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What is the Best Material for Hotel Key Cards?

Discover the potential of hotel key cards to boost branding, guest satisfaction, and cost-efficiency. Dive into various key card materials, from PVC's durability to wood and bamboo's eco-friendly allure, PETG's sustainability, and even paper-based alternatives. Plus, explore the future of digital keys, all tailored to enhance your hotel's guest experience and reputation.

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Jordan Hollander in Guest Experience

Last updated February 02, 2024

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Searching for a creative way to build your brand, increase guest satisfaction, and even cut costs? “Unlocking” these benefits isn’t impossible: the simple hotel key card is an underrated brand touchpoint that can enhance your experience on property. Whether you’re launching a new hotel or looking to upgrade your existing key cards, you might be wondering where to start. Since nearly every one of your guests uses it, and maybe even brings it home as a souvenir, the key card is small in size but offers a massive opportunity for marketing and creativity. In this article, we’ll review the top materials for key cards based on durability, sustainability, and branding potential – plus offer one unconventional solution that would do away with key cards entirely. Gaining an understanding of the options available on the market will help you make a more informed decision about key cards at your hotel so you can begin working toward more brand awareness and higher guest review scores.

PVC Key Cards

The most common key card material is PVC, a common polymer used for all kinds of products from packaging to construction. PVC is cheap and durable, making it a logical choice for an object like a key card, which needs to withstand frequent use without breaking. This material is flexible enough that it can bend without breaking, like in a pocket or a bag, and a PVC key card will still work if it gets dropped in the pool or left outside in the cold. PVC key cards are easily customizable. Any type of design, logo, text, or image can be printed on a PVC key card, although the material itself doesn’t stand out as being especially unique. While PVC is one of the least expensive materials for hotel key cards, it also has one of the largest environmental footprints. PVC production emits high levels of greenhouse gases, and PVC is "PVC is the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics” according to GreenPeace.org, so it might not be the best key card material for a hotel that leads with an eco-friendly stance. According to the World Health Organization “PVC is responsible for a greater share of the nation’s annual dioxin burden than any other industrial product. Dioxin is known as one of the most toxic chemicals ever produced.” If your hotel does go with PVC and wants to promote sustainability, you may want to explore using recycled PVC cards.

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Wooden Key Cards

If plastic doesn’t sound like the right material for your hotel’s key cards, then perhaps wood is the right choice. Wooden key cards, often made of birch, can be just as durable and long-lasting as plastic key cards. They can also deliver value on the branding side. A wooden key card is unexpected, as many guests are accustomed to plastic key cards, so the otherwise boring act of unlocking a guestroom door can become memorable with a more unique key card. In addition, wood is a more environmentally friendly material, and it can be more aesthetically pleasing, so wood can be a great fit for hotels that emphasize sustainable and design. These branding benefits come at a cost, though; wooden key cards are more expensive than plastic ones, and the customization options are more limited than what you’d find on PVC key cards. For example, wooden key cards can be engraved, but it’s difficult to print any type of colored graphics on a wooden key card. But for the right hotel, a wooden key card can deliver a wonderful brand experience.

Bamboo Key Cards

Another eye-catching and sustainable key card material is bamboo. This light, flexible material actually feels quite similar to PVC in your hand, but it has a much more positive environmental impact. Bamboo key cards are available in a few different finishes, ranging from light to dark, and can be imprinted with your logo or branding. Bamboo key cards are durable and resistant to regular wear and tear, making them a sustainable choice in many ways. Despite all these benefits, bamboo key cards aren’t necessarily the right choice for every hotel due to their high cost and limited availability. Only a few manufacturers make bamboo key cards, and their price tag is higher than PVC. But for hotels that emphasize sustainability and can afford a premium key card material, bamboo can be a great option.

PETG Key Cards

Looking to move away from PVC key cards but like the look and feel of PVC? PETG key cards are made from PET-G resin, a high percentage of which comes from recycled material, giving them the same durability as PVC with less environmental impact. Like PVC, PETG key cards last a long time, and they’re resistant to bending and breaking. PETG key cards are also infinitely customizable, since you can print any colors, logos, and text on them. Although PETG key cards can last through many guest stays, when it’s time to dispose of them, they are recyclable, which is an upgrade over non-recyclable PVC. PETG cards are relatively new to the market, so they come with a higher price tag than PVC, and they can be harder to find, but as more hotels switch to eco-friendly options PETG should become more commonplace.

