RFID Serves Up Benefits for Guests and Hosts

By Elizabeth Wasserman

Resorts, amusement parks, sports arenas and restaurants are among the hospitality and entertainment organizations using RFID to enhance the customer experience—and improve their bottom line.


This winter, skiers eager to hit the 77 trails on the 3,968-foot mountain at Vermont’s Jay Peak Resort will have a new tool to speed their way: a plastic card with an RFID chip that will serve as a season pass, lift ticket and lodge room key. “We’re trying to make the entire guest experience a little easier,” says Craig Russell, information systems manager at Jay Peak. “Our long-term plan is to move away from card media, and to use RFID-enabled wristbands that give guests access to the lifts, their room, the water park and the ice rink. It will be how you pay for your meals in the restaurant, how you pay for soda at the snack bar, and how your kids pay for video games in the arcade.”

Jay Peak is just one of a growing number of resorts, hotels, amusement parks, concert halls, sports arenas and health clubs worldwide that are embracing RFID-enabled cards and wristbands. The reason is simple: RFID can help ensure that guests have a good time, and happy customers tend to spend more money.

At Jay Peak Resort, In Vermont, an RFID-enabled card (far left) serves as a skier’s season pass, lift ticket and lodge room key. (Photo: Jay Peak Resort)

Great Wolf Lodge, a fast-growing chain featuring indoor water slides, arcades and snack bars, was one of the first companies to discover this. In 2005, Great Wolf introduced RFID wristbands from Precision Dynamics at its new resort in the Pocono Mountains, Pa., and followed by adding the technology in new constructions in Mason, Ohio, and Niagara Falls, Canada.

In 2008, the company retrofitted its Williamsburg, Va., resort, replacing the magnetic-stripe room key cards with RFID wristbands, and found “there was a significant increase in incremental spending,” says Rajiv Castellino, the company’s CIO. “The RFID band is your wallet on your wrist. It allows you to open the room door, and it is your charge card.” Today, adults and kids at seven of the 12 Great Wolf resorts can venture around the water parks in their bathing suits and buy food, play arcade games or pay for spa treatments with the wave of their RFID wristbands—instead of having to return to their rooms to retrieve their wallets.

Companies in the entertainment and hospitality industries that have adopted RFID also say the technology can help solve pain points that erode the bottom line, including counterfeit ticketing, security issues, liquor shrinkage and inefficient marketing. Behind the scenes, RFID is being used to enhance theme-park rides for visitors. But entertainment media isn’t faring as well, as steps to use RFID to get CDs, DVDs and video game software into the hands of consumers have stalled.

Cutting Out Counterfeiters

Counterfeiting is estimated to cost concert, event and sports promoters about 1 percent or 2 percent of their business each year, says Tom Foster, RFID sales manager for Precision Dynamics. That translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues—and explains why a growing number of promoters are replacing bar-code tickets with RFID cards or wristbands.

“Counterfeiting is our number-one problem,” says Skip Paige, a representative from Goldenvoice, which promoted the annual three-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held in April at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, Calif., with 75,000 attendees. “If we print tickets with bar codes on them, people will copy them. The tickets are $300 apiece, so someone can make 1,000 of them and make a killing. You need something with a unique identifier that can’t be counterfeited.”

Jay Peak Resort will offer a plastic card with an RFID chip that will serve as a season pass, lift ticket and lodge room key. (Photo: Jay Peak Resort)

To foil the counterfeiters, for the first time in the festival’s 11-year history, ticketholders were issued RFID-enabled wristbands. Each chip contained a unique 16-digit ID number. “The chances of replicating one with the same ID number are close to one billion to one,” Foster says. Security personnel with handheld RFID readers were positioned at the festival’s entrances, and they turned away many people who tried to get in with wristbands without the RFID chip, the promoter says. “What we’re finding is that people would pay to get in and get a wristband,” Forster says. “Then they would text their buddies out in the parking lot with information about the color of the wristband and logo and they would run out to a printer and duplicate those.”

