Spokane Journal of Business

The future of the hotel key

New feature ties into mobile check-in apps

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Chris Anderson, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn Spokane Airport, says digital keys aren’t intended to replace the physical card keys yet, but rather are designed to supplement the cards, for guests who want the added convenience.

Several large hotel brands have begun experimenting with digital key technology here, which enables hotel guests to enter their room by holding their smartphone to the lock, rather than using the traditional plastic key card. 

Hotel representatives here say the technology is generally tied to mobile check-in applications, which typically are available only to guests who are members of a hotel’s reward or loyalty program.

Last month, two Spokane-area Hilton hotels, the Hampton by Hilton Spokane Airport at 2010 S. Assembly Road and the Hilton Garden Inn Spokane Airport at 9015 U.S. 2, introduced a digital key option for guests. 

The two hotels are both owned and operated by Vandervert Developments LLC, of Spokane, which also owns the Quality Inn Oakwood at 7919 N. Division, as well as Hampton Inns in both Richland, Wash. and Kalispell, Mont.

Chris Anderson has been general manager at Hilton Garden Inn Spokane Airport for the past 10 years. He says that while every hotel’s smartphone application is somewhat different, the Hilton version, available on both Apple and Android phones, has two components. 

“The first part of the application is a digital check-in, and the second is the digital key option,” he says. “Guests can choose their room based on a digital map of the hotel and check in online. They also can add features to their stay, such as extra towels and pillows, or free continental breakfast.”

Anderson says the application enables desk agents to see members’ special requests and know when they’ve checked in. 

He says the digital keys are not a replacement for traditional plastic keys, as most guests typically chose to use both throughout their stay. 

Guests using a digital key simply need to login to the Honor’s application, and then stand with their phone no more than 5 feet from their room door. They’re then prompted to press an unlock button that appears on their screen, which will turn green to indicate the door has been opened.  

“We have the ability to shut-off the digital key if a guest loses or breaks their phone,” he says. “And for security reasons, digital keys are only an option for Honors program members. These are individuals who’ve been vetted, whose information is stored in our system.”

Although any guest can become an Honors member, Anderson says those in the program’s lowest tier still are required to have their ID verified at the front desk before they’re issued a digital key. He says so far, about 15 percent of Hilton Honors members take advantage of using the digital-key option. 

“Hilton has been beta testing this program since 2014, slowly bringing certain properties onboard,” he says. “We’ve only been live for about four weeks, but have already gotten great feedback.” 

He says the launch of the digital-key option did involve some initial costs, necessitating the replacement of door locks, and some additional staff training. 

“The cost to implement this technology will vary substantially based on different factors at each property,” he says. “We have 120 rooms, and our cost here was roughly $450 per room, with some of the necessary hardware costs being subsidized by Hilton.”

In addition to accessing guest rooms, digital keys also provide guests entry into other hotel common areas, such as pool and fitness centers, as well as through outside doors other than the main lobby entrance. 

Anderson says guests at the Hilton Garden Inn who chose to use the apps typically are tech-savvy business travelers. 

“Our location caters to business travelers, and I could see a future where most if not all travel-related business can be done via smartphone,” he says. “This technology is evolving, and we’re already looking into additional uses.”

According to Anderson, Hilton’s data shows that companywide the digital key app has opened more than 6.4 million doors since its launch in August of 2015. The same data show the digital key feature is now available at 1,000 of the hotel brand’s properties, which include a total of 4,922 locations in 104 countries worldwide.

Dean Feldmeier, general manager for the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel City Center, at 322 N. Spokane Falls Court, says that location was one of the first Hilton brand hotels in the area to offer digital keys, having launched the Hilton Honors app last year. 

 “We’re really happy with how the app works, and our guests seem to love it,” says Feldmeier. “It’s a really cool new technology.” 

Red Lion Hotel Corp., the large Spokane-based hospitality chain, last year began the launch its own Hello Rewards mobile application, which offers digital check-in or check-out, room service, valet car returns, staff-to-guest messaging, and digital keys. 

John Edwards, Denver-based CIO for Red Lion, says the hotel chain decided to begin offering digital key options to guests slowly, in order to work out any kinks in the technology.

“We started with the Baltimore location and have been learning and making improvements based on how well it’s done there,” says Edwards. 

Similar to Hilton, he says that to use the digital-key option, Red Lion guests need both a smartphone and access to the hotel’s rewards application. 

“Guests need to be checked in, and signed into the hotel’s application, which then communicates with the room’s door lock to confirm a guest’s entry,” he says. “Ultimately, we decided it’s most secure to make sure digital keys are tied to the rewards program app, as the guest needs to be signed in to access it, and hotel staff has the option of turning it off if need be.”

Edwards says as Red Lion has expanded and technology has improved, the hotel chain has begun planning to implement a digital-key option across all of its locations, including its Spokane locations, in the next few months.

Edwards says guests see the digital key as an extra for times when they misplace or forget their plastic key card. 

“It depends on the type of traveler,” he says. “Some guests who use digital keys arrive late and just want a quick check-in, quick-entry option. Others we’ve seen are family groups who also use the digital option as a way to share keys.” 

Edwards says feedback from guests so far has been positive, with most using mobile apps to communicate more with their hotel prior to check-in. 

“We’ve found that when guests use mobile apps, it drives interaction with the hotel,” he says. “Guests communicate more, and that in turn gives staff the ability to provide a more specific stay that better meets guest needs.”

While the use of mobile check-in apps and digital keys are becoming a bigger trend in the hospitality industry, Edwards says the technology might not yet be at the point where hotels are ready to switch to digital entirely.

“Right now, there are some technical limitations with the hardware,” he says. “But I think we’ll find, as more guests carry smartphones and become familiar with apps and keys, we’ll begin to transition more into a mobile environment.” 

While other hotel brands also have launched similar rewards apps that offer guests digital-key options, some hotels haven’t bought into the trend yet. 

Matt Jensen, director of sales and marketing for Davenport Hotels, says keyless systems were just beginning to come out as the newest hotel in the chain’s collection, the Davenport Grand, was opening downtown in June 2015. 

“There were parts of the keyless system that were still not fully developed then,” he says. “We’re looking at possibly moving in that direction in the future, but at this time, we still require a key to enter our guest rooms.” 

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Olympia-based Washington Restaurant Association, says he thinks many hotel brands are pursuing digital keys and related technology in an effort to cater to millennials. 

“A lot of our hotel members are talking about this technology, but it’s kind of a balancing act at the moment,” he says. “Hotels are trying to accommodate an older generation that doesn’t trust technology as much, while still creating new options for an entire future generation of guests.”

Anton says most of the association’s hotel members still seem to be adjusting to the new technology, developing it to suit the needs of their customers. 

“Most of what I’ve heard about these systems has been positive,” he says. “It seems to come down to two things: Will the technology improve guest experiences, and will it be cost effective? The big thing brands are looking for is being able to develop a technology that works, without reducing hospitality.”

Looking ahead, Anton says he anticipates digital technology will have a significant impact on the hospitality industry, with hotels adding more tools to enhance guest experience. 

He says those could include temperature control for guest rooms prior to check-in, wake-up calls directly to a mobile phone, as well as direct-to-phone local restaurant or activity recommendations based on the time and length of a guest’s stay. 

“We already live in this amazing technical world, but it’s exciting to know there’s even more on the way,” he says. 

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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