Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Are smartphone keys in hotels really smart? We roadtest Next Hotel's smartphone room check-in and smartphone keys.

It was touted as the 'next big thing' in technology in Australia – ‘the Next Hotel Brisbane, has smartphone technology so guests don’t even have to speak to staff’.

Smartphone self check-in headlines in Australia

Yes that was the headline in many Australian newspapers a month ago when the newly refurbished Next Hotel opened in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall. 

According to the newspapers, $120 million dollars was spent installing the technology and carrying out the refurbishments. 

Let me repeat part of the headline ‘the Next Hotel has smartphone technology so you don’t even have to speak to staff'. I spent over 20 minutes speaking with the onsite manager trying to get their smartphone technology to work.

If anyone was going to understand and get this technology, it was me. Our company has also built a smartphone self check-in system, a smartphone key, and a smartlock so you can bypass the reception desk and go straight to your room.

What’s the point of all this you may ask? Well it can save you time in not having to line up at the reception desk to check-in, which can be very frustrating after a long flight, but its also about improving security. For example, metal key locks are very insecure. Anyone can cut a copy of a metal key at the local hardware store and give themselves unauthorized access to your room at any future date and time. Don’t let those three words on the top of a metal key, “Do Not Copy” fool you into thinking that no-one can copy these types of metal keys. Anyone can easily copy metal keys.  

Metal keys are also expensive for the hotel owners. Every time a metal key is lost, the owners of the hotel usually replace the lock, as anyone who has found the key can simply use that key to let themselves into your room at anytime and attack you and steal all your stuff. The cost for this is usually around $120. Then there is the question about who pays for this?

Action shot of smartphone self check-in - this is Starwood's version.

So smartphone keys, smartlocks, and smartphone self check-in is not only about saving you time by allowing you to bypass the reception desk, but it’s also about making you more secure in your hotel room. With smartphone keys, the hotelier can make it only work for the time of your booking, and then take it away from your phone automatically (it simply expires, disappears) when its checkout time. Smartphone keys and smartphone self check-in is also about improving the hotel experience, by taking away the reception staff from being stuck behind a desk so they can spend more time with you, helping you out, rather than tapping away at a computer the whole time. 

This week, I tried out the smartphone technology for myself at the Next Hotel. I've documented my observations of the experience below. The experience should have probably been documented in a few sentences, but I finally stopped writing at around 5000 words.

After working for last three years building and selling our own smartphone keys technology, you can imagine how excited I was about a competitor coming to town. And now a month after this competitor installed their system, I was finally going to test it all out for myself. 

And by the way, this wasn't just any old competitor that had installed smartphone self check-in and smartphone keys at Next Hotel, it was DoCoMo - the biggest mobile phone company in Japan. DoCoMo is also the daughter company of NTT. NTT is the largest telco company in the world in terms of revenue, and has a market cap of $62 billion US dollars. See more about the DoCoMo Next Hotel here. and here.

DoCoMo's smartphone self check-in in action at Regal Hotels

With access to unlimited dollars behind them, I was expecting to be blown away by the DoCoMo product. 

I had arranged to meet my friend and advisor at the hotel around 12:45pm. Although this was a little earlier than the advertised 3pm check-in time, my friend's flight was arriving at this time - she had made the trip up to Brisbane from interstate for a conference, and she chose to stay at the Next Hotel so we could both check out the DoCoMo product. I arrived about fifteen minutes before our arranged meeting time, as I had many questions to ask. I went straight up to the young woman at the reception desk and began my barrage of questions.

“Hi, I’m meeting a friend here, can you check to see if she’s checked into her room yet – I’m only getting voicemail on her mobile.”

I told the reception girl my friend’s name, and she said she hasn’t checked in yet. 

I asked, “how do you know she hasn’t checked in yet, do you have sensors in the room?”

“No according to my computer she hasn’t checked in yet”. The receptionist didn’t get my question. I had to be clearer, "what if my friend used your smartphone self check-in function, and bypassed the reception desk here, would you know or not if she had checked in to her room by having sensors on the room door or in the room that were wi-fi connected that picked up movement in the room notifying you that she had checked in?” I really had to spell it out to her.

“No there are no sensors in the room”, she responded quickly.

“So you don’t really know if she has checked in or not”.

“No we know she hasn’t checked in”.

“How? She could’ve used your smartphone self check-in function.” It felt like we were going around in circles here.

“No smartphone self check-in is not working at the moment”

“What? Its not working! Really, why not?” I was not convinced of her answer, so I added, “I read about your smartphone check-in in all the newspapers and the reporter on the news was using it?”

“Yes it was working, but it’s not working now because we doing some upgrades to IOS and the technology”, she sounded very sure of her answer.

“When will it be working?”

“We don’t know yet.”

