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Digital Key: An Interview With the Director of Digital Product Innovation at Hilton Worldwide

new technology called Digital Key was introduced to the Hilton HHonors software application program for portable electronic devices by Hilton Worldwide as of Tuesday, August 11, 2015 in order to provide elite level status members of the Hilton HHonors frequent guest loyalty program more choice and control over their entire travel experiences.

By using Digital Key, you now have the option to bypass the front desk of the hotel or resort property and access your room — as well as any other area of the hotel which requires a key — directly via your portable electronic device. You will be able to use your portable electronic device as your room key to enter greater than 170,000 rooms at 250 properties in the United States by early 2016 within the following brands of hotels: Canopy by Hilton; Hilton Hotels and Resorts; Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts; and Conrad Hotels and Resorts.

An Interview With Dana Shefsky

Dana Shefsky — who is the director of digital product innovation at Hilton Worldwide — was kind enough to take some time to answer my questions pertaining to the new Digital Key technology.

How does the use of Digital Key affect room upgrades for Hilton HHonors members with VIP Elite level status — especially last-minute upgrades? Although I often get room upgrades in advance as a Diamond VIP member, there are those times where I received a room upgrade at the last minute.

Using Digital Key does not affect an HHonors member’s chances of receiving a space available upgrade. Guests who use our digital check-in on the day before or day of arrival can choose a room based on the room type they booked. Should an upgrade become available, the hotel will move the guest into the new, upgraded room. Hotels do their best to upgrade guests as often as possible. Availability is dynamic and always changing, so hotels take this fluidity into account when determining if they are able to offer a complimentary room upgrade. Additionally, there are several ways to guarantee an upgraded room type prior to arrival such as redeeming HHonors Points via Premium Room Rewards or Room Upgrade Rewards.

As I understand it, Digital Key is only available for the Hilton HHonors member when using it to enter a room. Although an additional person who is also in the room can still use a plastic key card to access the room, is there any possibility of one day having additional guests in the same room also be able to use the Digital Key on their portable electronic devices?

With Digital Key, our HHonors members can access not only their hotel room via their smartphone, but other areas of the hotel that require a key for guest access, such as the fitness center, pool or even parking garage.

For now, we’re issuing one Digital Key per room, as each Digital Key is tied to the specific phone number listed on the member’s HHonors account. For security reasons, the Digital Key cannot be shared or placed on another device. If a room has multiple occupants, additional plastic keycards can be picked up from the Front Desk.

That said, we regularly evaluate our digital offerings and will continue to explore additional ways we can empower our guests with even more convenience and control.

How is security addressed with Digital Key; and what is Hilton doing to ensure that there are no security breaches with this technology — especially as the Hilton HHonors Internet website reportedly experienced a recent significant security breach which resulted in the switch from PIN numbers to passwords to access accounts?

The wellbeing of our guests is our top priority, and we design our technology with security precautions in mind. In fact, Digital Key has undergone comprehensive testing and has been vetted by security experts. We commissioned a leading security assessment firm to perform a thorough evaluation of the technology. Hilton will continue to review the security precautions within Digital Key in the future to ensure it remains a safe, state-of-the-art technology.

Other than bypassing the front desk, being able to choose a room prior to arrival and requesting amenities — as well as promotions such as a bonus of 2,500 Hilton HHonors points — what other benefits would compel someone to use Digital Key over using a plastic key card?

Many consumers rely on their smartphones to manage every aspect of their lives, and they want this same level of digital control to extend throughout their travel experiences. By giving our guests mobile-enabled control over their stay, we’re giving them the added convenience, access and decision-making power guests crave.

The real power of Digital Key comes when you couple it with our other digital offerings – like digital check-in with room selection or arrival requests – to make your stay more convenient and exactly the way you like it.

Additionally, you’d be surprised by how many guests actually lose or forget their key cards. Digital Key eliminates the problem of forgetting to take your key card with you when you head to the hotel fitness center for instance.

What potential benefits could or will be associated with Digital Key in the future?

Looking ahead, we’re continuing to innovate with the traveler in mind, enhancing our existing suite of digital functions to give them an experience that’s personalized, seamless and hospitable.

We’re also deploying Digital Key on a global scale, so our guests can look forward to enjoying a consistent digital experience where their smartphone is the remote control to their stay, no matter when or where they stay with us.

Although specific information is not necessary, what are the costs involved with implementing a technology such as Digital Key; and how does Hilton benefit from it?

When we were a private company, Hilton invested $550 million to unify our IT infrastructure. This infrastructure includes all our mobile applications as well as many other major areas such as our websites, datacenters, sales and revenue management, on-property systems, and corporate intranet. Since we invested in a firm foundation, we’re now able to roll out new features – like digital check-in with room selection and Digital Key – quickly and at scale.

We’ve developed a viable, secure and cost-effective Digital Key solution. By catering to our guests’ digital preferences through our HHonors app, we’re earning their loyalty and driving ROI for our brands.

How does Digital Key compare to products from competing lodging companies — such as keyless entry by Starwood Preferred Guest?

While we cannot speak to the specifics of a technology created by another organization, our HHonors app stands out for the holistic experience it offers our guests, from the booking process through check-out. Through our HHonors app, our frequent guests can now book a hotel stay, check-in, select their exact room, pre-order food, drinks or extra amenities, and access their room upon arrival using their smartphone as their key. We’re truly making the HHonors app the remote control to the entire stay experience.

Promotion Through September 30, 2015

In this article back on Friday, August 7, 2015, I bluntly called a current offer of 2,500 bonus Hilton HHonors frequent guest loyalty points to promote Digital Key as “most useless” because it was only valid at one hotel property on the entire planet. Since then, five additional hotel properties — with links included for your convenience — have been added to the promotion:


While the addition of five additional hotel properties is certainly an improvement to the promotion, I would personally consider extending the offer beyond Wednesday, September 30, 2015 to better promote Digital Key at additional hotel properties when they are equipped with the technology; and while I may not be the head of the Hilton HHonors frequent guest loyalty program — the position is apparently still available if you want to apply — I personally would consider recommending improving the promotion by perhaps offering more bonus points, for example.

Should You Use Keyless Technology?

“I love airline mobile boarding passes, and the idea of being able to use my phone to unlock my room without having to carry a key as well”, Melinda Danielson of Magic of Miles wrote in this article. However, reports of keyless entry with Starwood have been less than great. Starwood’s keyless system works via Bluetooth, as does Hilton’s. In addition to technological fails, what happens if your phone runs out of battery? You have to go back down to the front desk to get a key, and may not have your ID on hand then.”

Melinda goes on to say: “One thing is for sure. Keyless entry avoids the issue of having my room key stop working at some point, so I’ll definitely give the new keyless entry a try. However, I hope it doesn’t become like the automatic lanes at the supermarket. You know, where so much money is put into the technology of self-serve lanes that staff numbers are cut and then when you want face-to-face interaction the lines are twice as long.”

Gee…I actually like using those self-serve lanes in supermarkets and home improvement stores, as I find them quicker to use than a traditional lane manned by a human being. I am not sure I would equate bypassing the front desk as a similar experience — but I have yet to use the technology; so the jury is still out with me.

At least the worst that could happen seems to be that if the technology does not work, I can still go to the front desk and check in the traditional way as I always have — with which I rarely have had issues such as a long line.

Would you be interested in using Digital Key? What are your thoughts?

Source: Hilton Worldwide.

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