Ins & Outs of Next-Gen Locking

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Ins & Outs of Next-Gen Locking

By Julie Ritzer Ross, Contributing Editor - 09/18/2015
There is a real and growing trend among hotel operators to deploy new mobile key and RFID-based guestroom locking technologies. Roughly 34% of hotel operators surveyed for Hospitality Technology’s 2015 Lodging Technology Study reported upgrading room locks to a mobile or RFID platform.  Consumer research also indicates that the time is ripe for change. Sixty percent of respondents to Gartner (www.gartner.com) subsidiary Software Advice’s (www.softwareadvice.com) Guest Preferences for Technology Use in Hotels IndustryView study deemed themselves “more likely” to select a hotel that lets guests check-in and open doors with a smartphone than one that doesn’t.
Locking vendors have come to market with several mobile access solutions in anticipation of this growing trend. Among them are the Mobile Solutions platform from Kaba Lodging (www.kabalodging.com), Mobile Access for Hospitality from ASSA ABLOY Hospitality (www.assaabloyhospitality.com) and DirectKey from Onity (www.onity.com). RFID-enabled door locks from all three vendors can be upgraded for keyless mobile entry.

On the operator side, major players, including Starwood Hotels and Resorts (www.starwoodhotels.com) and Hilton Hotels & Resorts (www.hilton.com) have made headlines recently as they heed the call for mobile guestroom access, however, both brands have made the technology an amenity only available to loyalty members at this time. Starwood teamed with ASSA ABLOY to roll out SPG Keyless to its preferred guests (read more about Starwood’s rollout in the cover story on page 10). Hilton similarly is rolling out a proprietary digital key technology, enabling HHonors guests to simply and securely use smartphones to unlock hotel room doors. By the end of this year, the technology will be available across the U.S. properties of four brands: Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts and Canopy by Hilton.

For Hilton, digital key is the next step in making the smartphone the “remote control” to a guest’s entire stay experience. “By offering our HHonors members the ability to manage and customize their stay experience via the palm of their hand, we hope to foster loyalty and drive their affinity to our brands,” Dana Shefsky, director of digital product innovation, notes. “We believe that the next-generation of customer engagement depends heavily on giving guests easy-to-use tools to help them personalize and control their stay experience. As more travelers rely on smartphones to manage their lives, we view technology as a vehicle that can help take the friction out of their travels.”

For The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center (www.woodlandsresort.com), “keeping up with the big hotel chains” ranked among motivations for implementing the cloud-based Kaba platform, says Greg Parsons, general manager of The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center and vice president of hospitality for The Howard Hughes Corporation (www.howardhughes.com), which owns the property. To avail themselves of virtual key entry, guests book a room on The Woodlands’ website and download a free The Woodlands Resort Mobile Key app. When the room is ready for check-in, the cloud-based system pushes an encrypted virtual Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-enabled key to the individual’s phone. Accessing the room (as well as some elevators, the concierge floors, and hotel entrances during off hours) entails holding the smartphone to which the key has been downloaded up to the door’s lock.

“Whether they are business or leisure travelers, most of our guests expect complete mobile accessibility,” Parsons states. “It was our belief that if we didn’t provide it — and the better guest experience that comes with it — we would compromise our competitive edge.”

Shoring up guest security and gaining operational control also precipitated the installation and according to Parsons both objectives have been attained. “Magnetic stripe keys aren’t all that difficult to duplicate or to compromise in some other way, but it’s impossible to clone a virtual key because of all the encryption,” he notes. “Plus, with this system, I can (harness) the cloud to remotely track which employees have been in which rooms and when.”

Addressing security concerns
With the benefits of mobile keys come challenges and concerns, primarily because mobile keys are delivered over open networks to third-party mobile devices controlled by guests rather than by properties themselves. Accordingly, Parsons and his team at The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center sought a mobile key system that would yield end-to-end security by leveraging a secure credential provider to deliver keys to guests’ smartphones, as well as by enabling encrypted storage of keys on guests’ smartphones along with encrypted communication of credentials from guests’ smartphones to door locks. Mobile access authorizations are encrypted in the Kaba system using the Legic Connect (www.legic.com) cloud solution. Secured authorization is delivered to the hotel guest, and only decrypted within individual door locks. Full 256-bit bi-directional encryption and key storage further ups the security ante, as does the requirement that guests enter a self-selected password into the app as a prerequisite for viewing their assigned room number.

