Travelers are accustomed to checking into a hotel and receiving a shiny plastic keycard. Since 1978, electronic plastic keycards have become standard for hotel guests, who can access their rooms with a simple swipe or insertion. But as single-use plastic is being eliminated from properties, the plastic keycard has become an antiquated tool. For many hotels, plastic keycards don’t fit within their sustainability ethos. In 2021, Mandarin Oriental introduced bamboo and wood keycards into their hotels.
“As we were in the process of eliminating single use plastics from our hotels, we took the opportunity to look at all plastic products and determine where else we could replace with eco-friendly materials without affecting either experience or cost,” says Iris Lam, Director of Sustainability, Global Development for Mandarin Oriental. “While some argue this is not technically a single-use plastic, which is true as we indeed can use them over and over, the reality is that the majority are not returned by the guests, and so we thought it was best to find an alternative. Most of our hotels immediately switched over with more than 60% no longer using plastic cards, while others are in the process of switching over. It is now the standard moving forward for all our hotels.”
While a keycard might seem small, for Mandarin Oriental, it’s representative of a bigger concern. The company set a goal for a total ban on single-use plastic in 2018 and eliminated 99% of it from their operations by the end of 2022. Handing a guest a bamboo keycard has helped to achieve that aim.
“We see a lot more suppliers offering more eco-friendly materials as well,” Lam says. “Digital keys will also be an increasingly more common alternative in the future, but this will likely not be adopted by all guests for various reasons. So as an industry, we must continue to strive to reduce our impact on the environment and implement eco-friendly alternatives for guest service items where possible.”
1 Hotels has used circular wooden keycards since the brand launched in 2015. Their website notes that “small details lead to big change,” a sentiment that’s at the center of their design choices. The properties feature reclaimed materials, shower timers and thousands of plants. It makes sense that the keys come in five different types of recycled wood.
“Highlighting the beauty of nature has always been one of our guiding principles that carries through every step of the 1 Hotels experience,” says Toni Stoeckl, Chief Marketing Officer, SH Hotels & Resorts. “As a mission-driven brand that lets nature lead the way, sustainability is integral of our DNA. We have always believed that prioritizing sustainability does not mean having to sacrifice design, functionality or luxury. From our inception, we have used the wooden key cards as we have always prioritized limiting the use of single-use plastic. Wood made sense because it is a visual and tactile reminder of nature, and the wooden key is recyclable and reusable.”
It’s not just larger hotel chains that are using these new keycards. R Collection, a family-owned Italian hotel group, swapped in bamboo keycards at the end of last summer. Riccardo Bortolotti, General Manager of Grand Hotel Bristol on the Portofino Coast, discovered the bamboo option at a trade fair and immediately fell in love with the idea.
“Keycards are a big problem in hotels because we printed them a lot,” he says. “Most of the people bring them home or they lose them, and in terms of sustainability, our goals were not met. Bamboo is a sustainable material — it’s the most sustainable wood. It grows super fast and it doesn’t change the area where it grows. It doesn’t take a lot of water. I think it’s the material of the future.”
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Ludovica Rocchi, Brand Director, adds that the keycards are one of the many steps R Collection is taking towards becoming more sustainable. The bamboo keys are currently in use in Grand Hotel Bristol and Grand Hotel Victoria in Lake Como.
“We’ve always supported our local communities and developed trainings and further advancements for our teams, but now we’re fully engaging in sustainability as a top priority across our portfolio of hotels,” Rocchi says. “We looked at several different options for materials but decided because of durability, accessibility and no need to change our technology in rooms for this option, the wooden cards suited us best. It was an impactful yet easy first step to take while doing renovations on both properties.”
R Collection also still uses traditional metal keys in their other two Lake Como properties, Villa Cipressi and Royal Hotel Victoria. Not only are the keys historic, they are as eco-friendly as you can get. For the company, the metal keys and the modern bamboo keycards reflect the same goal.
“Coming from the old keys in metal, it’s strange that we just moved from that to plastic for ages,” Bortolotti says. “Now we are coming back to something that was always sustainable. In a luxury hotel, it’s nice to be given your key in a little folder. It’s part of the experience. So I think in the future there will be two ways you are given your key — material or digital. You can have the option, but many travelers want to hold a key.”
