While Marriott and Hilton pour millions into proprietary operations technology, independent hotels and smaller chains don’t have the same deep pockets. But especially at luxury properties, where customers expect their lodgings to keep up with the Joneses, showcasing tech savviness is a must. And it all starts at the guest-room door.

At the end of 2014 and into early 2015, several large brands, including Starwood (pre-Marriott), Hilton, and Marriott, announced large investments in mobile tech. To trace one company’s progress, Hilton introduced its Digital Key technology at the end of 2014.

Reserved solely for Hilton Honors members, Digital Key theoretically allows guests to head straight to the hotel room via a mobile app, bypassing the front desk and using their phones for access.

It should be pointed out that properties sometimes promise a bypass of the hotel front desk with digital check-ins but in reality a visit in the lobby is still required.

As of August 2017, Digital Key was available in 2,000 Hilton hotels worldwide. According to a company spokeswoman, it is on pace to exceed 2,500 hotels by year-end.

As the big brands were rolling out their goods, TJ Person, founder and CEO of Plano, Texas-based OpenKey, was watching and securing funding for his privately held company. “After the top tier,” says Person, “there’s a big divide. Everyone below that, including small brands and independent properties, didn’t have the resources to develop the technology. We figured we had the opportunity to work with everyone else.”

The “everyone else” working to provide an alternative platform for mobile check-in includes OpenKey’s owners, all of which are hotel ownership or management companies — a scenario that creates a ready-made client base for the platform.

How does OpenKey work? When a guest makes a reservation, the hotel sends an email invitation to download the app, available for free on both iOS and Android operating systems.

Once the app is downloaded, the guest scans in identification, enabling a front desk bypass. The app is then used to open a guestroom door that’s secured with a digital lock.

The system works with the majority of mobile-optimized, Bluetooth-based locks. Person says OpenKey often subsidizes the cost of new locks to encourage hotels to get on board.

The app is somewhat of a “skeleton key,” according to Person, in that, once downloaded, it can be used at any hotel using the platform.

The app doesn’t just open doors. Person says guests can use it to access Wi-Fi codes and other hotel information. They can also request housekeeping, set up Do Not Disturb messages, and make calls to the front desk directly from the app, among other functionalities.

Meanwhile, the benefits for hotels are multifold, the company claims. The OpenKey Front Desk app works with any property management system, the company says. It can help decrease group check-in time, eliminate the need for replenishing RFID key cards, and improve administrative efficiency.

One of the company’s sweet spots has been signing up partnerships with consortia of independent hotels, such as WorldHotels, and Preferred Hotels and Resorts. Michael Osgood is Preferred’s vice president, alliance partnerships. His division is “responsible for finding products that align with the needs of its hoteliers. For luxury hotels, these can differentiate the experience from non-luxury properties.”

Osgood explains that Preferred “discovered OpenKey a couple of years ago and felt that the company was ahead of the genre. The two most important factors to us were integration with the lock systems currently in the market and ease of use to the consumer.”

Osgood notes another advantage is that “in this data-driven world, hoteliers want to gain details about spending habits and consumer preferences.”

Particularly when guests book through online travel agencies, that information can be difficult to come by. “With OpenKey,” says Osgood, “we get access to data.”

Furthermore, Person says OpenKey can help hotels win the direct booking wars by pushing guests to use the app to reserve upcoming stays. That said, he says OpenKey is trying to figure out ways to work with online travel companies to share data from the third-party sites.

Person also notes that hotels can grab more information by tracking guests (who opt-in) during their stay, finding out where they are spending their time. “Through machine learning,” says Person, “the app can understand how the guest interacts with the hotel and enhance the profile for a better experience.”

Competitor guest experience startup Keypr, based in Los Angeles, sees independent luxury hotels wanting to integrate the mobile key experience with other on-property guest experience enhancements, such as the bring-your-own-device trend that enables guests to play their own streaming media content on guest room TVs and audio speakers.

As to whether the luxury guest who prefers a high-touch experience will want to use the app, Osgood has no doubt.

“While luxury travelers welcome face-to-face service, on the flip side, as we advance, technology is considered another luxury,” Osgood says. “Guests appreciate that we have invested a lot to make the check-in experience seamless so that we can focus on enhancing the personalized guest experience elsewhere.”

Photo Credit: OpenKey, a seller of door-locking technology to hotels, markets to independent properties and provides add-on features. OpenKey