How to avoid losing keys in the busy period: A guide for short stay and holiday rental companies

It’s mid-July and that means the busy summer season is already underway for folks in the Northern Hemisphere. Keys will be going in and out of the office with ever increasing frequency, and staying on top of them can be hard work! As we all know, a key in the wrong place can cause no end of woe for you and your team. It usually leads to bad guest experiences, delays in servicing, frustrated staff and angry landlords.

Working with short stay companies around the world, I often get asked about “best practice”. I thought I’d write a quick guide, based on what we’ve seen and the experience of our clients- I hope it’s helpful!

1. Make sure you have enough copies

When you’ve got keys going in and out to staff, contractors and guests, have enough sets available all the times. It will really make life easier! It may be that another person needs access to a property before the last person has returned the keys. Most short stay and holiday rental companies we work with keep at least 4 sets of keys – 2 for guests, 1 for cleaning and maintenance and one for management.

Having two sets of guest keys can reduce the number of times you’re asked to provide a spare when guests lose them or lock themselves out. It also buys you time to get other sets ready or re-cut. A side effect can be that the guests feel more loved!

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another “emergency” set that can be used as a template for getting keys re-cut (see below).

2. Separate your guest sets and management sets

Not every set of keys we hold is the same. We often need keys to access parts of a property that guests should not access, such as utilities cupboards and water meters. Over the course of a busy season, some guests will inevitably lose keys, so it’s important to keep those sets down to as few as possible. This will reduce cost and hassle of getting keys re-cut or locks changed.

The other reason for separating the sets is because the way you handle guest keys is often very different to the way you manage keys for staff, cleaning and maintenance. Having a different set for different purposes often makes sense. It helps everyone if you can make the sets visibly different, so people looking at them can instantly see what type of set they are. The most common way to do this is either using a different coloured tag or a different label. Some people do both!

If the key rings you are giving out contain high-value items that are likely to go missing (e.g. parking fobs, or high security keys) you might also consider adding tamper-proof keyrings to certain sets. Tamper Proof Keyrings can become very expensive, so this might only be worth doing for the high-risk sets.

3. Ensure strict accountability for everyone who takes keys

This is the big one – and it’s also the hardest. Without strong accountability, it’s almost impossible to stay on top of your keys.

What do we mean by accountability? It means that any person who takes keys knows, understands and accepts what it means to have keys in their possession. You need to have rules and processes that everyone understands and follows. There must be also be significant consequences for not following the right process.

The main thing to ensure is that anyone taking keys is responsible for ensuring that they are returned in the same condition they were taken, within the time frame you set.

If a person does not follow your process correctly or loses a set of keys in their possession, then there are consequences. Usually that means being liable to pay the replacement costs (including the relevant administration costs) if keys are lost, but it can also mean missing KPIs for staff and contractors, and even remuneration if keys come back late.

How you manage accountability will likely differ between staff, contractors and guests. For guests it will probably form part of your Terms and Conditions, and most people will expect to pay a charge for lost keys. For staff and contractors it’s important to have a key management policy in place, which may for part of their general contract, which outlines their responsibility.

The golden rule for accountability should be that whoever the key log says has the keys is the person responsible for them. This brings us neatly to the next point….

4. Track everything

If making sure everyone knows their responsibilities when they take keys is the most important thing, then the only way to enforce that accountability is through effective tracking. It is critical that you can reliably track who has a key at any given point. With reliable tracking, you will always know who is responsible. Having observed our clients over many years, there is an astonishing improvement in the way people look after keys, as soon as they know they are being tracked and monitored.

Tracking keys effectively is easier said than done. Below are the main things you’ll need to track:

Key Issue / Signing keys out

The big danger is that if people take a key without signing it out, it’s impossible to track. You need to make sure that the right person is accountable for a key when it is taken. Here are a couple of ways you can do that:

1. Ensure that keys are only issued by dedicated staff.

These are people whose job it is to hand over keys and ensure things are accurately recorded. These people are incentivised to do things properly, since if something goes wrong and a key is missing, then they are ultimately accountable. What’s important here is that only these trusted individuals have access to the key cabinet and the list/database of which key goes with which property (never, ever, write the property address on the key tag)

2. Use a software system or key database to audit who looks up keys.

This is the most flexible approach. If people have to rely on a database to find the key they are looking for, then a sophisticated system such as Keyzapp will be able to tell you the last person who looked for a key, even if they fail to sign it out properly. If people are using the same system to look up keys and sign them out, then in practice this rarely happens, since it’s so easy to sign it out at the same time as you look it up. Any mistakes that are made become very easy to pick up and correct.

3. Physically lock keys in place until they can be signed out.

There are a number of hardware options on the market that prevent people taking keys unless they are fully signed out, ranging from mechanical “peg boards” to highly sophisticated cabinets that use fingerprint or facial recognition. These options can be used together with software systems if you want the best of both worlds. The only thing to bear in mind is that even basic mechanical systems can be quite expensive to buy and maintain. They also take up quite a bit of physical space, which many people don’t have.

