Is your future hotel key already in your pocket?

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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2 comments
  1. Michael said:

    Great article which covers the overall benefits and challenges of this scenario. Would love to have a brief chat about it as well Kieth. Reach out to me when convenient via my email..

  2. Martin Stanton said:

    Good article, however I would argue that airline ticketing is not a non-stop check in. You are stopped at a minimum of two check points to confirm ticketing and identity. TSA and at the gate. TSA being the most intrusive, however at the gate is really a confirmation of sorts. So in some fashion the passenger/guest is meeting with an agent to process the onboarding/check-in. We need the payment processors and banks to A. – fix the mag stripe debacle in the U.S. and B. loosen their grip on cc commission rates as it relates to card present.

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