Selecting a system with a configuration that prevents accidental opening of locks from inside guest rooms and potential access by intruders is also imperative to ensuring secure usage. With some locking systems, this may happen if a guest answers a knock on his room’s door and the smartphone in his pocket picks up a key signal before he can check who is there. Options like the Mobile Access for Hospitality system installed at Starwood properties are designed so that no lock can be opened unless the guest has tapped the appropriate smartphone against a pad component on the outside of the door.

Even technologically savvy guests may be hesitant to avail themselves of mobile guestroom access if they are not educated about it. Accordingly, individuals who download The Woodlands Resort Mobile Key App can view step-by-step instructions on how to operate the room locks. Guests can also view (and touch) a “mock-up” of the keyless lock at the front desk. “Very often after seeing and touching it, guests who haven’t previously requested mobile access make the switch at check-in,” Parsons reports.

Ramping up to locking mobility with RFID
For some hotel operators, deploying next-gen RFID-enabled guest room locking systems constitutes a more appropriate approach than jumping on the mobile key bandwagon. In these cases, next-gen RFID locking solutions that can be programmed remotely and integrate with other hotel management systems can enhance the guest experience while yielding operational advantages.
Hotel management company White Lodging (www.whitelodging.com) has standardized on RFID locking technology for replacement systems as well as new construction. Kaba’s Saflok Quantum II and RT RFID locks are now found on guestroom doors at Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, and other flagged properties managed by the firm.

Demand from the hotel brands it manages spurred the company’s migration to RFID-based locking technology, says Thomas Riegelman, White Lodging’s vice president of engineering and facilities management. “They wanted a higher level of security not found with magnetic stripe keys, which are fairly easy to duplicate,” he explains. At the same time, there was a desire to enhance guest convenience by eliminating the headaches that ensue when magnetic stripe key cards are demagnetized following contact with cell phones or otherwise fail to function.

“We like to be reasonably current with technology, but not too ‘out there,’” Riegelman notes. “RFID is a happy medium between magnetic stripe and mobile; (the latter) is a great choice for some, but for us, it was a bit too big a leap.” Riegelman claims the implementation has improved guest security, with no hacking incidents reported.

Remote key programming and the ability to integrate next-gen RFID-based options with other hotel systems yield advantages that transcend security such as increased guest satisfaction and control over the front and back of the house. At White Lodging properties, Riegelman states, guests “not only say they like not worrying about getting to their rooms and finding that their key doesn’t work; they’re happy if there’s some other type of malfunction, it can usually be fixed from the front desk, without forcing them to come downstairs.” Kaba Messenger, a feature of the Quantum II locking system, enables such remote problem remediation by facilitating bi-directional online communication between guestroom door locks and the central system that controls them.

Royal Caribbean International (www.royalcaribbean.com) has partnered with ASSA ABLOY Hospitality on the development of RFID-enabled wristbands for use on its MS Anthem of the Seas cruise ship. Passengers will utilize the wristbands to unlock the VingCard Signature RFID locks on cabin doors and access other areas of the vessel, such as the spa, plus track bar and restaurant tabs and charge goods and services to onboard accounts.

Onity has also added RFID offerings. RFID-enabled locks in the vendor’s Trillium Lock Series, introduced at HITEC (www.hitec.org), integrate with its new OnPoint Enterprise front-desk solution. The latter lets hotels manage guest check-in and room operations from a tablet or mobile device.

Ultimately, both mobile keys and RFID rollouts require guests to be willing to try and trust the technology and staff to adapt to the technology. That often means adjusting decades of procedures such as physically handing over a hotel room key. “We find the right way to infuse traditional elements of the hospitality experience into the digital user experience and we ensure each of our team members has the proper training and know-how to serve our guests,” Hilton’s Shefsky acknowledges. “Both are not easy feats, but ultimately it’s about creating a user-friendly solution capable of streamlining the way we travel for years to come.”