Starwood’s New Smartphone Entry – The Good, the Bad, the Unknown

SPG-LogoThe promise is finally a reality. This week, Starwood began allowing the use of smartphones to gain entry into some of their hotel rooms. The keyless service is being introduced at three of their brands: Aloft, Elements, and W. The process is simple – just download their app, create a SPG account if you don’t have one, and register your phone.

Before getting too excited, it is available at only ten properties initially. Even by the end of next year, it will only be operating in 150 hotels. Why did these choose these properties? Because they are marketed to a high-tech kind of consumer with the first two very much marketed to Millennials.

The Good: It’s opt-in, meaning they are not forcing anyone to do it. Obviously those without smartphones will appreciate this but others might as well. For example, some guests may prefer to carry around a key card while jogging, in the gym, or at the pool.

Bypassing the front desk is a blessing for some, especially at properties where arrival time always seems to coincide with huge tour groups. Because you can use the app to check in ahead of time, you already have a room assigned so after walking into the hotel, it’s just a matter of finding the elevator.

One of the problems with room key cards has been that when you arrive at your room, they don’t work. Maybe it worked for a day or two, then suddenly it stopped. Even worse, you get to your room only to find that someone else is already occupying it. This should be a non-issue with the app-driven system but it seems that some errors are inevitable.

The Bad: Technology used is Bluetooth, not NFC. Maybe not a major disadvantage but still, it is yesterday’s technology. In my perfect world, they would have integrated it with Google Wallet and Apple Pay for something more secure.

Also, infrequent travelers may find this to be a pain registering their phones if they stay at Starwood properties only once or twice a year. For those who don’t keep a current credit card on file, it won’t work for you either. And what happens if your card expires just when you are checking in? Ugh, back to the front desk and sort it out.

A bigger disadvantage is it only works with the SPG accountholder’s phone. Well, it’s possible you could give your account information to others sharing the room with you but for most, it means all other guests in the room will still have to go to the desk to get key cards.

The same is true if you are traveling with others and want to share rooms. Or what if you are traveling with your domestic partner and they arrive before you but don’t have your account information on their phone? If you lose your phone or the battery dies, you are back at the desk. Hopefully you still have your identification with you.

Another possible concern will be guests that extend their stay. It is very possible after you use the mobile check-in and get assigned a room, that room might not be available because the current guest needs it for a few days longer. This is never a problem at the front desk because they will simply assign you to another room. If the app forgets to do this, it could create some issues.

This can also play havoc with room upgrades. If you don’t see it on your phone when you check in, you certainly won’t be getting one without heading to the front desk. And speaking of that desk, it is one of the things I actually enjoy when arriving at a hotel. I always get to meet a desk clerk or two, sometimes a manager. No, I don’t want to stand there for thirty minutes waiting to be served but it’s not that big a deal to me to wait even ten minutes.

The Unknown: How will this work for international arrivals? Its always been my experience when checking into a hotel outside the U.S., they always want to see my passport and they typically photocopy the main page. Since this first group of ten hotels consists of five international locations, does this mean the properties will no longer have this information? On the other side, does it mean that U.S. hotels will no longer request this information from international arrivals simply because they use the SPG app? This doesn’t seem likely.

Finally, we have no idea how secure this system is. Like many, I am an early tech adopter but with all the dramatic security breaches made public over the past couple years, it would help to know what kind of safeguards are built into their system. For example, we already know the lack of security using key cards. Inquiring minds would like to know if Starwood uses some kind of rolling encryption.

On a related note, Hilton will be offering something similar beginning next year but they are taking a different approach. Their system will begin service at some of their most expensive full service hotels including Hilton, Conrad, Waldorf Astoria, and their new Canopy. I am sure they will be following the news of SPG’s success (or lack of it) before rolling out their own smartphone entry system.

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