The Future of Hotel Security

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Technology is opening new doors to hotel safety, and the way we navigate hotels is set to change in the blink of an eye. Or the swipe of a cellphone. Or the print of a finger. With futuristic systems like scent and iris scanners and digital facial-recognition, hotel security is being taken to the next level.

Those plastic key cards that once seemed so innovative will soon go the way of the actual key. The new thing is contact-less Smartcards and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) cards that need just be waved to allow room access. Much like the cruise world's one card system, these cards may soon make hotel stays easier by allowing guests to pay for services, as well as to check-in and check-out, through a single device. Travelers may even be able to save preferences on the cards, from pillow type to floor choice. RFID cards are already in use at New York's Plaza Hotel, and Starwood Hotels are considering introducing them into their hip Aloft and Element properties.

But travelers worried they will constantly have to traipse back to reception every time they lose their card need not despair. Security systems in some hotels do away with cards altogether. "In addition to Radio Frequency Identification, there are also systems that use a smartphone, such as an iPhone," says Frank Wolfe, CEO of Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals. "When a guest checks into a hotel and provides their phone number, they get an encrypted sound code via text message." You can then play back the code to unlock your room door.

Yet more card-free security systems are on the way. They may still be minor blips on the greater hotel horizon, but biometric systems that seem right out of Mission Impossible have been introduced in the U.S. If you want to get into your room at New York's SoHo Loft, you're going to have to lift a finger. The seven-room hotel has a fingerprint entry system. Guests touch the door pad then enter a code for extra security. Kimpton's 190-room Nine Zero Hotel in Boston was the first hotel to install a biometric iris scanner back in 2004, but only guests of the 1,065-square-foot Cloud Nine penthouse suite have to bat their eyelashes. The uses for biometrics don't have to stop at the guestroom door, either. The Nine Zero also uses the technology to make the property safer all round, as it has installed the LG IrisAccess 3000 at the employee and delivery entries to the hotel, as well, meaning that non-staff members and intruders can't access the property.

Systems that track the other qualities that make each human unique are in development as well. Movement-activated video-capture systems were showcased in New Zealand in September 2010. Researchers are at work on devices capable of recognizing an individual's gait or walk and even their DNA. Frank Wolfe says, "If you want to go 'way out there', there are some systems being explored that can allegedly sniff someone, and also systems that can recognize the pattern of blood veins on a human being which are apparently unique to the individual," says Wolfe. Quite common in Japan, vascular-recognition systems such as this are still "several years off," according to Wolfe. "I think that you will begin to see more hotels going to RFID and smartphone entry before using biosystem recognition," says Wolfe. "These systems are expensive, and there are many consumers who just don't want this information stored somewhere -- for a variety of reasons."

Many industry watchers are keeping an eye on Houston's largest hotel, the vast 1,200-room Hilton Americas–Houston. The hotel has a facial recognition system that can identify and track guests, employees, and even suitcases. With 700 employees and an annual $16 million payroll, the system offers benefits such as employee time-theft monitoring and prevention for the hotel. But travelers aren't that concerned about employees taking an extra cigarette break. What it means for you is that the system includes alerts if unwanted people are on the property and a response time of mere seconds if there's an incident. Customer service is heightened as well: Returning guests will be recognized and greeted by name. And with 1,200 rooms worth of luggage in transit, the system makes it a lot easier to find lost or misdirected bags.

While these may seem like great improvements to the hotel experience, not everyone wants to be on-camera, all the time. With concerns about "snooping" and a Truman Show-like lack of privacy, might guests feel that systems such as this are too intrusive in our hotels? "It really depends on the guests' backgrounds," Wolfe points out. "For example, London has been using CCTV for a long time, and lots of public places are already using similar technology." And street-view footage is also readily available online. "Google and Microsoft Map Technology have already made us aware that we can be videoed in our own yard or street," he points out. "I think that eventually new security measures will become such a part of our everyday lives that they will become the norm."

But Wolfe feels that in addition to the biometrics and high-tech methods currently being deployed, one of the greatest security measures of late is actually low tech -- it's the staff in the hotel, and it's your fellow traveler. "Hospitality all over the world has become more aware of past vulnerabilities that they might have had and have closed these holes by more in-depth training and awareness of guests and staff," he says. "In today's society, all travelers are becoming interdependent on each other for safety and security."

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