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05/10/2021

How Hotels Can Develop an Effective COVID-19 Vaccine Verification System

Should hoteliers decide to implement a vaccination or testing requirement, the key will be developing an adaptable and scalable verification system.  
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As demand returns across the hospitality sector, hotels face the increasingly complex challenge of maintaining a safe operating environment amid higher occupancy volumes. In turn, industry leaders are in the process of developing systematic strategies to verify incoming guests are either fully vaccinated or COVID-19 negative. Some establishments, from luxury resorts to business-class motels, are considering the integration of verification systems that can authenticate guest vaccination records and test results at check-in.

However, before coming to a decision, hoteliers should assess several important variables in order to identify the most sensible approach to vaccine verification – abiding by a delicate balance of efficiency and equity that takes public concerns of privacy, cybersecurity, fair accessibility and ease of use into account. Should they decide to implement a vaccination or testing requirement, the key will be developing an adaptable and scalable verification system.  

The Benefits of Vaccination Requirements

First, it’s important to understand that there isn’t a universal vaccine certification system –  they differ by country, and even by state in some cases. For example, in March, China announced the creation of mandatory “international travel health certificates” that exempt vaccinated citizens from pandemic-era travel restrictions. The European Union also unveiled plans for a digital certification system it hopes will be online by the summer travel season. And Israel, which leads the world in inoculation rates, has implemented a “green passport” that allows vaccinated individuals to freely re-enter public settings such as gyms, restaurants, concerts and indoor events.

In the U.S., the Biden Administration has quelled the notion of a federally mandated vaccine certification system, indicating organizations in the private and non-profit sectors will be responsible for implementing their own vaccination standards and verification protocols. In many cases, vaccine certification systems could produce a wide range of benefits for the hospitality sector by:   

  • eliminating quarantine obligations for international travelers
  • easing tensions among hotel staff members
  • providing guests with peace of mind
  • generating pathways to profitability as occupancy levels increase

Understanding the Pitfalls

There are several vaccine certification frameworks under consideration, including:

  • A smartphone app (digital vaccine certificate) that syncs with digital ledger technology (DLT) solutions and confirms identity through password-protected physical log-in capabilities. By scanning a digital QR code or barcode, hoteliers can securely retrieve the guest’s identity information and vaccination records.
  • A durable physical card made of PVC plastic that includes a scannable QR code or barcode to confirm prior vaccination but doesn’t give third parties access the cardholder’s data without consent.
  • A handwritten paper card (which most U.S. vaccination administrators currently issue) or a printed piece of paper that doesn’t contain extensive identity data or health records –  only proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within a certain time period. 

Because hoteliers will not necessarily have control over the type of credential a guest may be issued, anyone with a verification requirement will need to be prepared to accommodate both digital and physical certificates. Of course, if there is an opportunity to work with credentialing entities to design a universally accepted system framework, it is best to advocate for one that creates more trust in the authenticity of the certificates and ease in the verification process. For example, smartphone apps, automated data capture and DLT-based solutions may be most effective for enhancing efficiency and combating fraud, but widespread data privacy and inequity concerns have made it a polarizing topic among Americans. Requiring digital vaccine certificates could hinder hotels’ average daily rates by:

  • deterring customers who are uncomfortable with the concept of digital health records.
  • deterring senior citizens, travelers from impoverished communities, and others who don’t have access to smartphones or don’t know how to use them.

The paper card vaccine certification system is likely the most simplified and privacy-protected option; albeit its susceptibility to fraud, damage, illegible handwriting and error-prone manual data capturing render it unfit for consistent use on a mass scale. Nevertheless, it may be the option vaccine administrators choose to leverage long term. Therefore, collaboratively working with government bodies, healthcare providers and retailers to add a QR code or barcode to the physical certificate could significantly reduce these risks and make verification as simple as it would be with a digital certificate. Encouraging vaccination facilities to print barcoded labels that can be added to an individual’s travel passport or ID card could be equally effective at improving vaccine verification for hoteliers and others implementing a vaccination requirement for customers.

Preparing for Multiple Formats

While each hotelier will ultimately be able to determine what type of vaccine credential it will accept, the system will need to be compatible with all potential formats. For example, front desk attendants or access control teams should be equipped with handheld mobile computers, tablets or standalone barcode scanners to retrieve data from an incoming guest’s digital or physical certificate and authenticate their proof of vaccination or test results without revealing extensive personal information and/or health records. To verify identity and reduce fraud, guests should be required to simultaneously submit a photo ID with their vaccine credentials or test results.  Taking this approach can help streamline workflows, automate data capture, combat fraud, alleviate cybersecurity threats, preserve privacy rights and establish an equitable environment –  thus maximizing ability to capitalize on rising demand.

Hotels should keep in mind that not all guests will be able to acquire a barcoded vaccine certificate, which magnifies the need to have policies in place that clearly outline verification protocols. If barcode authentication is required, how will it be communicated to incoming guests before they arrive at the hotel? Can the certification system be tied to a guest’s loyalty account so that a physical card isn’t necessary? If certification cards without a barcode are accepted, how can hotels take steps to establish trust in authenticity? These are the types of questions that should be considered as hotels find ways to streamline and automate authentication without sacrificing privacy, equity or ease of use could be the best path forward.