Next-Gen Locking Systems

By Lisa Terry • Contributing Editor | November 01, 2007

Securing the guest room gets high-tech with wireless keys, RFID technology and integrated systems

On October 22, Indian government official Baba Siddiqui remotely checked in to the Hotel Regal Enclave in Khar, Mumbai, then arrived at his allotted room and unlocked the door with a wave of his cell phone, becoming the first hotel guest ever to check in to a hotel in this way, according to FoneKey (www.fonekey.net).

Such a scenario will quickly transform from gee-whiz to ho-hum as cell phones are increasingly used for mobile phone payments, access control and other everyday applications in the next few years. The desire for increased security, enhanced ease of use, better reporting and more pleasing aesthetics are driving the next-generation technology of hotel locking and security solutions. Locking solutions are increasingly blending with other hotel applications to become a key component of the guest experience, taking advantage of the increased capacity of radio frequency identification (RFID) and related technologies. Interest in proximity and biometric solutions has fallen away, vendors report.

Keys go wireless
Guests of the Hotel Regal Enclave will eventually be able to use a remote hand-held device to make a reservation, check in, open the hotel room door, check out remotely and pay the bill, as well as operate the guestroom safe and minibar. Preferences and rewards will also be tracked via mobile technology. Cell phones are equipped with a FoneKey-enabled SIM card to operate the locks.

Mobile device-enabled guest room door technology also bowed in two concept rooms operated by Sofitel in France in November, tapping the Near Field Communication (NFC) chips being embedded in cell phones that encode secure key data. NFC technology evolved from RFID and interconnection technologies. ABI Research projects 450 million phones will be NFC-enabled by 2011, while Frost & Sullivan predicts 33 percent penetration within five years.

Guest experience was also high on the agenda at the Talbott Hotel, a 16-story premium boutique hotel in Chicago. The Saflok (www.saflok.com) MT and IR 6000 Messenger infrared guest door locks are integrated with lighting and InnCom (www.inncom.com) energy management systems in the room. When a guest uses the door key, the system is alerted to turn on entryway lighting. The system also alerts staff when a door is left ajar and tracks both entries to and exits from the room.

"If a guest wants to change a room the bellman can call and we can automatically adjust the key," without a trip down to the desk, says Troy Strand, general manager at the Talbott. "It's an amazing piece of technology that you don't find in many hotels. We get a lot of positive comments."

Easing the guest experience is also high on the agenda for Sofitel parent company Accor, which uses its two Sofitel concept rooms as test beds for a whole range of new technology.

"It's a better way to travel," says David Esseryk, director of innovation and technology for the European hotel leader, which operates concept rooms in Sofitels in the Bercy and Le Faubourg sections of Paris. Together with improved security, making the guest experience easier was a chief motive behind testing the multipleprotocol RFID-enabled locking solution called Signature RFID, provided by Ving Card, a subsidiary of Assa Abloy (www.assaabloy.com, www.vingcard.com). As transactions with airlines also shift to Internet and mobile technologies, the guest's entire travel experience will increasingly fall under their own control, without multiple touchpoints required with airline and hotel staff. "This will be the new normal," Esseryk says.

Guests can even choose their own level of security, notes Esseryk; while the access code is secure unto itself, guests can choose to use a PIN code on their mobile device to further enhance security.

While the jury is still out on which protocols will come to dominate personal area network solutions, lock makers are working to accommodate whatever technologies rise to the top while delivering solutions today.

The aesthetics of new locking solutions also count, hoteliers say. Two-piece locks featuring a handle and a separate, small slot unit for key insertion are growing in popularity. The two-piece Onity (www.onity.com) locks installed at Dow Hotels' Hilton Atlanta NE fit in well with the hotel's image, says Michael McConkey, regional engineer. "How they look is a big factor," in addition to lowering maintenance costs, McConkey says. "People have noticed that the floor looks more up-to-date" since the hotel swapped out its brick-style locks for the two-piece model. The hotel installed a flat plate in between the two pieces.

Back-end infrastructure
Delivering the easy guest room entry experience goes beyond the lock itself to the back-end integration and reporting that supports them.

"The interface is one of the most important pieces of the entire system for us," says Talbott's Strand. Integrating the locking and property management systems enables remote reprogramming when guests change rooms, and automated key encoding reduces errors that would otherwise inconvenience guests. "The interface helps with speed and accuracy," Talbott says. Many hotels are moving toward integrating and supporting multiple applications on one backbone, easing administration, reducing costs and enhancing guest service.

Backend reporting is also of great value for both maintenance and security, says Dow's McConkey. Reporting can reveal patterns in usage and errors, and help engineers head off repair issues. Tracking entries and exits by guests and staff is invaluable when a guest discovers belongings are missing. "Ninety-nine percent of the time there have been no other entries to the room, and the guest finds the item later," McConkey notes.

Dow's newer locks require less training for engineers, parts replacement is much easier, and the cost to re-key a lock is far less than calling a locksmith, McConkey adds. RFID locks are also sealed, making them more resistant to contaminants. He urges hoteliers to consider extending the same locking solutions to other doors.

"Don't limit yourselves to the guest room. Storage areas, entry areas, housekeeping, offices, can all be protected," McConkey urges. "Choose a system you can upgrade and make additions to."

Hoteliers' first priority in locking systems will always be security and ease of use. But newer technologies are enabling enhancements in both functionality and appearance, allowing hotel operators to make the guest experience more pleasant and even more secure.HT


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