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Many new generation hoteliers – especially those building new properties – are contemplating implementing a new generation of door-lock technologies.

There are many different door-lock technologies currently in production or development, such as NFC, RFID, acoustic, Bluetooth, PIN-code, magnetic swipe card, biometric or even the traditional cylinder lock and key.

Ignoring for the moment the technical differences, these solutions can be grouped into two different operational strategies:

  1. Guest needs to stop either in the hotel lobby to pick up a key
  2. Guest can go straight to the room without stopping

The second option is what many hotel industry leaders would like to achieve. The airlines have already achieved it. Passengers can go straight to the gate and board the plane without having to stop and pick up a boarding pass. We call this non-stop check-in.

Even though the technology is available, almost no hotels have successfully implemented a non-stop check-in. Why is this?

For non-stop check-in to work, the guest must be able to open the door with something they already have with them. Here are some items that guests could have with them even before arriving at the hotel.

  1. Smartphone with app
  2. Traditional mobile telephone
  3. Universally programmable key (includes certain advanced house, office or car keys)
  4. PIN code
  5. 2-D barcode
  6. Fingers, hands or eyes (guests tend not to leave these items at home)

Now let’s consider the positives and negatives of these options.

  1. Smartphone. The number of smartphone owners increases readily, but even in the most smartphone-friendly countries, the penetration barely exceeds 50%, though the percentage is likely higher among business travelers. Most smartphone-based keys require specialized apps. Can a hotel really expect that all their guests will download yet another app just to open the door? What if the guest does not have internet connectivity or has deactivated data roaming and can’t download the app? What about kids and other travelling companions? Does each and every person need a smartphone with an app? Of course it’s not enough just to have the app. There must be a secure way for the main registered guest to transfer the key to other family members.
  2. Traditional mobile phone. A solution which requires only a traditional (non-smart) mobile phone can be used more universally as the phone penetration among hotel guests is nearly 100%. Such solutions would work for smartphones too. These solutions are generally based on SMS and possibly an acoustic signal. The challenge here is that the hotel needs to send many SMSs, sometimes to costly international destinations. Also, the guest needs cellular reception in the hallway in front of the door, the quality of which is outside the hotel’s hands. Both the traditional and smartphone solution fails if the phone’s battery is dead.
  3. Universal programmable key. Hotel door locks are not the only ones going through an upgrade phase. Some locks in private homes, cars and offices have been upgraded as well. These keys – typically based on NFC – can in theory be programmed to open multiple doors. In an ideal world, we would only have one key in our pocket or purse which could open everything we own. Unfortunately there are few incentives for the key providers to support each other’s devices and no industry-wide standards.
  4. PIN Code. PIN codes have been around for a while. Guests could receive an email or SMS (their choice) prior to arrival with a PIN code. They can easily share it with their travelling companions. When they get to their door, they type in the code and open the door. Reasonably simple and inexpensive to implement, but not terribly sexy. Furthermore, prying eyes could potentially “steal” the PIN.
  5. 2D Barcode. Most airline passengers are familiar with these codes. A hotel guest could receive the code via email and then scan the smartphone or a printout of the code at the door. The disadvantage with this solution is that the 2-D barcode scanners are relatively expensive and power-hungry. No problem for an airport gate, but outfitting and powering 500 doors is a different magnitude.
  6. Biometric. Fingerprint sensors, retina scanners or hand scanners are becoming more commonplace at airport border controls or other high-security locations. Like the 2-D barcode scanners, biometric readers are costly and power-hungry. Furthermore, the guest must have a secure way to register their fingerprint etc. before arriving. And do guests really want to give hotel companies this information?

It’s clear that none of the solutions is a sure-proof way to provide non-stop check-in. The deficiencies mean that those hotels that want to offer non-stop check-in will also need some form of traditional check-in or kiosk to handle the exception cases.

Furthermore, in some countries, a non-stop check-in is simply not possible today, as hotels are required by law to scan the guest’s passport and collect a signature on a registration form.

Nevertheless, new generation hoteliers will continue on their quest towards the non-stop check-in. Time will tell which, if any, of the above concepts becomes the standard.

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It’s a tradition as old as the hotel business itself and a very hard habit to break, but the fact is, hotels that pre-assign all or most room numbers at the time of reservation will turn down reservation requests that they could otherwise have accepted.

The tradition of assigning room numbers goes back to the pre-computer days where hotels used a large book or wall-mounted room rack, sometimes known as a Whitney rack, to track their reservations. The hotels could check their availability simply by seeing if a specific room number is available on a certain day.

Though hotels switched to electronic reservation systems over twenty years ago, the practice of assigning rooms at the time of reservation – instead of on the day of check-in – continues in many hotels.

Let’s take this simple example to demonstrate why a hotel that assigns rooms can lose business. Hotel Old Fashioned has only two rooms: 101 and 102. They are the same, except that 101 has a blue carpet and 102 has a red carpet.

Mr. Blue makes a reservation – either by phone, email, online or OTA – from Monday to Wednesday. The hotel blocks room 101 for him. Ms. Red makes a reservation from Friday to Sunday. The hotel assigns room 102 to Ms. Red. The room rack now looks like this:

room rack 1

Now Mr. Green calls up and wishes to stay from Tuesday to Saturday. Alas, there are no rooms left, unless Mr. Green is willing to move rooms during his stay, which is generally not in anyone’s interest. Mr. Green is turned down and the hotel loses business. But if the hotel does not pre-assign room numbers, they would check room type availability instead and immediately determine that they have space for Mr. Green. After all, both Mr. Blue and Ms. Red could, for example, use room 101 without overlapping and Mr. Green can use room 102.

room rack 2

Hotel Old Fashioned is not living completely in the dark ages as they take bookings via an OTA. The OTA doesn’t know about room numbers, only room types. So if Mr. Green tries to book a room from Tuesday to Saturday, the OTA will confirm the reservation. Now the hotel has additional work to shift the reservations around. Should they move Blue to 102 or Red to 101? Well, their choices are especially limited if it’s Tuesday and Blue already checked in.

The logical alternative, of course, is not to assign rooms at the time of reservation. Then the hotel maintains complete flexibility and can always fit in guests without having to play “Tetris.”

There are, of course, cases where the hotel will still want to assign rooms. For example, if a regular guest will only come if she gets a specific room, then the hotel will probably want to assign and confirm that room. Or if a guest has a specific request such as a handicapped-equipped room and the hotel only has a few such rooms, then the hotel may want to block a specific room number as well. But in all other cases, the hotel will make their life easier and will increase their occupancy by waiting until the day of arrival to assign the room.

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