After launching its digital check-in service across both its Hilton HHonors loyalty app and its website in 2014, Hilton has further embedded technology into the hotel experience with the digital key, the app’s latest feature.

The digital key, which is available at five Hilton properties in the U.S., will be introduced to all domestic Hilton, Waldorf Astoria and Conrad properties through the end of 2015 into early 2016. The key is not yet available abroad, as Hilton notes there are different international laws and regulations when checking in to hotels.

After going through the digital check-in, which allows guests to select and check into their rooms using their smartphones, they can then download a digital key to their mobile phones, providing them with access to their hotel room, fitness center, pool and other areas of the hotel.

Like the digital check-in, the digital key is a perk for Hilton HHonors members; however, the key is currently only available for each room on one device — that which belongs to the name on the loyalty program account. After settling in, guests staying with families, for example, can retrieve plastic key cards from the front desk for other members of their party.

Yet with such integration comes the question: How, in the hospitality business, can a mega-brand like Hilton maintain or even improve its guest-staff relations as hotels continue to digitally evolve? In a world where guests cannot only select and check into their rooms from their phones but also bypass the front desk and head straight to their doors, what role does that staff play, and how can it acclimate to the changed environment?

“Thinking of the digital check-in, it changed for [the staff],” says Joshua Sloser, vice president of digital innovation, Hilton Worldwide. “They are still there to help out and provide guests with great service, but the flow of what they do is different.”

“We are in the business of people serving people, and the service that we do from a technology standpoint, even though it helps give guests choice and control in what they can do in their stay, the reason that we do these things…is to allow our frontline employees to really do things that delight our guests,” Sloser says.

Sloser says that since launching digital check-ins last year, Hilton has used both guest and employee feedback to navigate the opportunities for hotels digitally and pioneer the way into new frontiers.

That guest feedback included concerns about the website or app being confusing about the way the rooms and properties were represented, Sloser says.

With digital integration, the staff needs to better understand customer expectations about it, he says.

“For both our frontline agents and guests…we needed to give as clear as possible guidance to [staff] to make sure they really understand when a guest shows up why it is important to have a key ready for them…because [guests] have done all this work to pick their room beforehand, so they are hoping for the immediate experience to be like that when they go to pick up their key,” Sloser says.

When it came time to launch the digital key, Sloser says that one of the questions Hilton looked at was how the company can “thoughtfully roll out digital keys in an environment where we can get the guest feedback but also get that employee feedback to make sure that experience that we create for the guests is real.”

“There is concern that we are trying to consolidate things for the sake of efficiency, but really we are trying to take some of the transactional things and put those in the hands of guests and give them the choice and control that they want but leave our frontline employees with the ability to do the great things that make a stay really, really memorable.”

Photo Credit: Hilton is making mobile features a key to its evolving guest experience. Hilton Worldwide