The sign usually means: “I’m tired, I’ve been up since 6am, it’s now after 10pm, I’ve gone to bed and I really don’t have the energy to get up at 1:32 am and argue with you about room prices while trying to sell you a room. Please go away.”
In the summer of 2000, my son Paul was working along the east coast of Australia. After finishing sales calls around 8pm he travelled to the next town to look for a room but found empty motel car parks and plenty of “No Vacancy” signs. He said, “Dad, you’re an engineer, can’t you build theses guys a machine so they can rent rooms after hours?” I said, “Sure Paul, it will take a few hours work”.
Long hours are a given in this industry, and despite assurances of “I don’t mind the hours, I’m here anyway,” long hours build tiredness over an extensive period and are a major cause of the rapid turnover of motel properties. I believe mechanisation can remove much of the long boring `chained to the desk’ feeling and can free up leisure time for motel owners and managers – not just during the night, but also in quiet periods, such as the long summer Sunday afternoons when a day with the family would be preferred.
After researching the market and finding no commercially available systems, I kept good on my promise to develop one.
IBM was granted a patent for a minicomputer-based hotel room self-service system back in 1985, but that patent has since lapsed and the project appears not to have taken off. A Canadian company filed a similar patent in Europe in 1991 for a credit card-based key dispensing machine but that also appears to have not been commercialised to any extent.
Thousands of hours and a stack of dollars later, I developed a simple kiosk product as a proof of concept. After introduction by a business associate, I offered it to Tony Sheer of Australian Pacific Inns (their motels include Lamplighter). Tony is a forward thinking recognised industry leader who has been on the board of Golden Chain, HMAA etc.
Tony, seeing the benefits, was quick to place an order and provided much useful industry feedback and advice on user interface and customer acceptability during our initial trials and long term testing phase. His input was critical in assisting us in the first stage commercialisation of the product.
Significant further development was undertaken and was greatly assisted by the awarding of a Federal Government development grant under the COMET scheme. More than the money, this demonstration of faith by experienced business analysts gave me the courage to continue the project.
In the past few months, a number of major US based hotel chains have realised the benefits of the technology and are working to roll out test sites to further refine and prove the technology.
In the hotel environments, the Check Out option is probably more important than the Check In option. This is due to the pressure on hotel staff between 8 and 9:30 am to rapidly check out long queues of business clients, all of whom want a tax invoice to take with them and many, if not all, will review their bill prior to paying. It is very expensive for hotels to put on extra staff for short busy periods as the minimum practical shift is three to four hours. Weekend and holiday rates are now such that staffing costs have become a major issue.
Our first priority was designing the Check Inn machine to allow motel guests to buy their room key from a machine. Features were rapidly added to allow the client to retrieve keys for a pre-booked room if they knew they were arriving late. The other important feature was the ability to order breakfast for late arrivals or current residents. Our new kiosk’s technology has advanced even more significantly and we now offer facilities such as:
- Automatic Check In and Check Out
- Full integration with Front Office Systems such as RMS
- Interactive Video and Voice assistance for clients during the check in and payment processes
- Ability to preview, check and part or fully pay a bill at the kiosk
- Ability to finalise bill and check out with full tax invoice without waiting in line at the counter.
This, together with remote management options, allows fully automatic 24 hour machine staffing for standard reception functions.
The technology has come a long way since our early trials.
We had to develop much of the kiosk technology from the ground up. The first module to be developed was the high reliability key drop mechanism. This is designed to hold the maximum practical number of keys in a compact layout whilst ensuring ultra high reliability, ease of inserting and removing keys, anti jamming protection, tamper proof design. The final result is a modular mechanism able to safely hold and release a small bunch of keys with key tag attached with the ability to hold up to 256 keys in modules of eight. In the rare eventuality of failure of an individual key drop mechanism, the software can remove it from service until a technician replaces it.
The payment gateway proved to be a considerable challenge. Listening to our potential customers, we had to provide a full range of payment options for motel clients, including credit card acceptance, debit card acceptance and cash acceptance. Our first solution of credit card-only acceptance remains a viable option today for those customers who want the lowest cost solution. Whilst valid and viable – it has the limitations of all Internet gateway solutions today and that is that all these transactions are classed as “MOTO” Mail Order Telephone Order, and are classified as low security non “card present” transactions. With these transactions, it remains the responsibility of the merchant to prove the validity of these transactions which can be challenged – and often are – by less than honest customers or customers with a `bad memory.’ Any merchant who accepts over the phone credit payments will, depending on industry, have experienced issues with these – sometimes months after the services are provided.Our direct dial fully integrated EFTPOS module provides a collection facility that is much more secure.
