Interview With TJ Person, CEO, OpenKey

Hotels are just starting to adopt Bluetooth-enabled smart locks, meaning that--if you're lucky--you can skip stopping at the desk and just walk up to your room, and not have to hassle with those plastic key fobs. But, just how far are we from ubiquitous, smartphone-enabled hotel locks? We caught up with TJ Person, the CEO of Dallas-based OpenKey (, to learn more about the company, smartphone-based hotel keys, and where the industry is today.

For those who haven't heard of OpenKey, tell us about what you've developed?

TJ Person: OpenKey is a universal smart key or mobile key for your hotel room. We provide software for hotels, to deliver mobile keys to hotel guests, that enables them to skip the desk and go straight to their room, with no waiting in line. We do that securely and really ubiquitously across all hotel lock companies in the space.

How did you start working on this area?

TJ Person: One of my friends is the CEO of three public companies, Ashford Group's Monty Bennett, was talking with me a couple of years ago, asking me about all of the Bluetooth locks in the hotel space, and telling me how they would change the whole guest experience for hotels forever. I had built two other tech companies, both based in Dallas, and both VC-funded, and when I heard about that, I thoughtówow, this is going to be awesome, and saw a huge value here. We stared building out OpenKey, to be universal and work with all of these lock companies, so that we could run in any situation and in any hotel.

Are there any kinds of standards in this area?

TJ Person: We decided early on that we didn't want to build hardware. Instead, we decided to partner with best-in-class hardware providers. We went out, and with the help of our hotel investors, we were able to develop preferred partnerships with lots of the companies in this space. Essentially, what we've done, is we've created an abstraction layer that sits on top of all the different lock companies. So, even though a hotel owner or chain may have five hotels or hundreds or thousands of hotels, we can work with different lock manufacturers in the ecosystem. With OpenKey, they don't have to worry about what kind of lock they have, we support all locks that are Bluetooth enabled.

What is driving the adoption of mobile keys?

TJ Person: The interesting thing is that guests are driving this as much as hotels. The two major hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton, are investing a ton of resources into mobile keys. But, they are only a small percentage of hotels worldwide. What that is doing, is it is dragging the rest of the market along, and creating opportunities for OpenKey to standardize the industry. What OpenKey has done, is we've taken whatever technology the lock companies are using, and standardized that, making it easier for hotels. An example of that, we deliver this from a web-based system at hotels, which runs on a browser at the hotel, which makes it as easy as possible for that front desk to manage that experience.

Given your perspective on the industry, where is the industry in terms of adoption of Bluetooth enabled locks?

TJ Person: It's still the early days. There is lots of room for growth. I think it's something like less than 5 percent of hotels that have mobile keys today. But, it's moving quickly. It's our first year that we've been commercializing this, and we'll have 16,000 hotel rooms by the end of 2016, and already have 35,000 hotel rooms in the pipeline for 2017. We've been very busy, and it's the early days, and there's lots of room for growth. It's being driven by the major brands, who are all looking at this, and really encouraging the rest of the hotel space to catch on.

What has been the most difficult part of getting all of this to work?

TJ Person: Locks have to be upgraded at a hotel, and we have to make sure all the infrastructure runs well at that hotel. I think that's part of the value of OpenKey, is which we when install the technology at a hotel, we make sure it's all up and running. The biggest challenge there, is since you're dealing with physical hardware, you have to build for the lowest common denominator, to make sure it will work anywhere.

What's the biggest lesson you have learned so far about this market?

TJ Person: I would say, we understimated how flat the world was. I've built two other tech companies, and have been hesitant to expand outside of borders. However, my team is right now in Mexico, installing at a 500 room resort, and we have customers in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico, and since the lock companies we work with are global, it's really been much easier to launch globally than I had expected.

Finally, what's next for you?

TJ Person: We are launching some really cool stuff next year. We've been very focused on the guest experience, and making skipping that desk and getting you the best experience possible. The one thing we're working on next year, is adding additional value for the hotel, adding additional products and features. Since we are a utility, as a mobile key, we sit in a good position to offer those products to hotels, such as providing some big data analytics to our hotels, help them understand their guests, and help the more efficiently communicate with guests.