1. That’s when I first saw a smartphone. A colleague was one of those ‘early adopters’, always eager to try the latest fad, and keen to show off his newfound ability to get the latest football scores while out and about. Technology has moved on since then, and so has he, but somewhere in the world he may right now be flashing his current smartphone’s ability to unlock hotel doors in lieu of a room key.

SPG Keyless

Last November, Starwood Hotels and Resorts introduced a new smartphone app – SPG Keyless – which allows guests to check in online and then directly access their rooms on arrival using Bluetooth technology. Ten of the brand’s Aloft, W and Element hotels were chosen for the launch, but six months later there are now almost 120 participating properties. This feature is currently available only to members of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, but the initial interest seems strong as Eva Grzesik, a Starwood marketing spokesperson, told Hotelintel.co: “More than 130,000 members in 130 countries have registered for SPG Keyless.”

While Starwood may be committed to making a success of their Keyless program, customer reactions will also be influential in determining whether smartphone apps eventually become the norm. It is only to be expected that a number of bugs and anomalies will reveal themselves in the early days, and this has indeed been the case, keeping Starwood’s IT specialists busy working to ensure the app is fully compatible with the full range of mobile devices on the market and that all the glitches are ironed out.

Early comments on using the system itself suggest that some users have had difficulty positioning the phone correctly on their first attempts to activate the lock, especially when this must also be done in the elevator en route to the room. The fact that it’s necessary to navigate through several screens to reach the unlocking app has also been compared unfavorably with the simplicity of keycards. Another issue is that only one phone can be used per room, so in shared rooms the second guest still requires a keycard, making the system best suited to solo travelers.

The biggest factor, however, might be the purported benefit of avoiding the front desk for check in. The ability to go straight to the room and avoid waiting in line is a huge plus, but this is only possible in countries which don’t require guest ID to be verified by staff. If a passport has to be presented, that visit to the front desk can’t be skipped and the major selling point is lost.

RFID keycards

If smartphones really are the future, one man who might be deeply concerned is Steve Brooks, General Manager of RFID Hotel, the leading keycard manufacturer in the United States. However, Steve feels that smartphone access is really just “a way to get the business traveler to use the hotel chains’ ‘Preferred Guest Program’ reservation system.” This clearly offers certain advantages to the hotel, but in practical terms, keycards aren’t about to disappear. The RFID (radio frequency identification) keycards “have made the keycard nearly 100% reliable, and they can operate over 100,000 times without failure. That’s 200 times more than the old magnetic stripe cards, and guest satisfaction with the lock system is high.” Steve calculates the cost of using this technology at around $6 USD per room per year.

Equally as important though, Steve points out that with keycards, “the hotel gets to interact with guests at check in, and promote and sell additional services.” This relationship between the front desk and the customer really is then the crux of the matter. It seems that guests in the smartphone era can choose to avoid all human interaction while hoteliers can use the technology to provide an experience which can be individually tailored, yet somewhat remote and impersonal. Eva considered this final point, and then explained that Starwood didn’t see it quite that way. “The SPG Keyless technology frees up our front desk staff to give a much more personalized level of service, which is much harder when they’re standing behind a desk swiping credit cards and handing out keys.