Will Digital Keys Replace Key Cards in Hotel Management?

EHL Editorial Team | 26 Jul, 2016

It felt like the future had arrived when, back in the 90’s, traditional hotel room keys started being replaced with credit-card-style keys you could easily store into your wallet. However, those cards are clearly becoming obsolete and you probably experienced it yourself during your last stay at a hotel.

Because of lock malfunctions or simply because your key card suddenly demagnetizes and stops working, you had to go back to the reception and ask for help, which is already quite frustrating during your vacation, but could be even more irritating during a business trip where your time is limited.

New technologies may ensure that your check-in and room entry process is without interruption. Let's explore the development and growth of digital keys in hotel management.

In order to tackle this issue as well as to attract more customers in the Millennials segment, several hotel companies such as Starwood, Hilton and Hyatt have already implemented digital keys in many of their establishments. By simply downloading the specific hotel chain’s application in their smartphones, guests can now unlock their room door through a Bluetooth connection. Thanks to the same app, they can also unlock other hotel facilities such as the swimming pool as well as check-in, check-out, ask for an upgrade and access other offerings proposed by a particular hotel. The smartphone app now allows customers more access to necessary hotel services without waiting for hotel management. Skip the line and get services faster than ever before. As Starwood Hotels and Resorts former CEO Frits van Paasschen shared with CNNMoney:

“My mobile device now is like my remote control for life. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t be your portal to get to your room, ask for what you want, or anything else.”

Additional convenience for the customer is obviously a key factor making the adoption of digital keys appealing to the hospitality and tourism industry. So far, there have been 5 million digital check-ins and counting. Digital keys have all the features of existing magnetic stripe cards and even more, but are they ready to become a substitute for traditional key cards?

One of the biggest selling points of the new digital keys is that they let travelers skip the front desk and go straight to their rooms. This is not lost on hotel management at busy hotels or on business travelers. Digital keys are also valuable for the hotel itself, as they are cost-effective to install, have almost no ongoing operational expenses and require low maintenance costs. The reduction of maintenance costs associated with digital keys as compared to traditional key cards, that need to be replaced in case of loss or after a certain amount of time, is attractive to those in hospitality and tourism management. Another advantage of digital keys is that they are already part of a device constantly carried by customers. Customers do not need to add another item to their pocket or wallet.

Customers do need to plan ahead to use the app. Travelers have to add one more thing to their pre-departure checklist, installing the app in their smartphone as well as making sure to have a charged battery before their arrival, which is not always the case after a long trip. Additionally, only one phone can be linked to a room at a time. If two people are staying in the room, they still need to get a traditional key for the second guest. This makes key cards necessary in hotel management at this time. Another question is related to phone security. In fact, according to CNBC, cyber threats will gradually increase in the coming year, with smartphones being the biggest risk category. Last but not least, digital keys are also a departure from what most of the guests really look for in a hotel stay: personalization and human interaction. All are factors to consider as use of digital keys become more prevalent in the hospitality industry and decision-makers in hotel management think about making the jump to digital keys.

Overall, digital keys represent a new step towards designing the future hospitality customer experience. Their global adoption continues as Element, W and Aloft Hotels have switched to SPG Keyless Entry. However, improvements will still have to be made in order for traditional key cards to be forgotten. 

Author: Paola Bellia - EHL Bachelor Student

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