There was a time when dispensing mobile keys was a competitive differentiator. In some cases, they served as a membership perk for frequent travellers to avoid lineups and delays on arrivals. Often, they were integrated with property-management systems (PMS) to gather guest data before, during and after their stay.
Early adopters such as Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt originally pushed mobile keys from a loyalty and direct-booking aspect, says David Ginn, vice-president, Hospitality Sales NA, for dormakaba in Indianapolis, Ind. “Pre-pandemic, it was all about ‘let’s do mobile check-in to drive more loyalty’. Now, it’s much more focused on [keyless] being part of a safe-stay type of experience for guests.”
The hub of Hilton’s technology is its Honors app, which serves as the “remote control” to its loyalty members’ travel experience, including the ability to choose their rooms from hotel floor plans, check in digitally and download mobile keys. A spokesperson for the brand says while it was originally developed as a convenience for guests, it’s now enabling Hilton to provide a completely contactless check-in process.
Since Digital Key was launched publicly in December 2015, it’s now is available in almost 4,900 properties in 45 countries, accounting for 82 per cent of Hilton’s hotels. When guests check in online or on the app, they can request a digital key, which is activated on their smartphone or tablet on arrival. Hilton reports that operationally, Digital Key not only helps with efficiency but also improves management. For example, the connection notifies engineering if a door-lock battery is low.
When Marriott first announced its mobile check-in initiative in 2014, it soon added Mobile Key, for Marriott Bonvoy loyalty members. As of October 2020, 59 per cent of its managed and franchised properties in Canada offer Marriott Mobile Key, reports Jeff White, vice-president, Engineering & Facilities, in Ottawa. He estimates all hotels globally will have keyless-entry capabilities by mid 2021.
“The goal has always been to make travel as seamless and contactless as possible for guests who want that,” he says. “But COVID-19 has helped push that concept, so we’re continuing to leverage and expand on the technology we have and testing different ways we can improve the experience. Even when the dust does settle, there will be even more requests and demands that will push the envelope [for touchless technology].”
Keyless entry is also expandable to manage elevator systems, or provide entry into fitness centres, lounges and other amenities, or even automatically open common-area doors, he adds. “There really are endless opportunities because most people carry the key technology with them at all times. It’s phenomenal what you can tie into the app.”
Ginn notes that even non-chain and boutique hotels want to implement keyless capabilities. While chains have developed their own apps, he’s seeing a rise in application-integration providers such as Intelity, Zaplox and OpenKey. “We’ll see more and more PMS companies partnering or buying app companies to include it in their offerings.”
However, it’s a bit more challenging for independents because of the costs, he adds. “It’s easy enough to send someone a mobile key. But if you really want to make it a seamless experience, there’s more involved than that. The first question we ask non-chain hotels is, ‘what’s your business case?’”
That’s why he believes ultra-economy chains will be slower to convert because of the costs and the demographics they serve — or many may never make the move. “Some are talking about it, but have not announced any programs as of yet. However, once all the major chains have it, keyless entry will force its way down to some extent.”
There are several options being applied with keyless-entry systems, Ginn says. Depending on the property, a mobile-key app may be fully integrated with a PMS. In other scenarios, where pre-existing technology makes it logistically impossible to integrate, it can operate offline. “With integration, the front desk and security can see when a room is accessed and used. In an offline scenario, you can plug a tablet or laptop into the lock and download that same data.”
Despite the interest and motivation, conversions for the most part have not been moving full-steam ahead. Most operations have slowed down or suspended rollout efforts.
IHG for example, reports its digital check-in scheduled for rollout the beginning of November has been delayed until January 2021. Germain Hotels has expressed an interest in pursuing keyless-entry technologies, but has paused its planning for the time being. And the list goes on.
Even those who are well entrenched in keyless-entry rollouts have slowed their pace. “We had to take a step back to deal with the crisis and turn down our focus on a number of plans,” White says. “But we also understand that technology for a contactless environment is very, very much in travellers’ expectations. They were already wanting to utilize this technology even before the crisis.”
White notes the logistics are not always simple. “There’s engineering involved beyond replacing locks. “You need the infrastructure to make it work, including the proper front-desk platform. For example, you have to make sure the new lock doesn’t disrupt the door itself, which could affect fire ratings.”
Much of the cost depends on the type of locks and PMS systems (if any) are in place. Magstripe locks, for example, would need to be completely replaced, which would add to the costs. RFID locks, which became a brand standard for many, are either mobile-key ready or enabled, so will require an upgrade only. When upgrading, hotels also need to ensure audit-trail and tracking activities meet the same or higher standards than the key cards used today.
Despite the challenges, White says touchless innovations such as keyless-entry systems are here to stay. “The pandemic has caused a shift in social norms and preferences that will continue well into the future. When we all come out of this crises, contactless will be a norm in our industry.”
Written by Denise Deveau