Many sports enthusiasts worldwide—including some 7 million people who attended the 2008 Olympics in Beijing—are also getting used to paperless ticketing. When the Red Bull Arena, home of the Red Bulls Major League Soccer team, opened earlier this year in Harrison, N.J., 6,000 full-season ticketholders were issued RFID cards that not only activate turnstiles to allow admission but also can be loaded with stored value on the team’s Web site to expedite purchasing at concession stands. The system, sold by Fortress GB, is similar to RFID systems now in use at European soccer stadiums, such as Arsenal and Manchester City in the United Kingdom.

“We decided to move to RFID as an aspect of an overall improvement to customer management and the ticketing process,” says Andrew Lafiosca, VP of marketing for Red Bulls New York. While declining to share information about whether the use of RFID cards has helped reduce counterfeiting or increase concessions sales, he says the arena will be expanding use of RFID next season to nonseason ticketholders as part of a paid membership program. “The end goal is to create a complete program where all fan interactions with the club/arena flow through the use of the card,” he explains.

Improving Security

Like Great Wolf Lodge, many hotels and resorts are building new facilities with RFID-enabled contactless electronic door locks, and some are retrofitting the locks on existing properties. They view RFID access systems as a customer convenience and a way to enhance guest visits. VingCard Elsafe, a hospitality security provider and part of the Assa Abloy Hospitality Group, reports its RFID contactless electronic door locks are among the company’s most popular products.

This year, for example, the firm installed its Signature RFID locks at the 40-room Valentines Resort and Marina, on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, and the 206-room Venezuela Marriott Hotel Playa Grande, in Catia la Mar. The system is compatible with Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology, so guests could use NFC-enabled mobile phones to unlock their doors, and to secure in-room safes. The added security “gives our guests peace of mind so they can relax,” says Alexis Ross, office manager of the Valentines Resort in a press release.

Some 6,000 soccer fans are using RFID cards to access the Red Bull Arena, in New Jersey. The cards can also be loaded with stored value to expedite purchasing at concession stands. (Photo: Red Bull Arena)

“Hotels and resorts are looking to RFID for access control,” says Michael J. Liard, RFID practice director at ABI Research. “That could be as basic as entering a room. But they are also looking at what else can be enabled. Can it become a multi-applications card? Can it be used to charge to your hotel room when dining or taking advantage of the spa services? You’re not likely to see this at a Motel 6, but you may see this at midtier hotels.”

In many new hotel constructions, such as in places like Dubai, companies are opting for RFID over magnetic-stripe room key cards. Some more established hotels, such as Valentines Resort and Marina, are having doors retrofitted for RFID due to the higher level of security the technology provides to guests. But Liard cautions that retrofitting existing hotels can be an expensive proposition—if a hotel has 1,000 rooms, for instance, you have to install 1,000 readers in each door and train staff members to use the new technology.

But there’s another benefit to RFID keys—you can immediately reset or cancel access if a card is lost or stolen, or if an employee with key privileges leaves the company or is fired. Without RFID, establishments often have to rekey the locks. “That problem is largely solved with RFID-based solutions,” says Kevin Graebel, product line manager for credentials at HID Global, an RFID access solution vendor. “Because the cards contain a unique ID you issue to employees, you can control access on a back-end software system… If someone leaves the company or needs access to a new part of the building, it can all be done by administrators in a couple of keystrokes.”

The security components of RFID cards are also appealing to managers of trade shows, conferences and other events. Populous, an architectural firm that specializes in stadium design and event planning, tested RFID badges with passholder photos stored on the chips at June’s National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics conference at California’s Anaheim Convention Center. The passes, developed by Document Security Systems‘ subsidiary, Plastic Printing Professionals, can control event access by requiring security personnel to make facial matches between passholders and their on-chip photos. “We’re going to use it for some sporting events,” says Jeannette Johnson, Populous’ event manager. “It worked perfectly.”

