Friday, 22 March 2013

Digital keys - the solution to the hotel keycard problem


“Hotel companies are racing to create a better room key” – is the current catchphrase in the Hotel industry. A reverberating cry is, “most mag-stripe keycard units are reaching the end of their useful service life”. If you have stayed in a hotel recently, you might’ve experienced it yourself – your keycard suddenly demagnetizes and stops working, so you have to go back to the reception desk to get it re-magnetized.
Oh red light again!
“Carrying your key next to your mobile phone is often all it takes to make one of these keys conk out. We want guests to be able to get into their room on the very first try," says Josh Weiss, vice president of brand and guest technology at Hilton Worldwide Inc. The company just completed a test at its Doubletree hotel in downtown Nashville of technology that lets travelers use their mobile phone as a key.
Among keycard industry professionals, there is agreement that mobile phones can erase or damage data from magnetic stripe cards, and there are also other variables that will damage these cards. CPI Card Group, a card manufacturer based in Littleton, Colorado, believes it has evidence of the cell phone-mag stripe correlation. CPI manufacturers a mix of magnetic stripe cards, including payment cards as well as gift cards, hotel key cards and casino gaming cards, “A lot of the cards people tend to use in harsh way,” explains Julie Hermanson, quality control manager for CPI.
One commentator explained the mag-stripe situation like this “we all know what it’s like playing and recording with the same VHS tape over and over again – in time picture quality becomes fuzzy, sound quality decreases, until eventually the tape gets stuck in the player and you can’t use it anymore – well VHS tapes use the same mag-stripe technology that’s used in keycards”.
More recently the faulty mag-stripe keycard locks situation has reached mainstream media. A report by ABC News onOctober 22nd 2012, showing how easy it was to break into certain electronic door locks used by major hotels, has prompted the Holiday Inn chain today to announce a drive to "expedite" efforts to fix the locks. The ABC News report included a visit to the Holiday Inn Express Times Square on 39th Street, where they checked in to a room and demonstrated a major security flaw that allows guest doors to be opened without a hotel-issued key.
So if the problem is clearly defined as “mag-stripe keycards are failing and need to be replaced, or in the words of of the Marketing Director of a Kaba Ilco, a leading global lock manufacturer, “many accommodation operators know they will likely have to retrofit their magnetic-stripe door hotel locks in the near future, its just a matter of when – and one of the challenges for operators is finding the right time to reschedule the retrofit project”.
So what is the solution? Some chains are adopting permanent keys that repeat guests can carry in their wallets and use for multiple trips at a variety of properties. Other establishments are conducting trials that involve doing away with physical keys altogether; instead, guests can open their room doors by holding their mobile phone next to the lock - this is called digital keys.
One of the big selling points of the new digital keys, executives say, is that they let travelers skip the front desk and go straight to their rooms. That could be particularly welcome at big convention hotels and Las Vegas spots where check-in lines can be maddeningly long."Think of the business traveler who goes to the same hotel every week. He can go straight to his room, drop off his bag and get right to his meeting," says Pete Sears, senior vice president of operations at Hyatt Hotels Corp.  
The Hyatt Hotels Corp, which goes through five million key cards a year in its North American properties, has been testing an "Express Welcome" service at two of its Andaz hotels in California where guests can use their Gold Passport loyalty card as a key. Hyatt will be testing the service at two more hotels in San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia, in the next few months. 
According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal “Hotels don't see much cost savings from the changes but expect the moves will help them stand out in customer service. So far, the tests of these new types of digital keys have been limited and it is unclear how widespread the new technologies will become.”
Hotels experimenting with permanent keys as a solution to the mag-stripe keycard problem tend to be using what's known as radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, often referred to as tags, or keyfobs, or smartcards. The hotel can remotely turn those cards on and off and assign them to specific rooms. 
RFID Hotel Lock System - a solution to the mag-stripe problem?
Whilst this technology been around since the nineteen seventies and eighties, it hasn’t seen widespread adoption now, or at anytime in the past in the hotel industry due mostly to the costs involved. For example to replace a RFID card/keyfob it can cost the hotelier between $2-$10 (as compared to 10-20c for mag-stripe cards). RFID has of course seen widespread adoption in other industries such as Universities, offices and hospitals. Although recent technological advancements have brought some of the installation costs and ongoing costs for replacement keys down (e.g keys are down from about $8-$10 to around a couple of dollars in recent years) and the lock costs are also down from around $1000 to around $400), according to many operators, RFID is still not the perfect solution due to factors in addition to costs, such as the systems not coping with humidity and constant vibrations. In a refurbishment there are also finding the right time, and the hassles involved in installation – e.g the hotel needs to be rewired, and all locks replaced – for hotels with more than one-hundred rooms this can take several weeks, causing major disturbance to the hotels and the guests.
What the hotel industry needs now is a solution to the mag-stripe problem that is;
1; affordable – has low installation costs, and no ongoing operational costs
2; is not subject to break down in certain conditions
3; Can offer an option of a mobile phone key, and a permanent key
4; does not involve a complex install
5; has all the capibilities of the existing mag-stripe systems – e.g allows limited access – e.g controlled to check-in/check-out time, has unique identifier access, so locks can be audited, etc
6; Is secure and user friendly.
That solution is digital keys.

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