Why the disappearance of hotel room keys marks the end of hospitality

The Ritz in London, where room keys have persisted.
The Ritz in London, where room keys have persisted.
Image: Reuters/Catherine Benson
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Whenever I go through the contents of my wallet, I always find a few plastic hotel room keycards. I know you’re not supposed to keep them but I often manage to accidentally. Each inactivated keycard is a symbol of an experience, one specific, unrepeatable moment in time—a New Jersey snowstorm, a Seattle conference, a Baltimore fling. Every small, cheap, rectangular bit of logo-boasting plastic in my wallet serves as a reminder that, for at least one night in my past, I was somewhere different.

But my nostalgic bit of plastic is about to be a thing of the past.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide recently announced its plan to unveil a virtual smartphone key that would allow guests to circumvent the front desk check-in ritual. With nothing more than the flick of a wrist—and Bluetooth capabilities—guests will be able to enter their rooms.

A virtual key is the latest innovation for an industry that prizes efficiency of service. But the move is also a departure from what guests really want in a hotel stay: personalization.

As more and more research shows, what consumers are looking for customized, personal experiences. In a recent article at Forbes, Micah Solomon argues that what customers (hotel guests are simply customers in pajamas) are looking for is “humanity” and “personalization,” and “not just more efficiency.” Such experiences are predicated upon human interaction, which Fast Company lists as one of 2013’s consumer trends:

 “The most successful brands understand when customers need to be listened to or expect the nuanced expertise that only a person can provide. 2013 reverses the trend toward automated everything, as humanity becomes the crucial differentiator between a beloved brand and a commodity.”

A keyless key, is a reversal from this customized interaction and a return to standardized automation. But the hotel industry has always had to navigate the fine line between these poles.

The history of modern hotels began in 1862, with the construction of the beautiful Le Grand Hotel in Paris. With 800 rooms, the hotel was designed to be a testament to the scientific and artistic achievements of France’s Second Empire. The hotels that followed aspired to similarly elegant aesthetics. But when hotels went global in the 1950s, hoteliers decided efficiency was the name of the game, the result of which was that function was elevated over form. And so standard operating procedures (SOPs)—for instance, 66 steps to a clean room—were implemented to ensure utility and convenience. The art of the “grand hotel” was sacrificed in the name of the expediency.

The evolution of the hotel room key illustrates this same pattern. According to the chief concierge at Le Grand Hotel, when its doors opened in 1862, metal keys were standard. These, he said in an email, were attached to “a big key-ring, which was hung on a board at the concierge office.” That meant guests had to visit the concierge each time they came and went, since no keys were allowed out of the hotel. Obviously, these extra trips were, though precautionary, an inefficient use of time.

The Grand Hotel’s key policies were typical of the first century of the modern hotel industry. But when a high-profile lawsuit in the ’70s cast dispersion on hotel security, hoteliers turned to the keycard. Invented in 1975 by a Norwegian named Tor Sornes, the first model was actually a plastic card containing 32 holes, which could be formed into unique patterns for each individual guest. (There were allegedly over 4 billion unique combinations, which would have roughly corresponded to the human population in 1975.) Sornes kept working to improve the card’s security features, and eventually created the electronic keycard, selling it to Atlanta’s Westin Peachtree Plaza in 1978.

Eventually, the keycard became encrypted, which was another innovative security feature, along with the card’s non-descriptive appearance. Early metal hotel room keys were inscribed with the address of the hotel and the room number it opened, which provided criminals easy access to rich patrons. The uniformity of Sornes’ keycard solved this issue by ensuring guests’ anonymity: lost keys could no longer be traced to a particular room.

Even though keycards were a step toward practical efficiency—key cards are one of the things travel organization AAA considers when rating hotels—guests still had to interact with hotel staff in order to check-in and pick up their card. The conversation is usually brief, and predictable but can set a tone for your stay. It’s worth noting that to this day, hotels like the Ritz in London, continue to use metal keys, in part to ensure friendly interaction between hotel guests and staff.

One of the most memorable hotel experiences I’ve had was in a suburb of Chicago. While I was checking in, one of the business managers came out of her office, gave me a hug, asked me about my dance career, and made me a caramel macchiato, which she remembered was my favorite drink. It had been almost two years to the date since I’d been there, so her memory—not to mention her barista skills—impressed me. Many will find such interactions to be inefficient and inconvenient. For me, the hotel manager who remembers my coffee order is going to keep my business for the simple reason that she makes me feel at home. She makes me feel connected.

That said, I am excited about the new keyless key, and I plan on booking a room at the Aloft Manhattan as soon as the launch date is announced. But I also might make it a point to stop by the front desk just to make small talk. In fact, I wonder if Starwood’s innovation encourages this kind of small talk by giving me the freedom to approach hotel staff on my own terms. Cutting out the necessity of transacting with the receptionist, maybe Starwood is making it easier for me to engage in more personal, authentic ways with hotel staff.