to specific rooms.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts has rolled out a “Smart Check-In” program at three of its Aloft brand hotels in Lexington, Ky., New York and Dallas. About 5,000 Starwood Preferred Guest members have received RFID-enabled loyalty cards that can be used as keys at those properties. Starwood is expanding the program to two additional Aloft properties in Jacksonville, Fla., and Brooklyn, N.Y., this year.
Hotel companies say RFID-enabled keys boost security, since companies can track every time a key is used—in the elevator, hotel room, or parking garage. Hyatt uses the key-card information to track guests’ arrivals. When travelers first use their permanent key upon arrival—in the elevator, for example—a message pops up on front-desk computers. A little while later, a staffer calls the guest to welcome him or her to the hotel. “People say, ‘How did you know I was here?’ They find it really slick,” says Hyatt’s Mr. Sears.
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