Can't Touch This

Remember when travelers would dress up to board trains, planes or ships headed for destinations across the globe? They would check in at the front desks of lavish hotels and open their guestroom doors with large brass keys. Whether you lived during this era or simply saw it enacted in a Cary Grant movie, you can't help romanticize such “golden days.”

However, when you consider the complexity of the transactions required to travel until quite recently, the romance quickly gives way to a logistical nightmare. Travelers have had to enlist travel agents, write checks for expenses, arrive early with passport in hand, and use a real key to open the hotel room door. The hotel-ier's tasks have included processing payments, worrying about bounced checks, issuing and collecting keys and manually changing door locks to ensure hotel security.

What a difference today, with online reservations, automatic credit- and debit-card payments, kiosk check-in for flights and hotel rooms, magnetic-stripe key cards that eliminate the need for guests to turn in keys, and remote check-out via the in-room television.

Experts predict that the next-generation of travel will all but eliminate the need for full-contact transactions through radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. RFID is an automatic identification method used to transmit encrypted data through radio waves from passive (not powered) RFID tags that can be read by antennae or receivers mere centimeters away.

In 1999, the Washington, D.C., Metrorail became the first domestic urban mass transit system to use the technology. In Hong Kong, mass transit is paid for almost exclusively through RFID technology.

The travel industry shift to contact-free transactions goes beyond transportation. Countries including Singapore, Finland, Australia, even the United States, have started issuing encrypted RFID-equipped passports with chips that store the same information printed on the passport, including a digital photo of the holder. Encryption makes passports harder to counterfeit, a key concern, especially among air travelers.

Such technology is already available to hospitality in the form of RFID key cards, key fobs and wristbands, which grant access to hotel guestrooms with a simple wave in front of the reader. Many properties, especially large resorts and casinos, may also choose to allow payments to be made poolside or from the casino through RFID cards, giving guests the luxury of keeping wallets and purses secured inside their rooms.

Some RFID locking technologies even let guests use next-generation Near Field Communication (NFC) cell phones to remotely check in and out and open guestroom doors. Prior to arrival, hotel guests receive a booking confirmation number, room number and encrypted room key access code through the encrypted Short Message System (SMS), allowing them to go straight to the guestroom where their cell phone can be used like a key or key card.

The travel and tourism industry can count on RFID coming into play more generally as well, through contactless payment methods like Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass. These allow consumers to make payments with a wave of their credit card at point-of-sale. Now employed primarily at convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and movie theaters, this technology will no doubt go mainstream among major retailers, service providers, hotels and resorts. Are you ready?

by Marc Freundlich, president and CEO, ASSA ABLOY Hospitality North America. Reach him at 972.907.2273 or e-mail For more information, visit

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