Hotel Locks Leap Ahead

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor | December 10, 2009

After years of incremental improvements, hotel locking and security systems are advancing rapidly. Adoption of RFID keycards is growing faster than many in the industry expected, and wireless communications and integration with other hotel applications promises to transform locks from simple entry devices to a key element in a comprehensive operations management and guest services system. HT checked in on the array of current technologies and what they offer.

New Locking Technologies:
Smart Card

What it is: A pocket-sized card with embedded, integrated circuits that can process data, offering more capacity and durability than a mag card. Dual-technology locks, such as those provided by Maglocks (www.maglocks.com), enable mag for guests and smart-cards for staff, since the latter must last longer and can record an audit trail for security.
 
Devices such as Onity's (www.onity.com) Revalidator allow employee tracking data to be retrieved centrally, eliminating the need to travel to locks. Employees check in/out with their smart keycards at the Revalidator, which can also set access parameters, increasing security.

The Hilton LAX, which sees heavy lock traffic since the average stay is 1-1/2 days, deployed Onity's HT28 dual technology and the Revalidator to limit employee access to that day's assignments. "I can control the usage of internal keys, and we can 99.9 percent guarantee that the room is safe," says Chan Jin, resident manager. "We're better at assigning staff, and we've seen a lot of cost savings," says Jin. "We know we can track the lock, access features and reports, and understand usage. Operationally and productivity-wise, we're much more effective."
  • Benefits: Holds more data; lasts longer; can be programmed; records audit trail
  • Drawbacks: Requires insertion of key in lock; higher cost (about $1.50/card)
     

Near-Field Communication
What it is: Uses short-range wireless communication to send a signal from the phone to the lock. Many lock vendors are ready, but adoption is slow-going.
  • Benefits: Guest convenience; guests provide the technology
  • Drawbacks: Very low consumer penetration; security and standards must be addressed

Cell Phone-Enabled
What it is: With adoption of Near-Field Communication delayed, vendors are leveraging alternate technologies to enable cell-phone guest locking systems, which in conjunction with an application allow for check-in/out right on the phone, even well before arrival. That offers convenience to guests, while reducing front desk labor demand and enhancing key management; all while eliminating the cost and management of physical keys. Cell applications integrated with property management systems can also enable the guest to change his room or extend his stay without visiting the front desk, as well as sending reminders, and facilitating room service and e-marketing.

FoneKey's (www.fonekey.net) solution accomplishes cell phone locking via a Key Loader. The guest checks in on his phone and receives a room number and PIN. Upon arrival, he enters this PIN into the Key Loader to access the reservation, places his phone on the device, and the device places an RFID sticker on the phone. Or the guest can have the Key Loader issue an RFID card.

OpenWays (www.openways.com) uses Crypto Acoustic Credential technology to securely deliver an encrypted, one-time-use "tone" to the guest's phone, which communicates to a unit installed in the door/lock. When the unit receives the tone, it unlocks the door. The company says that its solution works with all cell phone and lock types and is fully interoperable among carriers.

  • Benefits: No need to visit the front desk; no cardkeys; enables additional applications; reduces labor demand; enhances key management
  • Drawbacks: Cost

RFID Keycards
What it is: An RFID keycard contains a chip with microprocessor and an antenna to communicate with a reader embedded in an electronic lock. In addition to reading the card, the lock can write information such as battery status. The chip can record everywhere that keycard is used, creating an audit trail and enhancing security. RFID keycard vendors can add additional security; VingCard Elsafe (www.vingcard.com), for example, adds an anti-cloning technology. The chip and antenna can also be stored in bracelets, keyfobs, paper cards, or affixed to a cell phone. Hotels can integrate other hotel applications onto the card such as e-purchasing and vending.

Starwood Hotels, which uses a range of locks from Assa Abloy (www.assaabloy.com), is moving to RFID locks in new builds for benefits such as added security, sealed locks and more. "We want to use RFID not only to open doors, but as a payment method and for enabling ancillary services," and will consider different token types particularly in resorts, says Gustaf Burman, senior director, property technology strategy for Starwood Hotels, which is also anxious to upgrade to NFC.

  • Benefits: Can be sealed, protecting it from degradation; helps increase efficiency; enables better staff control and front desk management; reduces liability
  • Drawbacks: Higher cost; requires choice between multiple ISO RFID standards; Signature RFID by VingCard can operate with any of the 4 main ISO RFID standards

Non-Starters
Proximity and Biometrics: The hotel industry tried proximity in the nineties, only to find them inflexible. Meanwhile, biometrics continues to scare off consumers.

Major Trends: Wireless and Interoperability
Wireless: Many hotel locks are standalone; staff must travel to the lock to gather data, reprogram or change parameters, or retrieve it via RFID keycards. Wireless online platforms facilitate communication with the central server without cables, opening up a broad range of new capabilities. ZigBee, a wireless personal area network standard suitable for low-power devices, has emerged as a protocol of choice.

Remote, wireless communication allows hotel management to, for example, cancel master or guest keycards in one click, retrieve the audit trail and lock battery status, and update parameters.

Interoperability: Another compelling advantage of online systems is the ability to integrate the locking system with other technologies including property management, energy management, CRM, entertainment, workforce management, fire control, and housekeeping. This allows, for example, 'door ajar' alert to be sent to a TV screen, guest device, energy management system, front desk or security.

At some Starwood Hotels, locks are integrated with energy management and lighting. "We've definitely seen savings, and we can better manage set-backs," says Starwood's Burman, as well as support green and LEEDs initiatives.

SAFLOK's (www.saflok.com) Messenger LENS (Lock Event Notification System) collects real-time information from the lock and transmits messages to the appropriate group. For example, housekeeping inspectors receive "Room Ready" alerts on pagers and security dispatchers receive "Wandering Intruder" on PCs. Hoteliers can remotely lock or unlock blocks and create chaperone keys.

Chicago's theWit (www.thewithotel.com) hotel is beta testing SAFLOK's Messenger LENS and ZigBee mesh wireless communications integrated with HotSOS for tracking and control; in addition to the functions covered above, theWit uses locks as a sort of grid. "If a light needs to be changed, or the carpet or wall vinyl needs to be fixed, staff can go to the closest lock" and communicate the issue and location, says Darrin Pinkham, chief technology officer at ECD Company/theWit Hotel Project. "This fills the gap between the guest services and security and engineering teams without a whole lot of IT support. This is where locks are going in the future."
 

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