The Future of the Room Key in the Age of COVID

The Future of the Room Key in the Age of COVID

July 22, 2020

The Future of the Room Key in the Age of COVID

July 22, 2020

Every crisis changes industry. With COVID-19, we’ve been hearing a great deal about contactless check-ins and digital keys, and this is understandable. The pandemic has made things difficult for both hoteliers and guests. There’s uncertainty and fear around experiences we previously enjoyed — a friendly greeting at check-in, a dip in the hotel pool… the breakfast buffet.

Instead we’re thinking of ways to minimise contact, and mobile/digital keys have come up a lot as a potential solution to social distancing norms as well as familiar problems with the old-fashioned hotel key card.

Plastic key cards have been used widely in the hotel industry for decades now, and while they’re light and cost-effective and customisable, they also mean queuing up at check-in (avoidable in a pandemic), they’re easy to lose, and environmentally unfriendly. Programming and disposing cards takes time and money that hotels could better spend on more high-impact guest activities.

With a digital key, in theory you could bypass the front desk and head straight to your room without a wait. No surfaces to touch. No face-to-face conversations. Mobile keys seem like the solution to all our troubles, and yet…

Mobile Room Keys: Slow Start… and Still no Finish

The best known mobile room key programmes like Hilton’s were launched almost five years ago, and they’re still not used across all properties (4,250 of a total of 6,100), or by all its guests. Marriott offers mobile keys only at a fraction of its locations worldwide.

For many hotels, initial costs are a hurdle. Hilton spent more than US$ 100 million to develop and install its digital key technology, as well as a further US$ 550 million on technology infrastructure.

Travellers haven’t been eager to adopt the technology for multiple reasons — everything from tech hassles (operational issues, incompatible devices, slow loading times) to some properties still requiring a stop at check-in to verify ID, or relying on physical keys to power in-room electric devices. Of course, with time and training, it’s possible hotel chains will iron out many of these technical and operational hurdles.

The bigger challenge I foresee is that it’s hard to persuade the average hotel guest to download a hotel app they will use only for a couple of days. Hilton and Marriott are actually the exceptions, since they’re based on larger loyalty programmes, but even loyalty rewards and presumed convenience haven’t been sufficient incentive for guests to switch to digital keys.

The Marriott Bonvoy App: Unlock Your Door With a Mobile Key

Marriott Bonvoy app unlocking hotel rooms with mobile keys

The Art of Hospitality in the Age of Apps and COVID

Market trends indicate that while up to 90% of hotel brands have their own mobile apps, most have only very low levels of in-stay engagement (<5%). The Hilton Honors and Marriott apps are the only ones to rank in the top 30 in the travel category on the Apple App Store. The Accor Live Limitless (ALL) app will most probably join the top 30 as well. But even here, downloads don’t actually translate to usage.

Top 25 travel apps in 2017, from vacation rentals and hotels to airlines and OTAs

This is not unexpected. Across geographies, even in the most digitally mature markets, apps need consistent and compelling benefits to drive usage. 61% of consumers prefer not to install a new app to communicate with a business. This seems to mirror hoteliers’ perspective. We’ve spoken to lots of hotels — they want to improve their hotel apps, but they don’t want their app to be the main point of contact with guests.

A sensible approach; hotels thrive on personalised service. Even in a pandemic, the last thing guests want is a purely transactional exchange that offers very little on a human level — this would be too much like staying in a bank, or a hospital.

Does Less Contact Have to Mean More Costs?

Hotels are expensive enough to run as it is, and in the current environment additional infra costs are likely unthinkable. Mobile room entry at its most basic requires replacing existing door locks with RFID enabled locks. Hotels, small or big are unlikely to want to invest in this tech, unless the payoffs are clear (or they’re already at the end of a 5/10 year replacement cycle). And security remains a concern — how do we guarantee security across all devices and all doors?

I do visualise residences and short term-lets as being a key area for mobile/digital key use. With medium to long-term stays and access to amenities, downloading an app does offer significant value to the average residential user and proprietor, but for hotel stays, the arguments are less persuasive.

What we need are pragmatic ways to use existing resources at minimal costs to rethink the service procedure and reduce points of contact, while still retaining the spirit of warmth and effortless convenience that make hotel stays memorable.

What Do Guests Actually Want? Why Presence Matters Most…

Beyond cleanliness and functional amenities, most hotel guests simply want to know they’ll be looked after. Guests come back when hotels are responsive to their needs, this means an engaged experience from start to finish, with every detail taken care of.

For hotels this might mean not relinquishing all control to an app. Efficiency, cleanliness, and safety are must-haves, but leaving the bulk of the guest experience to a mobile device might upend the defining elements of a hotel experience. Guests tend to remember when their app doesn’t open the door, but activates the elevator lock in the hotel lobby instead.

Going cashless and contactless doesn’t have to be too troublesome. We can take cue from cashless resorts as well as first movers in other sectors. Contactless services can be achieved with a QR code to check out menus and use a chatbot.

ServiceMobile KeyDual Key Card
Contactless check-inYes, requiring ID check
Recognition of all guestsYes
Personalised recommendations from staffYes, on staff device

Dual key card — one chip for the room and one chip for the environment; be it a lobby, spa, gym, or restaurant. When a guest approaches, staff are alerted to guest preferences immediately — this guest likes a caramel macchiato at breakfast. That one is allergic to sea food. A card can be programmed to open doors. All contactless, gathering enough insight along the way to keep staff informed, and guests happy. Technology that works invisibly, and means less work for guests, not more.


Financial Times - A british daily business newspaper publisher
Review: Hilton Digital Key - using your smartphone as your hotel room key
The 2 reasons I don't use Marriott mobile check-in
Image/Video Credit: Demo of The Marriott Bonvoy App--unlock your door with Mobile Key. Official The Marriott Bonvoy Mobile App
Hotels: Mobile Innovation 2017; 2019 State of Texting Report; The Great Divide of In-stay Guest Engagement: Mobile App vs. In-room Device