What if checking into a hotel were as easy as picking up a rental car? Preferred customers now swipe their credit cards in the van on the way to the rental car lot. “I get off the shuttle bus in front of my car, which has the engine running and the air conditioner on,” says John Harker, director of hospitality and gaming for Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y. “I get into it and drive away.” If Symbol has anything to say about it, guests will soon be able to check into a Starwood Hotels property in much the same way. A bellhop will greet you at the curb, swipe your credit card on a Palm-like device, hand you a key, and send you to your room.

The concept is called “point-of-activity computing,” and a successful pilot program involving this new technology has just been completed at the Sheraton Parsippany (N.J.)

“Guests liked the concept of being able to interact with hotel staff wherever they are in the public areas instead of being forced to the front desk,” says Danny Hudson, vice president of distributed systems for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

The bellhop device includes a two-way radio, a scanner, a magnetic-stripe credit-card reader, and a wireless connection to a printer. The printer may be a small one worn on a belt or a larger one at a desk. It is simple to use and rugged enough to withstand repeated drops on concrete; it comes with extended-life batteries that last the duration of an eight-hour shift.

Asked whether this means the end of the front desk as we know it, Hudson says decisions about who will use it and how it will be used will be up to individual properties. He adds that while the devices might be a boon to group check-ins, Starwood has no specific plans in that regard. “The application has not been developed for a specific market segment,” he says. “Our hotels cater to a wide variety of guests and flexibility is key.” The main thing, he says, is that the system gives “hotel management the flexibility to run their desk operation at an optimal level for guest services.”

Starwood is not the only hotel chain looking at Symbol's product. “Wyndham, Philips Hotel Group, and Opryland are going with these,” says John Harker, director of hospitality and gaming for Symbol Technologies. “The hospitality industry is an emerging market for mobile wireless technology; once one company goes, the rest go.” He adds that travelers can expect a slower rollout of the technology than was the case with rental-car companies, “because they're dealing with franchises, different property management systems, and things like door-lock design incompatibilities.”

Harker believes curbside check-in will eventually become a standard in the hospitality business, just as it has in other industries, for the same reason: greater operational efficiency. “Higher room rates and greater occupancy rates are not enough,” he says. “Hotels are going to have to be much more efficient to be profitable.”