Will Guestroom Locks Ever Get Smart?

By Tammy Mastroberte, Contributing Editor | February 14, 2011

Despite the proliferation of magnetic stripe cards, there are other options available when it comes to unlocking hotel guestrooms. While most hotel IT execs are aware of the tech (RFID and mobile phone-based entry systems, for example) they’re just not spending IT budgets on them. According to Hospitality Technology’s “2011 Lodging Technology Study,” upgrading locks is fairly low on the guestroom priority list. Just 17% of respondents to the study rate upgrading locks as “extremely important” (compared to 44% for flat screen TVs and 37% for increasing in-room bandwidth).

For those hotels that are looking to upgrade, the priority is in managing cost while helping the hotel become future-ready for new locking technology as it becomes available. The good news here is that installing wireless networking technology in general is a high priority (at 47% in our study), and that same wireless network can significantly help a hotel get more out of its locking investment. Once a networked RFID solution is in place, for example, it’s much easier to switch to cell phone-enabled locking and other services down the road. In addition, a locking system on a network can communicate with in-room environmental controls and ultimately help the property save on heating and cooling costs.

Right now cell phones are unlocking European hotel rooms; but eventually the technology will take hold in the U.S. “What I’m looking forward to is the keyless entry system where the lock can read a signal from a PDA or cell phone,” says Gary Byrd, executive vice president of hospitality at Wyndham Vacation Club in Orlando, Fla. (www.wyndhamvacationresorts.com), operating 150 properties. “I think it’s on its way.”

As for the top technologies that are impacting access to U.S. hotel rooms (mag stripe, RFID and wireless networks) Hospitality Technology offers this report:

“Most Affordable” mag stripe gets un-demagnetized
Still the most popular locking systems for hotel guest rooms today is the magnetic stripe, which resembles a credit card. The legacy tool continues to be favored for its affordable price-point and the flexibility it offers the hotel. “It can be used for ancillary room charges like the spa, restaurant or pool,” Byrd notes.

The primary challenge with mag stripe is demagnetization, which can occur when the card gets too close to a cell phone. For some, a remote Web-based system alleviates this. The Wyndham Vacation Club uses a locking system from KABA; mag stripe cards were integrated three years ago, along with RFID for the high-tier rooms. “But now we are able to reprogram it remotely as opposed to guests having to come back to the front desk, so it isn’t as much of an issue,” Byrd says.

Currently mag stripe cards are less expensive than RFID, although they have the same encoding and virtually perform the same tasks. “It’s the lock itself that has the intelligence in it, but the benefit of mag stripe is that it costs less,” explains Darrin Pinkham, vice president of IT for Benchmark Hospitality International (www.benchmark hospitality.com) based in Woodlands, Texas.

RFID: “Most likely to succeed”
Although the option is more expensive, hotels are starting to choose RFID locking systems, whether used as a differentiator for high-level guests or throughout the entire hotel. “You have to pay attention to your market segment. You don’t want to overbuild or incorporate high-level systems into entry or mid-level properties,” explains John Lowes, executive director of guest technology for MGM Resorts International (www.mgmresorts.com).

MGM installed RFID in many of its high-end properties, including the CityCenter project on the Las Vegas Strip. “My job for the first couple of years at CityCenter was to see how we could implement platforms that would give us the ability to keep up with tech trends or customer trends well into 2015,” recalls Lowes. They settled on an RFID system from KABA Saflok (www.saflok.com) integrated with Zigbee wireless technology and an in-room automation system from Control4 Corp. (www.control4.com) because it set the company up to easily add more advanced technology in the future.

At the upscale Aloft Lexington Hotel outside of Boston, RFID technology from VingCard/ASSA ABLOY (www.vingcard.com) allows members from the Starwood Preferred Guest Program to use a smart check-in service. Guests receive a text message with their room number upon the day of arrival, allowing them to skip the check-in process and use their loyalty card to unlock the door.

RFID has its pros and cons: one of the biggest pros is that demagnetization issues are eliminated, and since the reader is no longer mechanical, maintenance is also reduced, Lowes notes. “It also gives us a platform to start looking at implementing other features with RFID by using the single card,” he says.

However, guests need to put the card close to the RFID reader for it to recognize the signal, depending on the strength of the reader, according to Pinkham. It’s also important to keep track of the battery life on the door locks, or the RF signal won’t work.

“If the signal or the battery is weak, the device doesn’t read,” agrees Byrd, “but we have an override feature to use it as a mag stripe card.” RFID continues to grow in usage, and will likely become the expectation rather than the novelty, he says. “If you don’t have it, I think you will be behind the eight ball.”

Wireless control: “Most versatile”
Whatever hardware they use, hotels that integrate in-room locking systems with other systems via a wireless network can enhance the guest experience and simplify operations.

At CityCenter, a Zigbee network is used to connect multiple devices, including a suite controller and the lock system. When the guest enters the room, the HVAC system, lighting, television and mini bar are activated. “It’s equivalent to a home automation system, and we have an entry scene when the guest first uses the RFID card,” explains Lowes. “The lights will come on, the drapery opens and the television powers on to a welcome screen and plays background music.”

This can also be expanded into energy conservation for the hotel operator. When the guest leaves the room, lights can be turned off, temperature managed, and drapery can be closed to cool down a room, Lowes says.

“Zigbee is a more secure and robust network than the standard Wi-Fi or Internet,” explains Pinkham. “It bridges from device to device so, for example, when an RFID smart lock has a low battery, the hotel will be notified to change it.”

Additionally, both the mag stripe and RFID card can turn into a catch-all device for the entire property, allowing guests to use it to pay for meals and services, and gain access to other areas, such as the fitness center, says Pinkham. “It becomes more sophisticated with a wireless network.”
 
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