Paper-Based Key Cards

Like the idea of a recyclable key card? Paper-based key cards can be a unique solution for an eco-minded hotel. A paper-based key card is recyclable, cost-effective, and customizable, but it lacks the durability of a plastic- or wood-based card. Made from material that’s a little thicker than cardboard, paper-based key cards raise potential wear and tear issues, since they’re not waterproof and wear out more quickly than a stronger material. But some hotels love paper-based keycards for their ease of customization and sustainable aspects.

Digital Keys

How about doing away with physical key cards altogether? Many tech-savvy hotels are making the jump from physical key cards to digital key cards to enhance the guest experience and reduce friction during check-in. Digital keys for hotels, or mobile keys, allow guests to open guestroom doors using their smartphones, often with Bluetooth. Digital keys are convenient, since guests are carrying their smartphones anyway, and offer increased security over physical key cards since they are less likely to get lost or end up in the wrong hands. Hotels can also reduce costs by using digital keys, since you don’t need to order inventory of physical key cards. And guests can enjoy a smoother experience at check-in – throughout their stay because digital keys can’t get deactivated or demagnetized the way physical cards can. Digital keys can deliver plenty of benefits to your hotel and guest experience, but it’s worth noting that digital keys can be troublesome for guests who are less tech-savvy, and hotels may need to invest in more digital infrastructure, such as locks that are compatible with digital keys. But as the world embraces technology more, it seems digital keys will become the norm over time.

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Which Key Card Material is Right for Your Hotel?

Key cards can pack a lot of benefits – or conversely contribute to a subpar guest experience. Choosing a key card material is an important decision, one that asks you to weigh cost and convenience over sustainability, durability, and customization options. The cheapest and most durable option is PVC, which is already in use at many hotels. But alternative options like wood, bamboo, and PETG can offer similar durability but more opportunity for branding and reducing environmental impact. Or, hotels can opt to leave physical key cards in the past and make the jump to digital keys, which can elevate the guest experience and eliminate friction during the check-in process. Based on your budget, brand values, and guest preferences, you can choose a key card material that aligns with the type of experience you aim to provide and increase guest review scores and brand awareness.

When considering the materials for hotel key cards, various factors should be weighed because there honestly is no "best key card material" since a lot is based on preference and different property types will have different requirements.  For instance, bamboo, petg, pvc, plastic, and paper each have their pros and cons. Here's a detailed breakdown:

Bamboo: Bamboo is an eco-friendly option favored by many hotel chains, including Marriott and Hilton, for its sustainable characteristics. Bamboo hotel key cards can be embedded with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) or NFC (Near Field Communication) technology. They are ideal for ASSA ABLOY, Saflok or Onity lock systems. However, bamboo might not provide the durability of other materials and may not be suitable for magnetic stripe or mag stripe technologies due to the possibility of degradation over time.

PETG: PETG is a type of plastic card that is recyclable and resistant to impact, making it a durable choice for RFID hotel key cards. However, it might be more costly than PVC or other plastic options. As PETG is durable, it is suitable for both magnetic stripe and smart card technologies.

PVC: PVC is the standard for credit card and access card material, which also applies to hotel room key cards. It's durable and affordable, making it a popular choice in the hospitality industry. PVC cards are compatible with a range of technologies like mag stripe, barcode, RFID, and NFC. These cards can also be easily customized, offering a wide range of templates for custom hotel key cards, which is an added amenity for the guests. They can be used with most door lock systems.

Plastic: Generic plastic cards are widely used due to their durability and low cost. They can accommodate various technologies, including magnetic stripes and RFID. Plastic cards can also be printed using various card printing methods, making them flexible for customization.

Paper: Paper cards, often coated for durability, are an economical choice, suitable for temporary use, such as gift cards or ID cards. However, they lack the robustness of plastic or PVC, making them less ideal for long-term use. Paper cards typically use barcode technology as they may not hold up well with an embedded RFID chip or magnetic strip.

These materials can also be fashioned into key card holders, lanyards, or door hangers, adding to the customer experience.

Whether for a large chain like IHG or a boutique hotel, it's crucial to consider the front desk's needs, the hotel door lock systems in place, the expected turnover rate of key cards, and the desired guest experience when selecting the key card material. Your choice will affect not only the access control of each hotel door but also the overall impression of your brand. Always remember, the humble hotel key card is not just an access tool; it's a part of the whole hotel experience.

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Jordan Hollander
Jordan is the co-founder of Hotel Tech Report, the hotel industry's app store where millions of professionals discover tech tools to transform their businesses. He was previously on the Global Partnerships team at Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Prior to his work with SPG, Jordan was Director of Business Development at MWT Hospitality and an equity analyst at Wells Capital Management. Jordan received his MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management where he was a Zell Global Entrepreneurship Scholar and a Pritzker Group Venture Fellow.