OpenKey founder builds on the power of mobile key

Photo credit: OpenKey

Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research found that just a five-minute wait at check-in causes guest satisfaction to drop 50 percent. When TJ Person started OpenKey about three and half years ago, he knew mobile key was going to change that statistic. He also wasn’t a stranger to technology—OpenKey was the fourth technology company that he had built in 15 years. The CEO of the Ashford Group, three public companies that invest in and asset manage hotels and real estate, came to Person about hotel Bluetooth locks. As a hotel owner, the Ashford CEO wanted to get ahead of the mobile-key technology.

“Mobile key was going to be a significant tool for guests and their interaction with hotels,” Person said. “I saw huge value there.”

TJ Person. Photo credit: OpenKey

Person started OpenKey to have a direct connection with hotels — “that was the impetus,” he said. Person went out, with the help of his investors, to develope partnerships with the lock companies because he knew that OpenKey needed to be a universal platform and able to work with all of the hotel lock companies and therefore, able to work with any hotel in the world. Whether a hotel owner has five hotels or hundreds of hotels, OpenKey can work with different lock manufacturers in the ecosystem: The company supports all locks that are Bluetooth-enabled.

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When OpenKey started out, the company was focused on integrating with the top four or five hotel brands in the world but soon realized the company’s true value was going to be with the independent boutique properties instead. “Smaller brands were looking to have the same technology that a Hilton or Marriott was going to have and be able to give their guests that same experience,” he said. “We found a lot of success in the arena.

“A lot of hotels, particularly the independents, don’t have the security resources to devote to build mobile key so we gave them an easy way to do just that.” 

OpenKey provides a web check-in, allowing guests to fully skip the traditional check-in process—technology that had previously only been available to the largest brands. “Providing this technology to a boutique, 20-room hotel has been very powerful,” he said.

As OpenKey was introduced to the hotel industry, Person quickly realized the cost of upgrading hotel locks with the latest Bluetooth locks was the primary hindrance for hotels considering mobile key. “We decided to offer new hotel customers a subsidy to help them reduce or avoid the cost of upgrading their locks,” Person said. That ended up being a game changer for the company. The company has raised $14 million of capital in the last 3.5 years and last year opened a joint venture in Shanghai to serve customers on a more global scale.

Person initially believed OpenKey would be in high demand in business-focused hotels because those guests are very interested in that technology, but the company works with resorts, as well. “The mobile key experience is helping these guests tremendously,” he said.

The company works with several resorts just outside Cancun, Mexico, where guests often arrive at the resort six to eight hours before check-in time. Guests then have to go back to the front desk to wait in line to get their room keys at check-in time. With mobile key, guests get alerted that their room is ready, their luggage is in their room, and they can go directly there, bypassing any other lines or any inconveniences.

“Guests can start their vacation as soon as they get on property and don’t have to deal with any other hassles,” Person said. “Guest satisfaction is greatly increased in allowing guests to get to that ‘reset’ button that a vacation provides as quickly as possible.”

Another instance where the guest experience is augmented and made more convenient is when keys are lost—the mobile key is always with guests and their phones so it removes the hassle of waiting in line to get another key.

OpenKey offers a subsidy to new customers to help hotels upgrade their locks with the latest Bluetooth technology. Photo credit: OpenKey

In Focus

OpenKey strives to be part of the big picture in shifting the guest experience as hospitality technology continues to evolve. The company wants to solve one of the biggest pain points for hotels: A poor check-in experience causes online review scores to suffer, which have proven to negatively impact sales. Web check-in and web upgrades are the company’s latest products to enter the market.

The company looks to offer big data analytics to its customers, help them understand their guests and help them more efficiently communicate with guests. The company is announcing an integration with Intelity to offer all-inclusive guest services within the OpenKey app for its clients and prospects.

“We have a team dedicated to constantly evaluating and improving our products, adding fresh features that our hotel customers are looking for to help improve front-desk efficiency and the overall guest experience,” Person said.

OpenKey's mobile app allows web check-in and upgrades. Photo credit: OpenKey

Clicking with Clients

In addition to the U.S., OpenKey has now expanded into Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico, Netherlands, Philippines and the UK. Since launching in 2014 with a team of three people, OpenKey has grown to 30 employees globally and has plans to double that number in the next 18 months.

From its original 200 hotel rooms, OpenKey is projected to service more than 35,000 rooms by the end of this year. There is substantial interest in mobile key in North America but the company realized there’s a lot of attention around the world as well, Person said.

“Obviously, there has been a lot of interest for mobile key in the hospitality space over the last few years but we’re now seeing hotel chains and groups looking across their portfolio and pushing to get mobile key as a standard guest amenity for their properties,” he said.