Hotel Online Special Report
Hotel Security:
The Evolving Electronic Lock
Special Report
By Elizabeth Lauer ( Update Plus) , Spring 1999

Hotel technology is often divided into three categories; technology for the guest, technology used internally, and technology that bolsters hotel relationships with the high tech world.  Perhaps more than any other hotel industry supplier, electronic door lock manufacturers have demonstrated a commitment to each of these areas of product development. 

The evolution of the electronic door locking industry began with guest security, and expanded to increase operational efficiencies available to property management through access control and system integration.  The industry now stands poised to enter the new millenium as a major technology provider, positioning hotels as key players in an era of increased electronic commerce. 

Few inventions have had such widespread and practical appeal to the hospitality industry.  Since the introduction of the recodable electronic door lock in the late 1970's, hotel security has been virtually transformed.  The focus at the time of inception was increased guest security, but the benefit to the property was quickly realized.  Hotel security experts, along with media pundits, the courts, and the insurance industry all agree - keycard locks, which can be easily changed so that every guest gets a new key, are the best way to boost security.  In fact, there is speculation that by the end of this decade, hotels that do not feature electronic locking mechanisms in guestrooms will be unable to obtain insurance.  Even the simplest of key card locks have been found to reduce break ins by up to 80%, reminding us that effective guestroom security is an essential part of the hospitality package.

Employee access control was one of the first system enhancements to increase the level of internal technology.  In order for a property to be maintained efficiently, hotel personnel require their own means of entry to rooms in which they must perform daily routines or tasks.  In the past, distribution of conventional keys to housekeepers, room service attendants, and maintenance personnel compromised guest belongings and increased the liability of the hotel.   In some instances of theft, the victim was often the hotel (where even the negligent customer is king), and claims went unchallenged.  The "burden of proof" is welcome by a hotel equipped with modern electronic locks, for the actual lock serves as a log, monitoring and recording up to 1,000 entries (about 100 days worth).  Many reputations have been restored and many a thankful employee has been cleared of suspicion due to the success of these products. Employee key cards can be coded to allow access only to their assigned units of responsibility and only during the hours of their shift.  Knowledge of these system capabilities may also serve as a deterrent to those less ethical.

At ILCO UNICAN, true on-line security systems are giving hotel operators even greater peace of mind.  Tom Caudill, VP of Sales and Marketing Worldwide for Lodging Products, describes the additional safety features of a monitoring system providing the status of every lock in the hotel.  Information conveyed by this system can be used to determine the occupancy of a room, which can be communicated with energy management systems.  Doors left ajar transmit an alarm, and a courtesy call ensues.   Master keys can be disengaged instantly from the main console, without having to delete the sequence from each lock, (a tedious task deplored by the Director of Security).

So how, you wonder, will the electronic door locking industry propel ours into the high tech global arena and a world of increased network usage?  The answer lies in smart card technology. 

"Smart card" is a generic term for a card the size and thickness of a credit or debit card embedded with a microprocessor chip.  The chip itself has intelligence and computational power similar to that of early personal computers. These powerful processing capabilities make smart cards much more secure than other types of cards presently in use.  They can handle encryption techniques that protect the information stored on the cards. 

Think of a smart card as a very small personal computer belonging only to you.  Because it's small enough to fit in your wallet, it's portable.  And like a personal computer, it can be programmed to serve many different purposes and do many different things.  Smart cards are currently being used to secure financial transactions, as stored value cards, for insurance identification, to store medical information and to personalize cellular phone communication from anywhere in the world.  The beauty of the smart card is that it can offer all of these applications with considerable information storage capacity and security. 

Phil Wilder, Director of Marketing for San Diego-based Computerized Security Systems, believes that the value added by smart card technology offers the hotel operator  "a revolutionary new way of marketing and merchandising to the guest".   In a world moving towards one-to-one marketing, smart cards hold the capability to customize and better serve individual needs.  The smart card can carry information that is only yours, such as travel preferences and loyalty program account information.  Programs and incentives are easily tailored to guests based on their own usage patterns of hotel services.  Smart cards can also provide more privacy and security in accessing payments and information services, because the microprocessor chip that holds the information cannot be easily duplicated. 

In July of 1998, Hilton Hotels International announced that the Hilton New York & Towers, the largest hotel in New York City, would become the first hotel in the nation to install a locking system fully integrated with true smart card capacity.  There are an estimated 6,000 travelers who already carry credit cards with smart card technology.  Holders of the American Express™ Corporate Card, Hilton Optima™ Card and Hilton HHonors™ Worldwide Diamond VIP member cards will be able to present these cards upon check in to be coded as their room access keys.  With time, it is anticipated that these same cards will be used at check-in kiosks located in hotel lobbies or airport terminals, expediting the check- in process. 

Network and personal computer usage is one of the major applications driving smart cards, along with PCs, Internet access, security and financial applications.  As more people utilize electronic commerce (shopping over the Internet), more secure methods of electronic payment will be demanded from these consumers.

Self-proclaimed "futurist" Steve Hovanitz, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Vingcard, envisions the following scenario made possible by smart card technology.  A business traveler uses his personal computer, with smart card reader, to buy an airline ticket and reserve a hotel room.  Information transmitted through the Internet includes his frequent flyer number, as well as his credit card information to secure payment. 

Accommodation preference and loyalty program account information is also communicated electronically to the hotel booking service.  Confirmation information is written to the smart card, and upon arrival at the airport, the card is used to obtain a boarding pass from an automated system.  At his destination, the traveler proceeds to the hotel check-in kiosk, located perhaps within the airport.  Smart card is inserted to retrieve room assignment, secure payment, maybe even reward the loyal guest with a beverage value credited to his card.  The same card is encoded with the room access information, and the card further serves as the key, allowing the guest to bypass the front desk entirely. 

Smart card applications heighten internal operational technology as well.  Let's revisit employee access systems with Paul Zimmerman, Technical Director for North America at TimeLox.  The world's largest hotel development to date, The Venetian (where else but Las Vegas), has just selected TimeLox to fit 6,000+ guestrooms and employee areas with the company's DC-One System.   The employee key card, traditionally identifies and controls access for authorized personnel; with smart card technology, the card becomes a walking production database.  Reports generated from a maintenance engineer's smart card help verify work order fulfillment, by indicating whether or not a service call was placed to a specific room. 

Before the travel and tourism industry can see the full benefit of smart card technology, standards must be defined and upheld by the banking and software industries.  It is important to observe that smart card technology may never take hold of our population, as it has in many European countries.  Tom Caudill, (ILCO UNICAN) reminds us that the proliferation of smart card technology elsewhere is a result of less sophisticated information infrastructures.  Information must be carried individually, because centralized data access and storage is not as reliable or efficient in other countries.

The hospitality industry has historically been on the lagging edge of technology.  From a service perspective, there has been a reluctance to embrace technology that makes any guest transaction less personal.  Economically, the cost of keeping up with technology has often outweighed the benefits for an industry that relies so much on its human elements.  The electronic locking industry is helping us transition, by incorporating new and exciting technology into an amenity that hotels cannot be without.  Electronic door lock makers are preparing for society's acceptance and increased reliance upon a technological prophesy that has yet to be fulfilled.  However, proponents insist that the value added for consumers of these systems, is product readiness in a quickly changing world obsessed with convenience and security. 

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Elizabeth Lauer is a Consulting and Valuation Analyst for HVS International. She can be reached via email at [email protected].
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Also See: Hilton New York Towers to Install Smartcard Electronic Door Locks / July 1998 
Damn Interfaces!How Will Standards AffectThe Hospitality Industry Today? / Mark Hamilton / Mar 1999

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