RFID Captures Each Time Guests Throw in the Towel

By Claire Swedberg

A passive UHF RFID system from Towel Tracker enables health clubs, hotels and other businesses to track towels or other objects borrowed and returned, thereby reducing the loss of those items.


While working at several health clubs, Steven Molewyk had observed how much money they often lost due to discarded or stolen towels. To address this problem, Molewyk founded Towel Tracker three years ago in Grand Rapids, Mich. The solution his company developed employs radio frequency identification to track towels and those who use them. Since the system became commercially available a year ago, however, the firm has received requests for it from companies in the hospitality, health-care, and oil and gas industries.

The solution consists of an intelligent receptacle for towels—though it could work with other items as well—that tracks which tagged items are placed onto and removed from its shelves, as well as who takes them. In this way, the system not only ensures that individuals return towels when finished using them, but can also help manage the device’s emptying and refilling, thereby ensuring that inventory does not run out.

Towel Tracker’s system uses EPC Gen 2 passive RFID tags and readers to monitor towel usage and returns.

Many health clubs offer courtesy towels for members to use during visits, which they can then deposit in a laundry bin upon leaving. However, a large health club can often lose as many as 150 towels daily, Molewyk says, due to towels being carried out of a club in members’ gym bags, or accidentally thrown away. Other towels are tossed on the floor, to be retrieved by health-club employees. Several health clubs have thus chosen to discontinue towel services, but some members cancel their membership if such a service is not provided.

For other companies, such as hotels, providing courtesy towels is non-negotiable—guests require them at poolside, as well as in their rooms, but still may be inclined to take them home. For example, Avi Resort and Casino, located in Laughlin, Nev., lost between 2,800 and 4,000 of its poolside towels annually, according to Jay Johnson, the resort’s director of information technology. Johnson installed the Towel Tracker system 18 months ago, and reports that Avi lost fewer than 100 towels last year.

Towel Tracker’s service amounts to a machine with two compartments, similar to a pair of vending machines standing side by side. One side of the device stores clean towels, while the other, with a second door, stores soiled towels that can then be transported to a company’s laundry facility. The system has a built-in RFID reader that captures the ID numbers of all towels placed within it, with one antenna for each compartment.

The Towel Tracker device can store up to 250 to 300 clean towels, depending on a towel’s size, and can also store robes or other items. If someone needs to access the clean towel compartment, he or she must first present an ID card or badge. In the case of Avi Resort and Casino, an employee badge is required for staff members, or a room key for hotel guests. The Towel Tracker device can read bar-coded or mag-stripe cards, as well as those containing RFID inlays. Once a card’s ID has been read or scanned, Towel Tracker software loaded on a computer built into the machine interprets that ID, and also forwards that number via a cabled or Wi-Fi connection to the back-end Towel Tracker software. In the software, the card ID is linked to that person’s account, enabling the system to identify whether he or she is authorized to access the towels.

If authorization is confirmed, the machine releases the door’s locking mechanism, and the user can simply open the door and remove a towel. Every towel comes with a rubber-encapsulated EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag provided by Fujitsu Frontech North America. When a towel is removed and the door is again closed, the reader no longer interrogates that particular towel’s ID, and its status is updated in the software to indicate that it was taken. In that way, the system can monitor which towels that individual removed.

Avi Resort and Casino’s Jay Johnson

Once finished working out or swimming, the guest can toss the soiled towels into the Towel Tracker’s second compartment, as instructed on signage on the device’s front, and the reader again captures the tag ID, updating the software to indicate that the towel has been returned.

At Avi Resort and Casino, the software integrates with the resort-management system, enabling the hotel to store data regarding the number of towels used by each guest, as well as whether they were returned. Thus, if a visitor fails to return a towel, the resort can bill that person accordingly upon checkout.

In addition, the software can send messages to housekeeping employees when the number of towels within the device becomes low enough that replacement is required. A notice appears on a dashboard displayed on a computer screen, and can also be sent via text message or e-mail to the housekeeping staff’s cell phones.

The technology is currently being used by health clubs, as well as hotels, Molewyk reports, and Towel Tracker is in discussions with companies from a variety of other industries regarding the technology, including airline companies and oil and gas firms. He declines, however, to provide details about how the system might be used in these cases.

A business can buy the Towel Tracker software and integrate it with its own back-end system—or, for a fee, the company can lease a hosted version of the software.

Towel Tracker’s Steven Molewyk

For Avi Resort and Casino, the solution provides a return on investment, by ensuring not only that towels are not lost, but also that they are always stocked when needed. There have been other unforeseen benefits as well, Johnson says. Since the temperature by the Nevada resort’s pool is regularly above 100 degrees, the resort needed to install a cooling unit to ensure that the computer didn’t overheat. This unit cools not only the computer, but also the towels. Guests have been complimenting the resort regarding the pleasantly cooled towels they obtain from the device, he says. “They come to us saying, ‘I love these chilled towels,'” he states. In addition, the resort’s staff no longer must spend part of each shift picking up soiled towels discarded in the pool area.

Although Johnson says he expected guests to consider the Towel Tracker device an inconvenience, it has had the opposite effect—not simply because the towels are cooled, he says, but also because it’s easy to obtain and return them. If anything, he adds, the guests find it amusing.

“When I first heard about the idea of Towel Tracker, I was completely against doing it,” Johnson states. “Now, I think it’s absolutely the greatest thing.”