Using your smartphone as hotel room key

Last Updated : 23 November 2014, 18:20 IST
Last Updated : 23 November 2014, 18:20 IST

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People use smartphones today to do everything from pay for coffee to board a plane. Now, a growing number of hotels want guests to be able to unlock their guest rooms with their phones. “It’s a simple proposition,” said Mark R Vondrasek, who leads digital initiatives for Starwood Hotels. “Why can’t I use my phone as my room key?”

Starwood will begin offering smartphone key apps at 10 hotels in its Aloft, Element and W hotel brands including five in the US. The introduction comes after testing conducted this year at two of Starwood’s Aloft brand hotels, one in New York City and one in Cupertino, California.

In September, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts started testing mobile keys at one of its hotels in New York City, a pilot it expects to wrap up by early 2015, said Brett Cowell, vice president of strategic systems. “We’re also focused on starting some additional pilots in other locations on the West Coast,” he said. For now, the programme is invitation only, available to frequent visitors who are members of Hyatt’s loyalty programme.

This quarter, Hilton Worldwide will start testing mobile keys at 10 hotels in the US, a project it expects to finish in early 2015. By the middle of next year, it says its loyalty programme members in the US visiting its Hilton, Waldorf-Astoria, Conrad and Canopy by Hilton brands will be able to use their phones as keys.

“A lot of our members are saying, ‘I want to skip the front desk,’” said Geraldine Calpin, senior vice president and Hilton’s global head of digital. Based on the adoption and satisfaction rates of the brand’s digital check-in, Calpin said she expected the mobile key option to be popular, especially with frequent travelers. “I would anticipate a high adoption rate by business travelers,” she said.

“It’s a shift in mindset,” said Anton Monk, a technology strategy consultant who travels frequently for work and participated in Starwood’s test. He likened it to switching from printing out paper boarding passes to using his phone to board a flight. “It’s superefficient,” he said. “Hold up your iPhone and, zoom, you’re in.”

Hotels say their research tells them that the prospect of being able to skip the line at the front desk is appealing to business travellers. “I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels where, at the end of the day, you’re tired and you’re waiting in line,” Monk said. Being able to go straight to his room saved him time and hassle, he said. “It made everything a lot easier.”

But that convenience factor must be weighed against security concerns, said Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer at the cybersecurity firm Bit9. “The biggest challenge here is that convenience trumps security, especially in the hospitality industry,” he said. While encryption - which hotels say they are using for mobile keys - certainly helps, the more difficult a digital system is to access and make changes to, in general, the harder it is to breach, Sverdlove said.

A system flexible enough to accommodate requests for physical keys, multiple guests per room and other considerations is a priority for hotels concerned about the user experience, but these concessions can make the system more vulnerable, he said. “It’s not about one encryption key opening everything,” said Selva Selvaratnam, senior vice president at a unit of the lock manufacturer Assa Abloy, which is working with Starwood on its mobile key platform. “Everything is layered,” he said, and encryption takes place at several points in transmission.

Sverdlove said another security concern was more prosaic. People accustomed to using an easy-to-guess or multiple-use password for their hotel loyalty account need to keep in mind that this password unlocks more than a cache of points if they are using their phone as a key. “Simple things like our password now take on higher importance,” he said.

In addition to security concerns, hotels face other issues. They have to make sure the technology doesn’t drain either the batteries in guests’ phones or the ones embedded in the door locks. Someone will have to explain to travellers used to swiping or tapping a key card how to position their phone to make the door open, and properties will have to find a way to let customers switch between key cards and their phones if they don’t want to take their phone to the pool or gym with them.

The hotel brands that are starting mobile key initiatives are building the programmes from their existing mobile apps and loyalty programmes. When their systems are fully deployed, some brands say they will be able to glean additional information from travelers’ phones in the form of location data.

Data tracking
“We’re able to send you relevant directions, contact information,” Vondrasek of Starwood said. “We’ll be expanding our capabilities based on what we know about you to deliver even more services going forward.”

Hotel executives stress that guests will need to opt-in to any data tracking, and that some of the data collected will not be traceable to individuals. They say the data will help them know when, for instance, a line has formed at the bell desk or what times of day the fitness centre’s usage peaks.

“We’re being very careful to acknowledge it,” Cowell said of potential privacy concerns. Hyatt is working on pilots that use location-based technology in smartphones, helping guests make their way to a restaurant or meeting room.

Investing in a technology that might become obsolete or never take off is one of the risks hotels face in building a mobile key programme. This is one reason not every brand is climbing on the mobile key bandwagon.

“Part of it is, how vulnerable do you make yourself to these changes on the devices?” said George Corbin, senior vice president in charge of digital for Marriott International.

Corbin said Marriott had no plans to jump into the mobile key pool until the company was sure it could get it right. “We’re testing it. We’re not yet satisfied that we’re seeing it work flawlessly and at scale,” he said.

Published 23 November 2014, 18:20 IST

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