“Ok, so I guess my friend will have to check in here at the desk and you will give her an RFID smartcard to access her room, it is RFID smartcard right, or do you use NFC technology?”

She reached for a box nearby full of smartcards, and said "we use these cards here.”

“So they are RFID right?”

“I don’t know what RFID means?”, she looked confused.

This was going nowhere in a hurry. I could clearly see I was asking all the questions to the wrong person. I thanked the girl and went outside to call my friend again, but she still wasn't answering. She might still be flying, or fighting her way through the airport, I thought. The G20 is on at the moment.

After a few minutes I was determined I was going to get some answers to my questions about their smartphone technology from the hotel staff. So I went back into the hotel and I saw a man dressed smartly in a suit with a Next hotel nametag standing by the elevators. I thought he must be the manager. I approached the man and asked, “Are you the manager here?” 

“I’m one of the managers yes”, he said, and now I was excited.

“I would like to use your smartphone self check-in service, can you explain to me how to do that – I’ve downloaded the app, but I can’t get the app to work, and one of your receptionists told me that it’s not working”.

The Home page of the Next Hotel app

“Our smartphone key works sometimes”, said the manager with a wry smile.

“Ok right, so if I try and use it today, it might work? Can you show me how to use it now?”

“Sure, have you checked in yet?” he asked.

“No I haven’t but that’s the whole point right?" I paused and waited for a response. With no response coming, I continued, "I don’t want to check-in at the reception desk, I want to smartphone self check-in.”

“Yes, just wait here Sir, and I’ll go to the desk and get your reservation number.”

“Hang on, shouldn't you have already emailed, or texted me the reservation number? or should you have already sent it to my friend who made the booking – why are you getting it now, has the room not been allocated yet?”

“No the room has been allocated sir, but we don’t email or text the reservation number to guests.”

“Well how am I supposed to get it?”

“You have to ring up the reception desk, or go to the reception desk to get it.”, I wanted to slap my head.

“But I want to avoid your reception desk- isn’t that the whole point of your smartphone self check-in product.”

“Just wait here Sir and I will be right back with your reservation number – what is the name of your friend who has made the booking?”

I told him, and then he went over to the reception desk and tapped around on his computer for a minute or two. Just as he was attempting to come back to me with a piece of paper in his outstretched hand, he got distracted by another guest at the desk asking him a bunch of questions. 

The piece of paper with my reservation number and name (blurred to protect the innocent)

I took a moment to have a look around the hotel lobby, and noticed some large computer screens and some big slots at the bottom of some desks. I figured they must be the self check-in kiosks. There were no signs saying self check-in though, which I thought was odd. They were also hidden around a corner.

Finally the manager came over to me and gave me a piece of paper with a 6 digit’s written on it, and my friend’s last name, “Here you are Sir, you just need to enter this on the homescreen on the app to use our smartphone services including the smartphone keys”.

“Great thanks”, I was eager to learn about their kiosk as much as there app, so I asked, “before you show me how to use the app, can you show me how to check-in on your kiosks over there?”

We walked over to the kiosks together. The TV screens were touchscreens. He touched one and a big box came up that said ‘enter your reservation number here’, and below that another said, ‘enter your last name here’. 

There was a final box that asked for the last four numbers of your credit card. This was going to stump me, as my friend had made the booking with her credit card, and I didn't know her credit card number, and she still had not arrived yet.

I stepped closer to the touchscreen and asked the manager, “Ok, so I enter this number you have just given me, and not the reservation number I received when I made the booking at Expedia.”

‘That’s right sir – that’s our reservation number. We have to generate a new reservation number for you through our system and website as Expedia uses another reservation number.”

“Oh, yes, so Expedia doesn’t provide you with the email and text of the guest right, so that’s why you can’t send it to them right?”

“Yes Sir that is correct.”

“Some Online Travel Agencies do provide emails and phone numbers though right?”, I asked him puzzlingly.

“Yes, but our systems don’t communicate with them”.

I wanted to tell him that we had built a self check-in system that does interface with Expedia, and other Online Travel Agencies, and that we can pull the phone number and/or email address from these agencies and automatically email and text a new reservation number to the guest, but I held myself back. Besides I was having too much fun to give him my sales pitch yet. The manager smiled at me and asked, “so if you would like to enter your details in the boxes here, I’ll show you how to self check-in here at the kiosk.”

“But I want to use my smartphone to check-in and open the room door, that kiosk machine there is just going to spit me out a keycard right?”

“Yes Sir, the keycard comes out right here”, he pointed to a cavity the size of a tissue box, “and here is  the scanner underneath”. There was a scanner built into the base of the cavity, which I thought was neat – you wouldn’t have even noticed it unless he pointed it out.

The reception desk at the Next Hotel, just to the right were the kiosks.

 “And you put your credit card in here”, said the Manager, pointing to another cavity.

