Sidebar: The Search for the Perfect Electronic Key

Today's magnetic card key systems are popular with hotels and resorts because they're flexible and cheap. The door lock systems run off batteries in stand-alone mode -- no power or data links are needed. Operation is simple. Keys can easily be replaced. The door lock is smart enough to store information about who has accessed the room and at what times, leaving an audit trail for security personnel. And the systems are self-maintaining as long as the battery lasts. It simply rolls forward to the next lock combination each time a new key is entered or the current one expires. However, the lock mechanism itself cannot be updated or reconfigured without visiting the room.

Electronic lock companies and hotels are experimenting with other security key devices, including biometric fingerprint readers, smart cards, and proximity cards that allow the guest to unlock the door without touching the lock. Vendors are also experimenting with infrared and other wireless technologies.

Proximity card readers haven't been well received because they can be used to track where guests are in the hotel at any given time. Experimental systems have been deployed where an RFID chip was embedded in frequent-guest cards, says Brian Garavuso, CIO at Hilton Grand Vacations Co. and chairman of the American Hotel and Lodging Association's technology committee. "[Guests] were uncomfortable with us knowing where they were at any given time," he says. "It didn't go beyond the conceptual stages."

Glenn Peacock, director of marketing at lock system vendor Saflok in Troy, Mich., says his company's door locks can be used with memory cards and smart cards as well as with magnetic stripe cards. However, biometric fingerprint readers have been a bust so far. These systems read a fingerprint when the guest checks in and generate a unique algorithm that's used to authenticate the user and open the door. Although no thumbprint data is stored, he says users don't like the idea of being fingerprinted. "The American society is reluctant to have their fingerprints scanned," he says.

Cost and ease of support are two of the biggest factors to consider when choosing a door lock system, says Jocelynn Lane, vice president at VingCard AS in Norway.

VingCard's sister company Timelox AB in Landskrona, Sweden, has installed smart card technology in hotels such as The Venetian and Bellagio in Las Vegas and some Starwood properties, and VingCard plans to introduce its own RFID cards in 2006, Lane says. In this system the door lock establishes an infrared connection to the wall thermostat and tunnels through the energy management system to communicate with the lock management system at the front desk. The system has several advantages -- it can tell if the door is ajar or is being jimmied, for example. It includes motion sensors to determine whether anyone is in the room and can adjust the climate control system to save energy if it's unoccupied.

It also allows the front desk to remotely control or reprogram the door locks. If you checked into a room on, say, the 18th floor and something was wrong, you could just call the front desk and the staff there could redirect you to room that's ready a few doors down. Front desk personnel could reconfigure the locks of both rooms so the one on the door of the new room accepts your card and the one on the old one doesn't. No elevator ride back down to the front desk would be necessary.

Such systems aren't for every property, says Lane. First of all, they're not cheaper than traditional electronic locks with magnetic key cards. They're also more complicated and harder to maintain. "They are great for a big property, but what happens at the Best Western?" Lane says. "It's not out there [because] it's expensive, hard to support."

Such systems also present potential liability issues because they provide bidirectional communication between the front desk the room. The system knows when a door is being pried open or has been left ajar. "You'd better have someone monitoring because you've set up a liability," Lane says.

For hotels that can afford it, the return on investment in energy savings is there. At most hotels, however, the rule is, "Keep it simple." The economical, workhorse magnetic card key is likely to remain the room security system of choice at most hotels for the foreseeable future.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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