Next-Gen Tech Impacts Guestroom Access as Hotels Seek Solutions with Longevity

By Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor | September 07, 2012

As consumers become increasingly tech-savvy, hotel operators are perpetually seeking technologies that will increase their appeal and level of sophistication to potential guests. Room entry has emerged as a top area of focus for hoteliers who want to provide the most current, secure and reliable means of cross-property accessibility to discerning travelers. According to Hospitality Technology’s “2012 Lodging Technology Study,” room locking technology was rated as an “important” or “very important” in-room investment priority by 53% of respondents.

With magstripe keycards destined to become antiquated technology, hotel companies are considering a variety of alternatives, including RFID keycards, NFC-based mobile phone access, proximity-aware technology, and encrypted acoustic sound.

RFID and NFC locks
RFID-based (radio frequency identification) cards have been gaining popularity, with new implementations cropping up all over the U.S. “We think RFID is the future,” says Rick Creviston, director of engineering, Hyatt Regency St. Louis (www.stlouisarch.hyatt.com) which upgraded to the System 6000 RFID locks from Saflok (www.saflok.com) after using the Saflok magstripe keys for more than 15 years. “The biggest issue with the locking system we had in place was age. The hotel business is competitive and we want to keep a cutting edge, modern look while finding a solution that is less prone to failure with age and wear.”

One of the immediate benefits that new RFID readers offer is a more streamlined look. Bulky magstripe readers can now be replaced with sleek, practically invisible RFID readers. Mark Gage, CHT, southwest cluster IT manager of the Waldorf Astoria resort, The Boulders (www.theboulders.com) does not underestimate the power of appearance, having seen positive feedback since the property implemented the VingCard (www.vingcardelsafe.com) VISIONLINE  RFID system. “[Guests] notice the sleek design of the door encoder and the ease of use of the key,” Gage notes. “Every one of our guests deserves working keys and doors.” At the recent HITEC, VingCard rolled out Essence which takes a minimalist look to the extreme by eliminating all lock hardware on the door by encasing electronic components inside the door itself.  Although undetectable on the door exterior, Essence integrates VingCard Elsafe’s contactless locking solutions into the interior electronics, including RFID and NFC compatible locking technologies.  

Beyond bulky appearances, magstripe keys are prone to demagnetization, rendering them useless to the guest. “It’s fairly improbable that an RFID key will be damaged and not work,” Creviston continues. “That’s a major plus — even if the magstripe keys only fail for one out of one hundred guests, for those one or two guests that it happens to, it’s a 100% failure.” Since upgrading to the RFID system, the Hyatt St. Louis has seen a labor savings from the standpoint of not dealing with failed cards and Creviston admits that maintenance is much less than before the change.

Prior to installing VingCard RFID locks, Devin Mahoney, director of front office operations for The Boulders, recalls re-encoding keys for guests on an average of five times a day and that number was growing. Since installing the VISIONLINE system, this problem has been eradicated.  

Some operators see RFID as a stop-gap on the way to NFC (near field communication) technology, which will eventually allow guests to use their mobile phones to access the guestroom. Forrester is predicting that the number of NFC-enabled mobile devices shipping worldwide will more than double in 2012 to nearly 100 million, and that more than one-quarter of U.S. consumers will have an NFC phone by 2016. However, Forrester’s research also projects that mainstream use of the technology is still three to five years away for most countries. In the meantime, locking providers are focusing on developing NFC systems that will work with their existing RFID locks to ease upgrades.

 Alternative solutions for the current market
There are several other options on the market that leverage guests’ mobile phones today. OpenWays (www.openways.com) enables a guest to receive his or her room number and room key via cell phone (any type or brand and using any carrier network worldwide) and then proceed directly to their guestroom. The technology leverages encrypted acoustics whereby the lock recognizes the sound made by the guest’s mobile phone.

Ciena Hotels & Suites (www.cienahotels.com), the new HotelWorks Development brand, will use OpenWays’ solution in its new 75-room property in Cotulla, Texas. “We wanted to have some differentiators that were rather unique,” Bob Zachariah, president & CEO, states. “With OpenWays, our hotel can allow guests who have gotten used to self-service to go seamlessly to their room.”
Best Western, Indiana (www.bestwestern.com) is upgrading its locks to y!kes (www.yikesteam.com) proximity-aware technology that allows guests to bypass the front desk with mobile phones. Serving as a software and hardware solution, y!kes offers hotel properties specially engineered devices and consumers a customizable mobile app available for download on Apple, Android, BlackBerry and Microsoft smartphones.

 “Upon implementation, y!kes is able to retrieve data from the relevant Property Management System (PMS) to provide an alert through the custom mobile app on the day of check in,” Deanna Pass, general manager, explains. “Because this alert details their hotel room number, direct bypass of the check-in counter is possible. For the full experience, guests need only to have the y!kes mobile app running in the background of their smartphone as they move about the property. Upon arrival, guests are granted immediate entry into any on-site parking garage, with future generations of the technology allowing for immediate activation of pre-determined temperature and lighting settings as specified in the mobile app.”

The y!kes devices recognize the guest and allow for keyless entry to their room upon a touch of the door handle and the same keyless entry also becomes available for common areas such as the pool or fitness center. For security, the system allows guests to enter only the permitted areas or floors based on their loyalty status or guestroom. Guests can check out via the mobile app from anywhere in the hotel and receive a bill directly to their designated
email address.

VingCard is expanding the mobile access phenomenon even further by teaming with the BMW Group to develop technology that will enable drivers to book hotel rooms while they are on the road and then access rooms with their car keys. Potential guests will use the BMW navigation system to search for nearby hotels and the information will be leveraged with an interface with the Micros (www.micros.com) PMS.   

Ultimately, hotel operators recognize the importance of the interoperability of room access systems and an ability to grow along with improved mobile phone technology. While hoteliers admit that NFC is still a few years away from being on all cell phones, it is still a top concern for those wanting to offer mobile access to rooms.

“VingCard’s  proven interface to Hilton’s OnQ PMS and VISIONLINE RFID technology was a deciding factor in our decision, along with setting the property on the track for future upgrades and enhancements,” Gage admits. “If the hospitality industry adopts [NFC] technology and focuses on making it interoperable paired with current mobile apps, hotels could add parking, staff IDs, entry gates, spa, gym, concierge floor access, payment for purchases in retail/F&B outlets, all on a smart phone.”


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