Printing a receipt reliably first time, every time is one of the major challenges of Kiosk technology. A printer is probably the most jam prone and failure prone module, and significant testing needs to be carried out in selection of: the appropriate printer; the mounting; paper replacement access and protection from customer abuse. A major factor in printer jamming in the field is where a customer grabs and pulls a receipt before it is finished printing. We protect against this by using printers that have a `presenter’ feature. The receipt is held inside the printer mechanism until it is fully printed, cut and is then ejected rapidly. Other factors affecting reliability, as experienced during field trials, include the paper quality, paper curl and paper adhesion to ejection rollers. Long term experience has helped us overcome these issues.
Motel room locks are based on four technologies:
- Standard hardware keys
- Magnetic swipe locks
- Combination locks
- Proximity tag locks
The most common of these is still the familiar room key with the large tag. These are addressed with or key drop technology as described above.
We have developed interface technology whereby our kiosks can issue swipe cards on demand for magnetic room locks such as Onity, VingCard and other brands. Working with the manufacturers agents, we are able to interface directly with the Room Locking Master Database to authorise and issue room cards for both walk-in customers and prebooked customers.
Certain large hotel groups and boutique properties use combination locks. These may be central software based, such as the system used by Motel Formule 1 in a number of their properties. Other locks in use include the standard Lockwood mechanical combination locks, or the CMS electronic combination locks. Our software is designed to store these combinations and print them on a receipt when selling a room or issuing a receipt for a prebooked room pick up.
Proximity tag locks are generally activated by either a card similar to a swipe card, or a small round button, usually attached to a keychain. Our kiosks treat these in the same way as physical room keys and can release pre-programmed tags or cards to motel or hotel clients.
Kiosks, by their very nature, are often in less than secure unattended environments. Physical toughness is a primary requirement. Units need to be weatherproof and vandal resistant to a high degree. The author believes there is no such thing as vandal proof due to easy access to such modern tools as chainsaws, angle grinders and the like. The best we can do is to make it as hard as possible for the average vandal to penetrate the unit while making repairs as easy as possible.
We achieve this in our kiosks by providing the look and feel of toughness and by using industry leading construction techniques. By way of example, our standard kiosk is constructed with a 1.6mm mild steel chassis with 4mm glass fibre filled plastic body. The key access door is reinforced and the touch panel is 3mm toughened glass, which is designed to withstand a blow from a hammer. Double or triple locking bars are used with security key access. The full-length hinge is of 2mm stainless steel. The EFTPOS unit is of a cast aluminium design with ¼” glass panel and toughened all metal keys. The Kiosks are securely wall mounted or pedestal mounted utilising internally accessible mounting points.
Our flush-mounting, steel-fronted models are even more rugged, utilising 3mm mild steel or stainless steel on all exposed surfaces and are designed for prolonged unattended outdoor operation.
Cash is particularly vulnerable to vandalism. For this reason it is highly recommended that as a deterrent to vandals, the cash acceptor is presented as highly secure and preferably separate from the main kiosk. We offer this option for our unattended Kiosks and have designed the cash acceptor to physically resemble a safe totally separate from the main Kiosk body. Fully integrated options are of course available for more secure locations.
Access to room keys or cards is carefully guarded against through the use of careful internal kiosk design, so devices such as hooks cannot be used to retrieve keys.
Another major deterrent is the visibility of and warning signs for video cameras. Our kiosks have the option of either a stand alone or linked video camera that is attached to the current motel or hotel security tape logging machines or can use IP link technology to allow remote viewing in cases where the Kiosk owner may be operating a 24-hour attended premises elsewhere. Remote contract monitoring is also an option with 2 way voice communications.
Low Cost KeySafe
Option For some of the smaller properties including B&B’s and eight to 15 room motels, there is a real need for a method of issuing keys to clients without incurring the cost of the fully automated machines. Managers of apartment style units, real estate agents, especially with holiday letting properties, have the same needs. A common solution has been the `security doormat or flowerpot’ or even leaving the room open. Some agents or property owners even went to the trouble of a safe with combination lock that held all the available property keys!
Working with my design team, we came up with a unique modestly priced KeySafe concept that holds four to 24 keys, customisable for up to 256 keys. It is based on the principal that the property manager or cleaning staff would load the available room keys during the day and would key in the clients mobile phone number as the combination to each room. The client, on arriving at the property, has only to key in their mobile number followed by the # key, and the key to their room drops out. I feel this is a very simple viable solution that provides a high level of security for the guest and the property manager. We recommend a direct dial telephone be located near the unit to bring the customer service level up to almost the quality of fully attended premises.
As banks, airlines and other service industries are discovering, customer acceptance of automatic purchase and payment technologies has been remarkably rapid and we only have to review the banks reported profit performance to see the enormous benefits for adopters of this new technology.
Stephen Tusak Manager,
Check Inn Systems