Will hotel room keys and front-desk checkin soon be obsolete?

Will hotel room keys and front-desk checkin soon be obsolete?

Starwood Hotels is offering digital room keys, mobile check-in and functionality through an Apple Watch app.

After traveling all day, the last thing you want to do is wait in a long line to check into your hotel. And when you finally get to the front desk, it seems like the hotelier has to type a million keystrokes into the computer before finally handing you your room key.

Starwood Hotels, a hotel chain with over 1,200 properties worldwide, is eliminating this process and other points of frustration with mobile and wearable technologies.

"The vision around mobile is that it will be the remote control for our guests on property. Period," says Starwood CIO, Martha Poulter. "We now have more folks visiting our website through mobile. So we are at that tipping point and it's a trend we see around the world."

Starwood guests at three of its hotel brands Aloft, Element and W can now skip the front desk check-in entirely with Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Keyless. First, guests have to download the SPG mobile app, sign in to their accounts, register their phones and opt into Keyless when prompted through a push notification. Before an upcoming stay, guests confirm their information, such as dates, expected arrival times and credit card information. Upon arrival, they use the SPG app to check in, and if a room is ready, they receive a room number, mobile key and a notification that lets them know if they can go right straight to the room or if they need to stop by the front desk first.

[Related News: Hilton and Starwood guests can soon unlock rooms with smartphones ]

"It's high-tech and high-touch," Poulter says. "We're giving guests the ability to bypass a key pain point."

Red light, green light

During the pilot program for Keyless, customers helped Starwood identify and fix a few hiccups. For example, at first, after scanning Keyless, the light on the hotel door handle turned the color amber, which was confusing to guests. They thought amber was too close to red; leading them to believe their mobile room key was denied. As a result, Starwood changed the light color to green.

Since being rolled out in November 2014, the Keyless program is available at more than 100 hotels and 190,000 guests have registered for it. But only guests who book directly through Starwood channels, such as its website and mobile app, can use Keyless. It isn't available to those who book through or other hotel websites.

Keyless also works via the Apple Watch. Poulter says the Apple Watch is a "skinny-down version of the mobile app," where guests can scan it to open their door and view upcoming reservations. The company is also exploring other features, such as enabling guests to buy drinks at the hotel bar through SPG on the Apple Watch.

Other hotels are rolling out similar capabilities. For example, Hilton Hotels now has digital check-in so guests can select their own rooms. Hilton is also piloting digital key and lock technologies.

Using analytics to price rooms

Starwood is additionally ramping up its data analytics to alleviate a common frustration for hotel workers: how to price hotel rooms each night. To address the issue, the company built and implemented its Revenue Optimization System (ROS), which Poulter says, helps with the age-old problem of getting "heads in beds."

Revenue managers at the hotels decide on the price of rooms each night based on a series of factors such as competitors' pricing, events in the area, weather and more. The system provides these managers with better insights, "what if" analysis and recommendations on how they should adjust prices on a given night.

[Related: Top hotels in the U.S. for busy IT execs]

"The complexity for us is pricing," Poulter says. "Having these tools in the hands of managers gives them better information to make decisions."

One Starwood hotel, the Four Points in Halifax, Nova Scotia, reports a 20 percent increase in revenue per available room and is now outperforming its competition by 20 percent per share, all because of the new revenue system, Poulter says. So far, over 700 hotels have the system and the company is rolling it out to 50-150 hotels each week.

What's next? Robotics and room service

Next up, Starwood is experimenting with sensors, perhaps using them to tell when guests leave their room and when it's OK for maintenance or housekeeping to enter. The company is also planning to expand the use of its robotic butler, which currently operates at its Cupertino Aloft hotel.

Poulter says they're always looking at ways data and technology can improve the guest experience and produce repeat customers. "The annoyance factor for guests is a big predictor of whether they will stay again. If you have something go a little bit wrong, you're done and if you have a choice you will go somewhere else," she says. "There's a lot of choice and we really need to, every time, hit the nail on the head from a guest experience perspective."

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