Why you should care

Because you probably need a coffee too. 

These days, courtesy of Airbnb and its home-rental peers, a traveler can book a room in everything from a San Francisco condo to an Edwardian castle, show up and — once in possession of a key — come and go as they please. Procuring that key, though, can be the rub, surprisingly. Many hosts’ peskiest problem becomes “How do I get the blasted house key to the guest without putting my life on hold to wait around for the exchange?”

The dreaded key drop has long been a gripe for Julie Berg, owner of Keydock, a company she created to remedy this procedural hurdle. The startup, based in Berlin, effectively turns coffee shops — or, as Berg persistently calls them, “cool cafes” — into keymasters (just not in a Rick Moranis-in-Ghostbusters sense). So far a few hundred users and 60 Berlin cafes have signed on.

Guests receive an email with a one-time-use PIN that they enter on a tablet at the cafe.

Here’s how it works. Hosts drop off the key at the cafe. There, baristas give the key its own chip — which is anonymous to them — and it’s safely put away in a gray, innocuous-looking bag with hooks inside, so that the keys can hang out of view. Guests receive an email with a one-time-use PIN that they enter on a tablet at the cafe. Once the key is in the guest’s hands, the host receives an email about the completed transaction. For cafes, this setup can mean more patronage without much extra work, and for hosts it’s a key-transfer solution for a subscription price of about $11 a month.

Airbnb’s large global footprint — upwards of 11 million people have used the service since its 2007 launch — has led to an increase in subindustries. Another key-management startup, Keycafe, which entered the space first and is probably Keydock’s most direct competitor, is firmly rooted in the United States and Canada, while Keydock’s current target is Europe, Airbnb’s biggest zone, with an eye on Asia, which is predicted to be Airbnb’s next frontier. Geographic differences aside, Berg insists Keydock’s differentiator is that its “whole angle is on hosts” — in fact, everyone on her team is also an Airbnb host (which helps them all make extra dough while the company is getting off the ground).

But with the business so dependent on physical keys, Keydock isn’t positioned for where the industry is headed — keyless. International lock expert Marc Weber Tobias also has his doubts about Keydock’s security: Any time keys are “floating around,” there’s a worry. Tobias says introducing a middleman, in the form of the cafe baristas, only ups the chance of a key going missing or getting copied. He suggests that hosts invest in electronic cylinder locks and move away from physical keys altogether, as hotels are increasingly doing. The reality, however, is that it could be 20 years, Tobias predicts, before it’s a mainstream practice for homeowners to use just a smartphone to get in and out of their residences.

For the time being, Keydock is banking on actual keys being the main way to enter a home. But it’s also not stopping at keys: Hosts can now purchase package deals that include options like cleaning and placing fresh flowers too. A bit of future-proofing for the business, and added niceties for the guest.

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