The key party is over: could contactless check-in kill a classic hotel come-on? | Travel – Lifotravel

West Wing fans won’t need much reminding. It’s in season seven, when Donna finally climbs astride the mountain of sexual tension between her and Josh, and slides her hotel room key over on the low table. She throws back her wine and bids the group goodnight, lingering a look Josh’s way, hotly returned. Their sexy plan, however, is cockblocked when a colleague snatches it up – “Donna forgot her key!” – and gives it bloody well back.

Didn’t matter. Point made. Sliding over one of the cards that have (mostly) replaced metal keys would have worked too. As deeply unromantic as the plastic rectangles are, there remains a frisson of possibility when the front desk asks “one card or two?”

But how could Donna have issued her silent invitation using a digital key? Advocates of the systems, which allow guests to unlock their door with their phone, will assure you that pincodes are provided as back-up. Donna could have mouthed the four digits to Josh across the din! But then she’d have to mouth the room number too, which wasn’t the hot mess of digits either had in mind.

Powered by RFID, Bluetooth or Near-Field Communication (NFC), digital key technology has been around for a while, with Condé Nast Traveler writing a story headlined “Your Hotel Key Is the Smartphone You Already Own” in 2015.

In Australia, they are mainly offered on the hotel apps of brands such as Hyatt, QT Hotels and Resorts, and Hilton. Youth Hostels Australia (YHA) and glammed-up Blue Mountains motel The Kyah, meanwhile, offer digital access to all guests on the Goki app.

Digital keys will surely be an improvement on notoriously fickle key cards. Last month, after two wretched flights from Sydney, I arrived late to the Holiday Inn in Naples, Florida, where my card flashed an irritated red light each time I slotted it in. We’ve all been there. Hauling our bags back to reception and trying to seem cruisey about it as they program a new one, which somehow always works. What do they do differently that second darn time? Remember how to cast Hogwarts’ Alohomora spell?

A hand holding a hotel key card.
In some Australian hotels, physical hotel key cards are making way for digital keys on smartphones – a win for convenience, but a loss for hotel dalliances. Photograph: Design Pics/Getty Images/Design Pics RF

A ‘hot area’ for hoteliers

If digital keys do misbehave, we’ll no doubt feel it’s our fault because our screen is cracked or we aren’t using the most recent version of the app. Like when we fail to attach our bag tags properly, or place an unexpected item in the bagging area, forcing the person who is actually getting paid to work at the airport or supermarket to fix it up with a passive-aggressive air.

I trial my first digital key at YHA The Rocks, a Sydney hostel where the old and the new collide. Built around an archaeological dig, it showcases signs about retro delights such as the bubonic plague and artefacts galore. The Goki app works great for my room but is stymied, at times, in the lift. The YHA chief executive, Paul McGrath, says the organisation is trialling Goki, among others “because [digital keys] are one of the hot areas of guest engagement right now”.

Hot for hoteliers, perhaps, but what do guests think? The operations manager at The Kyah, Samantha Hunter, says feedback has been positive. Guests are notified when their rooms are clean, given their room number and access code, and can breeze on in without getting waylaid at reception.

Then there’s the environmental side. Phasing out room keys means less plastic and less microchips, which is no small thing, given “a chip fabrication plant”, wrote Pádraig Belton for the Guardian in 2021, “can use millions of gallons of water a day – and creates hazardous waste”.

And while digital systems may appear expensive they are a cost saving measure because “during Covid there weren’t enough chips being produced”, McGrath says. Covid gave touchless tech a boost too (though I’d rather a voice-controlled TV, with the remote reported to be the filthiest item in a room, along with bedside lamp switches).

The Kyah still offers cards for “guests wishing to go old school”, Hunter says. Though ripping off the Band-aid might be a better idea. For an eternally late person like me, check-outs are always hectic and I’ve left with key cards more times than I’d like to admit.

I have several in a drawer that I plan to return. Guess I’d better hurry up.

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