What’s behind the slow rollout of mobile keys?

The technology that enables us to use our smartphones as door keys was first introduced in the hotel industry by Starwood in 2014. Guests needed to be members of Starwood’s loyalty programme and have the Starwood Preferred Guest app downloaded on their phones.  Some major brands quickly followed suit, with Hilton introducing the technology the same year.

The pandemic subsequently galvanised interest in everything contactless and digital, including mobile keys, but the process of upgrading room locks across the industry is proving to be a slow one.

Andrew Evans is the CEO of Keystep Solutions, a global provider of hotel door lock technology that supplies most of the large hotel brands and independents.

He said: “The uptake of mobile keys is still incredibly low with very little traction especially in the luxury sector. The student accommodation sector has embraced mobile keys, but there are very little similarities between the two sectors in terms of operation and guest profile.”

Ninety percent of UK hotels are still operating on magnetic card locks or manual keys, according to Evans, and it’s a similar picture elsewhere in the world.

Although there was an uptick during the first Covid lockdown of operators moving to mobile keys, the market has now returned to a mindset of: “mobile keys are interesting, but not for us at the moment.”

Branded hotels are more likely to have adopted mobile key tech than independents, but there are still thousands of branded hotels that are using magnetic cards.

“It doesn’t matter what you do with the apps and the mobile key. The problem you’ve got is that the franchisees don’t want to spend £70,000 in a 150-bedroom hotel to change the door locks in the current climate. That’s the elephant in the room,” said Evans.

Magnetic swipe cards were first introduced in the 1980s. Originally created for data storage rather than operating door locks, this is the same tech that operates credit and debit cards.

Many hotels are using magnetic lock systems well beyond their typical 20-year lifespan and one drawback is that cards become demagnetised and insecure.

What to prioritise

There is a mindset amongst some hoteliers to squeeze every bit of usability out of their investments, noted John Burns, president, Hospitality Technology Consulting: “When we invest in technology, we tend to wring every bit of value out of it we can. In other words, we hold onto it until it falls over and dies.”

On several fronts, this tendency presents hoteliers with challenges and important decisions about what to prioritise.

“Hotels have got massive challenges,” said Evans. “PMS at the end of their lives, phone systems at the end of their lives as well as failing legacy magnetic cards systems with no upgrade path. Unless they move to RFID locks in the next three to five years, they will find it almost impossible to operate their hotels.”

Radio Frequency ID key cards came into use in the 2000s and contain a small chip that opens the lock by contact. This is the newest form of lock technology that allows for the use of mobile keys.

The 320-bedroom Hilton Glasgow is one of a handful of Hiltons in the UK and Germany that are still owned by the brand on long leases. With direct investment from Hilton, general manager Calum Ross has recently overseen a major refurbishment at the property and he is a big fan of mobile keys.

“The tech has really stabilised now so when I’m travelling that’s what I use. Particularly if you’re a business client, it’s fantastic,” he said. However, at his hotel only 10% to 15% of guests use mobile keys, he added: “But we’ll have a real push on it this year.”

Evans added: “Some of our hotel customers who did implement mobile keys during the initial Covid outbreak have stopped using it as the uptake by guests was so low it didn’t make economic sense to continue.”

Low guest uptake

What are the reasons for such low guest uptake? One main reason has been that guests who are not members of a loyalty scheme are unwilling to download yet another app onto their phones. But the technology has now moved on so that mobile keys can be assigned to phones with or without an app.

Some guests may find a plastic key simpler to use and they can still enjoy the advantage of pre-arrival check-in and pick up the key either from a self-serve kiosk or receptionist.

What is going to change in the coming years? Evans advised that those hotels still using magnetic cards will first need to migrate to RFID locks and benefit from their higher reliability before making the jump to mobile key and full system integration.

In 2021 Apple launched support for hotel mobile keys to be stored within Apple Wallet alongside other digital keys and IDs. So far, Hyatt is understood to be the only brand to embrace this capability. 

There has been talk about guests carrying a single ‘skeleton’ key that would give them access to whichever hotel room they are staying in, rather than having multiple single-brand keys.

For now, iPhone users can store an assortment of digital keys in Apple Wallet and their phone automatically presents the right key when they arrive at the door, whether it is the door to their car, workplace, hotel or home.

The use of digital access systems in domestic settings is still rare, though. Evans has thought about installing one at his home, but his wife is not keen: “She says: ‘What if it breaks and I can’t get in, or I don’t have my phone?’ Even though the locks are incredibly reliable, people just don’t like change.”

In the 1950s, hotels were one of the few places people could watch colour television. Today, some innovative hotel brands still deliver exciting glimpses of the future, upholding this cutting-edge tradition. But most hotels are working hard simply to keep up with domestic consumer trends, such as television streaming services, and mobile keys are not a domestic consumer trend yet.

“I think what will happen is that when we have these RFID mobile-enabled locks on our front doors, we’ll want them in hotels too. It’ll take another ten years for the technology to mature,” reckoned Evans.

In the meantime, the investment hotels make in RFID mobile-enabled locks will still be about giving guests a choice. Evans said: “It is important that guests are not forced to use mobile keys. They need to be given a traditional alternative of going to reception and getting a key card. Batteries go flat, phones are lost or stolen, and networks fail from time to time. You need to have a contingency in place for system failures to prevent guest disruption.”