Fitness centers, private clubs and other organizations also are discovering the appeal of RFID access cards. Axess North America, for example, has equipped health-club members from Atlanta to Vancouver with RFID key fobs that provide access via locked doors or gates at 24-hour fitness centers that aren’t always staffed with receptionists. In addition, some clubs are using the RFID cards to allow members access only to particular areas of facilities based on their membership categories.

To improve security, Valentines Resort and Marina, on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, retrofitted its 40 guest rooms with RFID contactless electronic door locks. (Photo: Valentines Resort and Marina)

In September, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Atlanta went live with an RFID card system for 15,000 members. JCC’s administrators felt it would provide better security and more comprehensive access control than the bar-code system it replaced. The RFID cards grant access to the building—in some cases to specific areas, such as the fitness club and the preschool, based on membership level.

“Your membership card is the RFID card and that ties back to our database and says what you have access to,” says Glen Helton, JCC’s information director. “A preschool parent can walk into the preschool with his or her card. But if you don’t have a kid in the preschool, there is no reason for us to open that door.”

Monitoring the Spirits

Hotels, restaurants and pubs are using RFID to monitor the amount of alcohol bartenders dispense for each drink, reducing overpouring, undercharging and failing to charge for the spirits they serve. Capton‘s Beverage Tracker system, which wirelessly monitors drinks poured via RFID-enabled spouts on liquor bottles, has been deployed at hundreds of locations throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The system tracks the amount of liquor poured by bartenders, noting the brand, time and date, so hospitality managers can easily analyze the data and compare it with receipts, or integrate it with their point-of-sale systems and include the data in tracking reports. After Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, in Atlantic City, installed the devices at its Beach Bar in 2009, managers reported they saved more than $130,000 in liquor costs compared with the previous year. The system will be installed on more than 3,000 liquor spouts at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, in Las Vegas, when it opens Dec. 15, says Tricia James, Capton’s VP of marketing.

Capton’s Beverage Tracker system not only reduces liquor shrinkage but also eliminates customer awareness that liquor is being measured.

The RFID system appeals to these facilities because it not only reduces liquor shrinkage but also eliminates customer awareness that liquor is being measured, unlike some other liquor-monitoring solutions. “It’s an unobtrusive way to track liquor pours with a high level of accuracy, and the guest isn’t looking at you using some device that looks like a telephone cord on your bottle, or even a jigger or a push button,” says James MacKay, general manager of the Lion & Rose, a chain of pubs in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s important, especially in the concept of a pub.”

Building Customer Loyalty

The entertainment and hospitality industries are betting RFID will provide more information about what their customers like and want. Insight into guests’ usage patterns, habits and preferences can shape promotional offers and encourage repeat business.

Foster says Precision Dynamics is testing an RFID marketing application for a sports team he’s not yet allowed to name. The idea is to use season ticketholders’ RFID wristbands, which provide access to the arena, to better understand fans’ needs and determine what services or products they might buy. “It’s great for marketing,” Foster says. “As people walk into a venue and come within a few feet of a reader, the wristband is read and the attendant can say, ‘Welcome back, Mr. Foster. We’re having a two-for-one special at the XYZ Club on the concourse level.'”

Multipurpose RFID cards—such as access combined with stored value—can also help facilitate sales. Often, hotel guests want to purchase soda or snacks after hours, when gift shops are closed, ABI’s Liard says. In the future, contactless vending machines could provide an easy way for guests to make such purchases.

The JCC of Atlanta is using its RFID access system, designed by Axess North America, to track who uses the pool and how often. This information may help the facility market certain types of memberships to clients based on their usage profiles. “We might make the pool membership a different membership,” Helton says. “We consider that 50 percent of the benefit of RFID is control, and 50 percent is internally developing metrics about what people do.”

At Jay Peak Resort, where Salto Systems provided the RFID technology for hotel room locks and Axess North America supplied the RFID technology for the lift tickets, executives are hopeful that by next season, the 250,000 skiers who visit each year will be able to load currency on their lift-ticket cards by logging on to the resort’s Web site. That way, they could grab a burger, fries or hot chocolate—or buy new gloves at the ski shop—without opening their wallets. In addition, the resort intends to analyze the data from RFID reads at gates, to reduce wait times on peak days and at popular lifts, Russell says.

