Smartphones as Hotel Room Keys? Not So Fast

Last Updated Jun 2, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Hotel security, especially digital security, can be pretty lax. So why would anyone want to give hotels even more of their electronic information? Apparently InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) didn't get the memo, and believes the demand for smartphone room keys is so high that it wants to try out a system at two of their Holiday Inns.

IHG will be testing a software application from Open Ways, which is available as an app for iPhone, Blackberry and Android platforms and would allow smartphone users to bypass the front desk altogether. From Hotel Industry Musings:

In short, the technology sends an encrypted, unique audio code to a guest's phone prior to check-in. When played back outside the guestroom, the signal unlocks the door, letting the guest skip the front desk -- guests would also receive a text message with their room assignments -- while also eliminating the need for keycards, which is green and saves money.
A guest who uses the Open Ways app would have to book a room online before arriving to get a confirmation code.

The reasons that hotels want to use this system are valid ones -- it's slightly cheaper, it creates a base for direct-to-smartphone marketing and could boost early bookings. But it's the negative ones that should be more worrisome.

As we learned from Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, not all properties are as security-conscious as others. Also, hotels as a rule, are known as easy pickings for hackers looking to find credit card numbers and other forms of identification. Because many are independently owned and operated, not all hotels in the same chain will have the same amount of security. Hackers also target hotels not only because they give up the goods pretty easily, but on average it takes a hotel about five months to figure out they've been hacked.

So far, little is known about the Open Ways application, including its vulnerabilities and how it works in relation to the hotel system. (IHG says the blip that opens your room is a one-time sound that can't be used again, so a guest will have multiple beeps during a stay.) And while IHG made it clear that using the application was optional, several customers still expressed dismay at the prospect.

Lin Humphrey told me via email that he wouldn't use his phone as a key because he doesn't trust the technology. "On three instances, I have had hotels give out keys to my room to other guests, and once I was given a key to an occupied room (and got quite an eyeful). Unless there has been some type of advances in encryption and solid, reliable assurances doors could not be hacked with other devices, I am firmly against this idea."
At this point we don't know if there will be would-be prowlers hopefully beeping at locked hotel room doors or how glitchy the system could be. However, IHG is correct in only using the Open Ways app at two of its hotels before rolling it out to other venues. So far, however, the prediction is that it will be no more troublesome than the traditional cardkey -- which means there will be, on average, several audio keys or phones not working and annoyed customers at the front desk, the very place they may have been trying to avoid.

While bypassing the front desk may be appealing to some customers, it isn't something that should be embraced by the hospitality industry. The front desk should be the place for hotels to shine. It's usually the guest's first impression of the hotel and its staff and will be the lingering memory he will have of his stay. Hotels shouldn't be discouraging check-ins for that reason alone.

As for the Open Ways smartphone app, I think hotels should move slowly when adopting a new technology that could change their business model, especially if the technology could leave customers behind.

Photo: William Hook