April 30 2015
Posted in: Hotel Technology

Keyless Entry, Mobile Phone Keys, AppKeys, SmartKeys, et al.

HotelNewsNow ran a piece this month documenting the impending issues facing the industry as the we turn towards mobile phones for access control. One issue not addressed by the article is the fact that we as an industry can not decide on a single standard, not even what we call the functionality! As it turns out, the nomenclature is the least of our worries.

For the purposes of this post, may I suggest we call the functionality SmartKey.

  • SmartKey (‘smärt • kē) – The ability to grant access through radio frequency (Bluetooth or NFC) and a native app on a smartphone (Android or iOS) to turn a smartphone into a key for a hotel room door.

Starwood is investing $15 million in the technology and Hilton is hoping that mobile phone keys will drive app adoption. Herein lies the Catch-22 of mobile phone keys:

  1. Your guests want to unlock their door with their phone
  2. An app is needed to access phone radio antennae to unlock a door
  3. Your guests don’t want another app

Further, it’s not just an app that’s needed. The way we’re going, it’s going to be hundreds of apps. Let’s say there’s 10 key vendors allowing the capability retroactively and with new hardware. Verifying guest data for security is an essential part of the key generation workflow, so a seamless SmartKey must not only involve the key vendor, but the hotel PMS software as well. Capterra lists 258 hotel property management systems on the market. That number doesn’t even include proprietary, in-house systems built by the brands. Assuming just 10% of those PMS systems listed are viable, would mean 25 PMS platforms in consideration. As far as communication medium, Bluetooth is leading the charge right now, but NFC is gaining rapid adoption with the proliferation of the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. Also, many Android phones have had NFC capabilities for quite a while. So, 10 key vendors x 25 Hotel PMS platforms x 2 communication mediums x 2 mobile platforms = 1,000 possibilities how a guest could get their key on their phone. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

The big brands are betting that SmartKeys actually get you to download their app. If you’re HHonors, SPG, or Rewards, or Passport Member, then chances are you already have the app. Chris Holdren, senior VP of Global and Digital at Starwood Preferred Guest & Digital said, “Our tech-savvy guests manage most aspects of their life and travel from their smartphone, and many no longer want to keep track of or fumble with key cards each time they enter their room.” Bro. Do you even spec? What issue is being solved by SmartKeys? Fumbling for and finding a key card is not a $15 million dollar problem. Owning the guest experience and getting them is.

SmartKey should be about guest convenience, seamlessness, and not waiting in line at the front desk. The road-weary traveler waited in line at security. At the Gate. To get off the plane. At baggage claim. To get a cab. A hotel doesn’t just offer a bed; it offers security, sanctuary, and solace. Waiting in line at the last stage of travel is tortuous tedium. SmartKeys will allow the savvy traveler to bypass that final wait and complete their trip in the most expedient fashion.

Let’s step back and consider the manual workflows. Why did key systems ever replace traditional cut keys and pin tumbler locks? If you’ve ever run a hotel with old school locks and keys, the problem was not guest ease of access, but the hotel’s management of the physical keys. Classic keys work just fine for guests, we still have them on the doors to our houses. Electromechanical and mag swipe keys were easier to manage interns of physical inventory, and easier to regenerate when a key was lost. However, electronic keys were more convenient for the guest. If you’ve ever stayed in a traditionally locked property, receiving the key is only slightly akin to getting the key to the gas station bathroom. So magnetic and RFID keys are more convenient to both the guest and the hotel. Transitively, for mobile phone key adoption, the solution must be more convenient for both hoteliers and their guests.

To do so, we must either adopt an open standard of SmartKey data and build it into hotel key and hotel PMS systems. Or, we wait for someone to come along and solve the 1,000 possibilities of intersystem communication. Either way, as long as SmartKeys are about app adoption and owning the customer relationship and not about guest service, we won’t see rapid adoption of the technology.