The resort also plans to use the information generated by RFID reads to better market passes to its customers. “We’d like to get much better data on who our customers are, and what they’re doing here,” Russell says. “Do they average three days a year [on the slopes] or 15? If you have someone in that six- to 10-day range, would they like to move up to a season-pass product?” In addition, Jay Peak plans to analyze RFID data to determine which trails are most popular, so it knows which lift and trail upgrades to prioritize, for instance. “We’ll have real-time data on where skiers are spending their time,” Russell notes.

Thrills, Chills and RFID

Once guests board the mining cars at Revenge of the Mummy, at the Universal Studios Singapore theme park, they are transported through an ancient Egyptian tomb filled with a soul-sucking mummy, scarab beetles that invade the vehicles and flames that burst out from the ceiling. The thrills and chills of the coaster ride, opened since March, come courtesy of RFID, which triggers scary sound effects in each vehicle. Each car is equipped with an RFID reader, and certain locations along the route are fitted with high-frequency (13.56 MHz) RFID tags. When a car approaches a tagged location, the system triggers the audio effects.

“The system has to be smart enough to make sure the correct audio track always plays at the right time,” says Steve Alkhoja, VP for entertainment technologies at ITEC Entertainment, in Orlando, Fla., which provided the audio technology. “The RFID scanner is integrated into the on-board coaster audio system. The tags along the ride track are basically letting the vehicle know which location it’s in, so it knows which audio track to play.”

RFID triggers scary sound effects on cue in each ride vehicle. (Photo: Universal Studios Singapore)

The first RFID-enabled attraction ITEC developed was the Jaws water ride at Universal Studios Orlando, in 1993. Lately, more attractions are being designed using RFID, according to ITEC, which has been involved in entertainment projects for Universal Studios, Disney and other companies worldwide. “In the past few years, RFID technology has become more affordable and more practical for the projects,” Alkhoja says.

RFID plays a supporting role, for example, at another Universal Studios Singapore attraction—Madagascar: A Crate Adventure, an indoor flume ride. The passenger boats are fitted with plastic-encased RFID tags. Readers are situated at locations along the route where the boats are lifted out of the water, enabling the ride control system to identify each boat number and track the boats throughout the attraction. And at Space Fantasy, an indoor coaster ride at Universal Studios Japan, in Osaka, RFID triggers the audio and lighting effects on board the vehicles as riders travel on a mission from the Earth to save the Sun. In addition to entertaining guests, RFID helps amusement park operators track ride vehicles for maintenance operations.

“It shortens the amount of downtime involved in taking a vehicle online or offline,” Alkhoja says. “They don’t want people to stand in line any longer than they have to.”

Supply Chain Stalemate

Home entertainment media is big business, but sales of CDs, DVDs and video game software are often derailed by theft and counterfeiting, as well as by customers’ difficulty finding the product on store shelves.

Photo: iStockphoto

In 2008, when RFID Journal examined RFID adoption in the entertainment industry, major Hollywood studios were participating in pilots with GS1 EPCglobal‘s Media and Entertainment Industry Action Group to test the use of RFID tags with Electronic Product Codes to track DVDs at the pallet, case and item levels. The DVDs were tagged during production and then tracked from manufacturing to retail floor. But instead of coming to any industry agreement on how to track and trace electronic media through the supply chain, the industry group went on hiatus.

“It came to a little bit of a stalemate,” says Michele Southall, director of community development for GS1 US, which coordinated the panel. Entertainment companies favored tagging at the case level, but retail representatives were seeking item-level tagging so individual titles could be found easily on store shelves or in inventories, according to several sources.

Still, some in the industry believe item-level tracking of entertainment media will happen soon “without a shadow of a doubt” because it makes sense at the retail level, says Frank Riso, Motorola‘s senior director of global retail industry solutions. “There isn’t a retail executive around today who doesn’t openly admit that there are significant benefits to RFID.”