I wasn’t ready to have a go at entering my details into the kiosk machine as I did not have my friends credit card number. I didn’t want to tell the manager that information yet, so I needed to stall him. I had plenty more questions to stall him with.

“So if I’m checking in here at this kiosk", I began slowly, "how do you know that I’m not a 13 year old child – you know its illegal for you to allow a minor under 16 to check-in on a kiosk to your hotel. Do you have another scanner somewhere to capture the ID of the person checking in on this kiosk here?”

“No sir, the booking was made with a credit card, and you have to be over 18 to get a credit card, so we know the person must be over 18”.

Just as I thought of a hundred scenario’s that I could’ve argued with him on this point, such as what if a kid had borrowed their mothers credit card or whatever, I heard a voice over my shoulder that I recognized. My friend had finally arrived and she was at the reception desk checking in.

“Ah my friend has arrived”, I turned away from the kiosk, walked over to the reception desk and greeted my friend.

I asked the girl behind the reception desk if she could show my friend how to use the smartphone self check-in app so she can use that to open her room door. My friend pulled out her iPhone and gave it to the receptionist. The receptionist used this moment as an opportunity to turn on the hotels free wi-fi, and to give the spiel about free wi-fi. But when the receptionist opened the App store on my friends iPhone, we hit another snag. It was asking for the iTunes password so she could download the app. But my friend had forgotten her password for iTunes. So we abandoned the idea of my friend using her iPhone as a key.

Just as the receptionist was starting to explain a bunch of other things about the hotel to my friend, I pulled out my phone and entered in my reservation number from the piece of paper the manager had given me earlier. 

Then I typed in my friend’s last name. But there was still the box at the bottom asking me for the last four digits of her credit card number. 

I turned to the Manager who was observing the check-in process which had been underway for about 4 minutes now, and asked him, “So I can’t use this app unless I enter in her credit card details right?”

“No she has checked in now, so you don’t need to enter her credit card details, you should be able to enter the app now”.

Hmm – I was confused. I can get into the app more easily after I’ve checked in at the front desk? Again was there something I was missing here? My mission here is to use the app to check-in and open my room door.

Anyway, I tried to remain focused as I entered in the details on the app. Within a couple of seconds, I was at last inside the hotel app. 

My timing was good as my friend had just finished checking in and she was ready to now go to her room and dump her bags. All the paper forms had been filled out, deposits on credit cards taken, details of the hotel explained, and at last it was time to go to the room. So yes, it was time to finally try out the smartphone keys.

The manager was kind enough to carry my friends bags up to her room for her, and that was just perfect for me, as I had many more questions to ask.

I just had to slip one last question in for the girl at the front desk though before I left, “have many people been using your smartphone self check-in service since you opened a month ago, is everyone warming to it?” I finished my question with a smile.

“Most people like to check-in the traditional way at the front desk”, she responded.

I nodded my head disappointingly, but I wanted more, and the girl at the desk knew it. And so she suddenly launched into this long story excitedly about a guest yesterday who actually managed to get into his room and call her from the room saying he was already in the room without any support from hotel staff. The way she told the story was as if this was perhaps the one and only guy who had successfully managed to smartphone self check-in without any hotel staff support.
In the lift on the way to the room with the Manager and my friend, there was general chitchat about how long we are staying; why we were here in Brisbane; if we had stayed here before. You know the kind of chitchat that you have with the reception desk when you check-in. 

This was precisely the kind of chit chat I was trying to avoid by doing a smartphone self check-in. Don’t get me wrong I love a bit of chit chat like the next person, but on this occasion I simply wanted to see how everything worked, so I stayed quiet.

On the walk from the lift to the room door, I pulled out my phone again and opened the hotel app. When we got to our room, I held the phone out to the manager and asked, “Ok so can we open the room door now with my smartphone – so what button do I press?”

I couldn’t see any button that looked like a key or a padlock, or anything on the homepage of the app that said something like key, or push here to open/unlock door.

I gave the Manager my phone and he scrolled left and right on the app home page and it revealed another bunch of menu buttons. There were some buttons that said 'Television', another that said 'lights', and another that said 'temperature'. The manager scrolled left and right into these menu bars a few times, and soon he looked as confused as I was.

One of the side menu bars.

“The button to open the door is supposed to be here” he said.

Just to be clear, on the home page there was a couple of buttons, but there was nothing there to tell you to swipe left or right to get to the menu-bars.
I looked back at my friend, who was looking a bit tired, and frustrated, so I suggested to the manager still playing with my phone, “don’t worry about it, we’ll just use the smartcard”.

So my friend went in to her hotel room, and I suggested I would stay at the entrance and play with the app and the lock.