Like with plastic keycards, sustainable materials offer an opportunity for hotels to personalize the experience. Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles implemented four different wooden keycards in 2021. Each features a symbol that represents the hotel and its history: the coffin-shaped swimming pool, a cactus, a triangle and a hidden bookcase.
“Our commitment to creating a truly memorable guest experience extends far beyond just comfortable beds and impeccable service,” says Connie Wang, Managing Director of Hotel Figueroa. “It’s about those subtle yet significant touches that make your stay truly extraordinary, along with our deep rooted history and our longstanding involvement in the arts, dating back to our establishment in 1926. We thought of these keycards as yet another way to pay homage to the historic and iconic elements of our hotel, a canvas of creativity, featuring a variety of emblems that provide a glimpse to our past. We want our guests to explore and discover our history throughout their stay, and the first clues for guests to seek out becomes apparent immediately upon check-in.”
Similarly, the team at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico wanted to create keys that reflect the hotel’s local culture. Their cherry wood cards are embossed with symbols of Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taino people that tie into the guest experience, including the sun, the ocean, a turtle and a coqui. The keys arrive in a recycled paper holder that’s embedded with non-invasive wildflower seeds, which guests can plant when they go home.
“We searched for a vendor that produced sustainable wood-based keys that could be personalized to the brand and provide an additional surprise to the Ritz-Carlton mystique by engraving them,” says Mafalda Tavares, Hotel Manager of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. “[Guests] often ask to have different keys so they can collect them all, especially when the guests have children.”
Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim offers their own design flourish. The hotel’s cherry wood keycards feature the motto “Plastic is not Fantastic,” a nod to the fact that by changing material, the property has eliminated the production of more than 36,000 plastic cards per year. Jens Moesker, General Manager of Fairmont Pacific Rim and Regional Vice President for the Pacific Northwest, says the quote “speaks to the hotel’s cheeky nature.”
“The overall thought behind the keycard is a reflection to our continued mission in becoming a net-zero hotel, in addition to all of the significant changes we’ve implemented in removing single-use plastics,” Moesker says. “Guests’ feedback has been very positive across the board — they’re pleased to see we’re consciously making tangible changes to ensure our entire guest experience is more eco-friendly, which also includes all of the touch points in our rooms, dining outlets and spa.”
Not all hotels are going the wood or bamboo route. Trailborn Rocky Mountains, which opened in December in Estes Park, Colorado, has paper keycards for guests to access their rooms. The hotel has been constructed with environmentally-conscious elements, including fresh water wells and cork floors, and will be powered by renewable energy from non-carbon renewable sources whenever possible. Mike Weiss, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Trailborn, says that because the brand’s hotels are located in awe-inspiring locations, they have a “Keep Extraordinary” initiative. “We’re guests in these places,” Weiss says. “Implementing a non-plastic keycard was an easy decision.”
“With our focus on the outdoors, when it came to a key, we set out to have a reusable option for active guests and implemented an RFID wristband,” adds Ben Weinberg, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Trailborn. “But, for people who might want a more traditional option, we still needed a key and very much wanted to avoid a plastic keycard. We looked at several wooden options, but they just didn’t feel right. After a fair amount of exploration, our printing partner suggested paper. It’s an elegant feel, a reduced use of material and obviously not plastic.”
While a keycard may not seem like a major change, especially compared with bigger sustainability measures, as Stoeckl puts it, “Every small step adds up.” Non-plastic keys represent loftier goals and can be a symbol of change for a hotel. Guests appreciate the gesture, too.
“The hotel key was a simple way to remove plastic that has been so integral to how guests move about the hotel,” says Gabor Vida, Managing Director of Rosewood, Washington D.C. “We are thrilled to have received positive responses from our guests. We find, in general, our guests appreciate and seek out sustainability and responsible efforts, especially ones that are seamlessly woven into their experience. We find that small touches like these key cards not only help us reach larger sustainability goals but also provide our guests with ways to see our efforts in action.”
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