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How to Use Your Smart Phone as your Hotel Room Key

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

In this second part of my “hotel room key series”, I thought I’d talk about the not-so-new trend of using your cell phone to open your hotel room door, instead of a key provided by the hotel. While this technology has been touted by various hotel chains for a couple of years now, it’s taking a while to spread, and I only just had the pleasure of experiencing it myself at the Hilton Knoxville last month. Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), Marriott and Hilton have all jumped on the bandwagon, but it wasn’t until I tried the technology myself that its full glory revealed itself to me! All three hotel chains require you to be a loyalty club member and download their app for this technology to work. Not a problem, I have all three of them on my phone anyway. After booking the room, the reservation shows up in the app. 24 hours or so before you’re due to arrive at the hotel, you are able to check in via the app. This is possible even if digital room keys aren’t available at the property. At the very least, you can then tell the hotel when you plan to arrive, and whether there’s anything you require (I’ve ordered additional bathroom amenities this way at a couple of Marriotts). I’ve found that after checking in like that, they have my room keys ready and waiting for me and I spend less time at reception, which I like. The Hilton app (and I’ve not seen this feature with SPG or Marriott yet) will also let you choose your room during this process. When checking in at the Doubletree Downtown Toronto, where I’ve stayed several times, there was always exactly one room available. However at the Hilton Knoxville multiple rooms were free, and I was able to browse the floorplan, which allowed me to choose a room on the highest floor available, and as far away as possible from the elevators. The app then confirms check-in and informs you that you will be notified when your room key (and therefore your room) is ready. Sure enough, on the day of our arrival in Knoxville, a message popped up on my phone that the room key was ready for download. This took a few seconds to accomplish, and as we entered the Hilton’s lobby, the true beauty of this technology dawned on me: there was no need to go to reception. I knew my room number, I knew the room was ready for me, and I had a key – what more did I need? Once we arrived at our room, I do admit I was a little nervous that this technical gimmick wouldn’t work. I opened the app, which instructed me to tap the screen to activate the key, and then hold the phone up against the door lock – and hey presto, the lock whirred, the light turned green, and we were in. The hotel staff had thoughtfully also left a couple of key cards in the room before our arrival, which meant Stu had his own key too. Both the key cards and the phone worked just fine throughout our stay. The Hilton website indicates that only one device can be used to store a digital room key at this time, so if the hotel hadn’t left us the key cards, we would have stopped by reception after all to pick one up. SPG and Marriott are less clear on this, but it seems like only the guest who is the loyalty club member can have the digital key. There may still be instances where you’ll want to stop by the front desk – you may be fishing for an upgrade, have a special request, or checking into a fancy resort that will give you a welcome drink you don’t want to miss. However the thought of being able to skip the front desk, especially at a hotel or brand you’re familiar with, is hugely attractive to me. A quick and non-scientific survey shows that Hilton has over 400 properties at which a digital key can now be used, Marriott has maybe a couple dozen, and SPG around 100 (I noticed that aloft and W properties were leading the way – obviously SPG feels millennials are better trusted with this technology). While other large hotel chains are surely preparing something similar, I don’t know how this will work for independent hotels and smaller chains, since there is surely a considerable investment to be made. Having said that, the future’s arrived, and I like it!

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