A smartphone is used as a digital hotel room key. Hilton has installed its Digital Key technology at more than 4 250 properties over the past five years. Picture: The New York Times

New York - The hotel manager held his phone up to the room’s door lock and the door’s sensor flashed green, while the phone screen informed him that the door was unlocked.

About 1 million hotel rooms worldwide are estimated to have some version of a lock that can accept a cellphone-generated digital key, says Nicolas Aznar, the president of the Americas division of the Swedish lock maker Assa Abloy.

Hotels are accelerating the installation to increase revenue, drive customers to their loyalty sites and offer a better experience.

The locks also accept card keys, so many hoteliers are promoting the mobile keys as an optional perk for loyalty members: When combined with online check-in, guests in countries that don’t require a passport to be shown can go to their rooms without a stop at the front desk.

And, since the keys are downloaded electronically through a hotel app, the host has a presence on the guests’ phones, and can offer other exclusive services, like promotions and a chat feature.

“Had my first hotel stay where human interaction was utterly unnecessary. Online booking, mobile check-in, mobile room key, and mobile checkout. I was a single smile and wave from not seeing a single hotel staff member my entire trip,” Victor Wieczorek wrote on Twitter under the handle @vwieczorek.

The number of hotels in the US that have digital keys available rose from 6% in 2016 to 17% last year, according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Marriott International, Hilton, MGM Resorts and Disney hotels are among the brands offering loyalty members the option of using digital keys.

Some allow a single phone to receive a key during a stay, and other guests in the room receive card keys.

Digital keys are popular with travellers in some areas, like Silicon Valley, but overall, only about 10% of all hotel guests use them, Aznar estimated. “Every new technology generates a little fear,” he said.

Last year, Finnish cybersecurity firm F-Secure said it found a flaw in an older model RFID-style (radio frequency identification) digital hotel lock that could allow hackers to create a spoof master key. It worked with Assa Abloy to patch the software used in 42 000 properties in 166 countries, said Tomi Tuominen, of Helsinki, one of the researchers.

It will take years to know if other digital locking systems are secure, since there are so many manufacturers using so many different technologies, he said. On top of that, there are potential vulnerabilities in the apps that are used to access the keys, and in guests’ phones, he said.

Tuominen recommended staying with brand-name hotels because they have the resources to keep locks up-to-date. He reminded travellers to keep their phones secure and to use the security chain when they are in their rooms. 

The New York Times