Keycard ‘revolution’ at Hilton’s front door
29 JULY 2014 6:05 AM
Hilton’s move to bring smartphone keys and a personalized check-in process to travelers is the beginning of a revolution in the hotel industry, according to company executive Jim Holthouser.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Jim Holthouser believes a revolution is coming to the hotel industry’s front door—literally.
That revolution might have begun on Monday as Hilton Worldwide Holdings announced a portfolio-wide plan to roll out technology that would allow guests to use their smartphones as keys. The company also is widely introducing the ability for travelers to check-in early and reserve a specific room and make special requests of their stay.
Eventually, Holthouser, Hilton’s executive VP of global brands, said other hotel companies will come out with similar announcements. Other industries, such as airlines that allow passengers to choose their seat ahead of time, went down this road long ago, so it’s only a matter of time before it’s also widely adopted in the hotel sector.
Hilton’s competitors have announced similar plans on smaller scales. For instance, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide earlier this year was testing the use of smartphone keys at two Aloft-branded hotels in New York and Cupertino, California.
Holthouser said Hilton will benefit from being the first to offer smartphone keys on a wide scale. “We have the luxury of being the first and getting scale,” he said.
Most of the rooms in Hilton’s portfolio will be equipped with the smartphone technology by 2016. In the United States, the company’s Waldorf-Astoria, Conrad and Hilton properties will be first in line.
The process works via Bluetooth and is enabled by a chip implanted in existing door locks. Holthouser said the addition of the smartphone-key capability will come at a “nominal” cost for owners, though he declined to identify exactly how much the work will cost. He said a lot of the groundwork for the technology has been laid in previous renovation cycles.
Hilton will use third-party companies to install the devices, as the work can be complex, Holthouser said. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Hilton has spent $550 million since 2007 in laying the groundwork for the technology.
Beta testing has taken place during the past two years, with much of it happening at the Hilton in McLean, Virginia. “That’s one of our big laboratories,” Holthouser said.
Holthouser knows there is trepidation in the industry over what might become of the traditional hotel front desk. He does not believe the front desk is going anywhere, but the role of the staff person standing behind that desk is likely to change.
“The job is going to become less transactional and much more of a hospitality ambassador, if you will,” he said. “It will always be with us in some way, shape or form.”
As for security, Holthouser said Hilton officials would not be introducing the new technology if there were any concerns about guest safety.
“When you talk to the (IT) people who really know this sort of thing, they say the security of what we’re installing is as good if not better than the (magnetic strip keycards.)”
Holthouser said digital check-in’s application is more a representation of what’s already happening elsewhere in other sectors. He referenced that 80% of airline customers check-in and choose their seats without ever speaking with a desk agent.
“You can’t think of any industry that hasn’t been affected by the fusion of business and technology,” he said.
He added, “Customers today are far more discerning, more disciplined, and they’re increasingly digital.”
The service, available to all 40 million Hilton HHonors members, allows guests to sign into their account via their mobile device and pick the room they want. Travelers can also input any special requests they might have for their stay. Upon check-out, the guest can again bypass the front desk, with their folio being sent to their email address.
Hilton has been beta testing digital check-in capabilities for the past five or seven years at its Homewood Suites properties. The system was never heavily promoted, but, Holthouser said, “We put this into play and learned from it for a while.”