Key return / Signing keys in

Once you’ve got people accountable when keys go out of the office- it’s in their own best interests to sign them in properly. All you need to do is enforce a rule that says “If the key is not signed in, then whoever is in the log as having taken it is the person responsible. No arguments.”

Old fashioned pen and paper can still work here, provided you regularly check the keys still signed out. In our experience it’s much better to have a system that makes it clear when keys are not back after a period of time, as this helps prevent key loss and eliminates the need to comb through pages and pages of logs when something goes wrong.

Tracking key handovers

This one is particularly relevant to the Short Stay sector, where keys often pass between people outside of the office. If this regularly happens in your business then you need a good way to audit when keys change hands- if not, the person who takes the keys from the office ends up unfairly “on the hook” (pardon the pun) for keys that go missing. You want to avoid those awkward “he-said, she-said” arguments, which are bad for morale, and lead people to lose faith in the system.

Tracking key handovers outside of the office has traditionally been one of the most difficult things to do. You really have 3 options:

1. Enforce a rule to report every key handover back to base.

Ideally, whenever people exchange keys outside of the office, they must inform the office who can update the records, and send a confirmation to each party that the responsibility for the keys has changed hands. This is quite time consuming for all concerned, and if not done properly can lead to errors or disputes. Many fast-paced companies find it impractical, but it can work on a small scale especially if key exchanges are rare.

2. Simply don’t allow key handovers between people.

This is probably the best option if you don’t have a system that supports it. It will probably mean keeping and tracking more sets of keys for each property, but this is a price worth paying for better accountability.

3. Use an app or system that supports transfer of keys between people.

Here you can make use of mobile devices to electronically record key handovers quickly and easily. We’re not aware of anything other than Keyzapp that makes the process this easy.

5. Put someone in charge

Putting someone in charge of your key process is the critical factor to ensuring that all keys are accounted for. Even if you allow people to take keys for themselves, you still need someone to oversee the process and regularly check it’s working properly. The person best suited for this role is a senior detail-orientated person, who isn’t the office manager. In our experience, the boss isn’t well suited to this role, because they are usually too busy. Equally don’t give the job to the most

junior member of the team, as they don’t have the authority to hold people to account, and may not fully understand your key system. I wrote an article on this last year for letting agents that it might be worth a look at.

6. Review Status Regularly

Whichever system you choose to track and manage your keys, you still need to check how things are going. Once people know that the key log is regularly reviewed, I guarantee you’ll see an immediate improvement in behaviour. The review should usually be done by the person in charge of the key process, reporting to the office manager. We recommend that you review the log at least once a week, but you may like to do it more often, especially in the early days. With the right tools and process it’s a very quick check. There are 4 main things to review:

1. What keys are overdue?

Any electronic system that allows you to record key sign-outs should also allow you to track a due back date, making this information easy to find. If keys are overdue, then you should chase them up as soon as possible. Overdue keys that aren’t returned quickly tend to go missing. If you’ve followed the advice above, at least you’ll know who is responsible should the worst happen.

2. Which are my at-risk properties?

These are properties where you have no current keys in the office. If you have an emergency and all keys are signed out, then you may be in a difficult situation. See if you can get at least one set back, even if not yet overdue.

3. Does the number of key sign-outs look right?

This helps you be sure that your keys are being signed-out properly. If properties are cleaned on every checkout, does the number of sign-outs from cleaners correlate to the number of checkouts you’ve had this week? If not, dig a little deeper and see who in your team needs more training.

4. Spot check the cabinet.

Pick a couple of random key hooks to go and check. Use your records to work out how many sets of keys you should have right now for a few properties. It’s good to pick a couple at random and some where you know there has been recent activity. This helps you see if people have been following the process properly. If you’ve just added a lot of keys or you’ve changed your process, you should do this more frequently.

7. What to do when guests lose keys

You’ll almost certainly have a process in place for guests losing their keys, but here are a few pointers.

If you charge guests a fee for key/lock replacement, factor in the admin time as well as the direct costs. Getting a locksmith out or sending a member of the team to get new keys cut can be very time consuming and the invoices/receipts can generate a lot of admin. Make sure you communicate clearly any charges that you have to your guests.

A guest losing keys can often give you two problems. Firstly you need to give guests access to the property again by giving them a spare set of keys. Secondly, you may also need to get new keys cut. Ensure you have enough spares so you can do both these things in parallel. We’ve already covered how having two sets of guest keys can make this easier.

Did this help? Any questions?

Well done for making it to the end of what turned out to be quite a long post. I hope you found it useful. Do you have any questions? Have I missed something that’s important to you? Please get in touch by leaving a comment below. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Make sure you have enough keys to cover all the coming and going and still have one spare in the office for emergencies
  2. Separate your guest sets and management sets, and make it obvious which is which
  3. Make sure everyone knows the rules with keys and the consequences of not following them
  4. Keep a detailed key log
  5. Put someone in charge and review the log regularly for issues