Hotels Hanging on For NFC Technology... Will 2013 Be the Year?

By Vanessa Horwell Founder & Chief Visibility Officer, ThinkInk & TravelInk'd | June 09, 2013

It wasn't long ago that the NFC (near field communication) craze was at fever pitch and industry experts and market watchers declared the virtual wallet (and contactless payments) era had arrived. Do you remember? Smartphones would be equipped with the two-way low-frequency radio-based technology and everything from checking in and checking out to unlocking guest room doors and exchanging business cards in the lobby would change. Back in 2008 Juniper Research boldly predicted that 2013 would be the tipping point where one in five phones would be NFC-enabled, generating some $75 billion in global small-ticket item revenue. The physical leather-bound wallet, it seemed, was on the way out and already the NFC-enabled Nokia 6131, the first NFC flip phone, had been selling for a year.

Well guess what? We're nearly half way through 2013 and I'm starting to feel like the Chief Visibility Officer who cried wolf. I, too, have on occasion been swept up in the NFC hyperbole. Not that I would be alone, as much of the NFC (and mobile payments) hype has been just that – hype. Google Wallet proved swipe-less (fool's) gold and even Peter Hazelhurst, who heads the Google Wallet division, qualified consumer adoption challenges at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show: "This is an evolving process. It's not as if tomorrow everyone suddenly has it."

How very true. It's been more than 2,000 "tomorrows" since the technology was first unveiled. And its earliest roots go back to RFID (radio frequency identification) development in the early 1980s and before.

Apple's decision not to include NFC on the iPhone 5 was a strong signal to others in the smartphone and NFC landscape that, even after all this time, the technology still wasn't ready for primetime as of September 2012. Even if hotels – and guests – were ready to embrace it, smartphones hadn't exactly caught up. While at last count 62 mobile phone models across various makers featured NFC technology, sales were lackluster at best. Add to that nagging security concerns and expensive NFC reader upgrades and consumers and hotel executives were left with a nascent NFC industry essentially still in park.

The NFC Experience, the Spotlight Returns

Fast forward six months and the debate as to the technology's worth, especially as it relates to hotels, is heating up again. This year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona included an event that almost sounded like it belonged at Universal Studios – The NFC Experience. Designed to showcase all that NFC can do, this gathering attracted over 10,000 attendees who could use their NFC-enabled Windows 8, Blackberry 7.1 and Android 4 phones to interact with kiosks, open hotel doors and make payments. Organizers handed out 3,500 NFC-equipped phones to VIPs at the conference to help further promote NCF's value. Users were able to take advantage of NFC "badges" that did away with the need to show photo ID, quickening and streamlining the event entry process.

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Mobile Technology: The Future is Now

Mobile Technology continues to advance at a relentless pace and the hotel industry continues to adapt. Hotel guests have shown a strong preference for mobile self-service - from checking-in/out at a hotel kiosk, to ordering room service, making dinner reservations, booking spa treatments, and managing laundry/dry cleaning services. And they also enjoy the convenience of paying for these services with smart phone mobile payments. In addition, some hotels have adopted a “concierge in your pocket” concept. Through a proprietary hotel app, guests can access useful information such as local entertainment venues, tourist attractions, event calendars, and medical facilities and services. In-room entertainment continues to be a key factor, as guests insist on the capacity to plug in their own mobile devices to customize their entertainment choices. Mobile technology also allows for greater marketing opportunities. For example, many hotels have adopted the use of “push notifications” - sending promotions, discounts and special event messages to guests based on their property location, purchase history, profiles, etc. Near field communication (NFC) technology is also being utilized to support applications such as opening room doors, earning loyalty points, renting a bike, accessing a rental car, and more. Finally, some hotels have adopted more futuristic technology. Robots are in use that have the ability to move between floors to deliver room service requests for all kinds of items - food, beverages, towels, toothbrushes, chargers and snacks. And infrared scanners are being used by housekeeping staff that can detect body heat within a room, alerting staff that the room is occupied and they should come back at a later time. The January Hotel Business Review will report on what some hotels are doing to maximize their opportunities in this exciting mobile technology space.