Whilst my friend settled into her room, I got the app out and began exploring it. Whilst doing this, I could hear mumblings of the manager talking behind the closed door. He was probably explaining all the room features and smartphone controls.

The more I explored the app, the more I was impressed - there were a lot of neat features in there. About 10 on off buttons to turn off different lights in the room, ‘art light’, floor light, bathroom light. Etc,  There was a picture of a thermostat, which I could control the temperature in the room with. There was a remote control for the TV button, with all the channels and the logo’s all listed there. This part of the app was simply brilliant. There was even a section called “mood” where you had choices about turning on TV and this light or that light, and set the temperature to 22 C. Then when I scrolled back to the other screen, suddenly there was a menu available called Mobile key. I don’t know how or why, but suddenly the menu-bar that the manager was looking for, and for which could open our room, had appeared. We were getting close.

Some of the screenshots of the Next app as shown in Google Play

Just as I was about the hit the mobile key menu button, the door swung open and the Manager led my friend out the room.

“So I’ve got the mobile key menu here now, what do I do next, just hold my phone up like this to the top of the lock, and it will open right?” I reached forward towards the lock with my phone.

“Yes, but you first have to confirm your subscription and get a 4 digit subscription number texted to you?”

What? A subscription – was there more forms I had to fill out before I could get my smartphone key?

You had to fill out a subscription screen to get your OTP password texted to you to enter in the form to open your door. If you disconnect from the app, or if your battery dies, you have to go through this everytime.

I opened the Mobile Key menu, and I was asked to do the following;
-choose the country I was in,
-enter my phone number
-enter my email address.

When I got to the bottom of the screen there was the text; 

Would you like to use a PIN code for additional security’.

I filled in all the details but had to ask the question about this PIN code to the manager, “What is the PIN code for additional security, do I want to tick yes or no for this one?”

“Put no for that one sir”. So I clicked no, and then hit the ‘subscribe button’.

I got a message on the screen saying;
‘you will receive a password by SMS. Please enter the code to proceed'.

Within a few seconds I had received a text message from a long international looking number that read;
‘One Time Password; 2203’

So I entered the number in the field that said enter your OTP, and then a new window opened that had a picture of a key. I pressed the key.

‘So now I just hold it up to the door here like this”, I asked the manager extending my phone to the door for about the third time. Was this finally it? I thought.

The manager stepped forward between me and door, “first you must press this button here”. He pressed a button down on the device at the top of the lock, and an orange light began flashing.

“You should hear a noise now, and hold the part of your phone where you put your ear to the orange light, and it should open”.

I did as he instructed. It didn't open. I couldn't hear a noise. I tried again. But nothing. Then I got an error message that said;

 ‘error, please check with the front desk’.

Was it over – had my smartphone key and smartphone self check-in finally failed?

The manager turned to me, smiled and asked. “Your friend told me that your company also makes digital keys?”

My cover was blown.

The lock and the Openways device ontop of the lock

“Yes our company does make digital keys” I smiled at him, “we’ve had them installed for a year, and we haven’t had one problem or one complaint, and they work everytime.”
I couldn’t help myself – I had to get a plug in here.

At this stage all of us had come to the conclusion that we’d given it our best shot and we weren't going to be able to open the room door with our smartphone key. So I thanked the manager and he was on his way.

My friend went back inside the room to get her handbag, and then we went down to the hotel restaurant and had lunch. We debriefed about our experience.
After lunch when it was time to pay the bill, I asked the waitress, “can we pay for the bill with the app?”

She smiled,  and asked, “there is an app?!”

I couldn’t work out if she was serious or just joking.

I did ask one final question to the manager before he left and that was “what company supplies your smartTV?” It was Samsung. So I said, “So Samsung supplies your SmartTV’s, DoCoMO supplies your wi-fi and some interfaces, your locks are supplied by Assa Abbloy, Openways supplies the device ontop of the locks, and you’ve probably using another company for your property management system, and Fingi supplies your app and some interfaces. 

The manager said “that is correct- there are many interfaces that our IT team have been trying to sort out of the last month”.

This self check-in system is supposed to save time for the staff and for the guest, but ironically as you can see if you’re read this far, it has caused the staff and the guest to spend more time and effort and money to try and make it work.

FOOTNOTE (and a self-gratuitous company plug); with our smartphone self check-in system after you make a booking at Expedia or other Online Travel Agencies, you will automatically receive an email from our software, or within 24 hours of the booking with a reservation number and instructions on how to locate your room, and automatic room allocation. You then go to your room and enter the reservation number on the keypad on the room door, and the door opens and you go in. You have now smartphone self checked in and you can change your reservation number to a four digit PIN that you remember on the keypad by first entering your reservation number, and then hitting * and then entering your new PIN number of your choice. At check-out time your PIN number will no longer work and you leave. You can bypass the reception desk, its safe, and that’s it!

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