When it comes to depicting a hotel experience, our lexicon usually describes a journey primarily of sights—soothing room ambience, extravagant lobby décor and so on—with glossy, high-resolution photographs as worthy complements. Next on the list is sound, portrayed as crashing ocean waves, birds chirping peacefully at a bucolic resort, or for urbanites, a quiet space fit for a restful sleep between harried business days. Meanwhile, restaurants and bars excite with poetic verses that stimulate the palate, while bed sheet linens and marble-tiled bathrooms do wonders to arouse the sense of touch.
What’s often left out of the picture is the fifth spoke on the wheel: smell. Not that the people who write your promotional materials morally abstain from infusing this, but there’s simply nothing in the room, lobby or hallways to spark an aromatic reaction. Our sense of smell can at times be highly underrated for its powerful psychological effect on people’s moods, but more can be done to activate it in a positive way.
For reference, the neuroscience terminology to familiarize yourself with are the olfactory bulb, the processing center for smells, and the limbic system, which controls emotions and memories. Both of these anatomical features are considered evolutionarily old when compared to the likes of the prefrontal cortex, which handles complex cognitive processes like problem solving and abstract thought. In fact, smell is often dubbed the oldest sense because of its tightly wired associations with primal emotional states in the limbic system.
Scent as design
It’s not like I stumbled upon anything novel here. Scents are shrewdly used around the globe for desirable effects, most prominently in the retail industry. Marketers have even coined the expressions “ambient scenting,” “scent branding” or “scent marketing” to denote this type of mood-enhancing (or subtracting if you’re not careful) effect. The grand objective is for consumers to form a deeper connection with products and more esteemed perceptions of brands to increase sales.
Applying these ploys to hotels presents three general scenarios worth discussing.
First is when a guestroom has an off-putting stench. For this, expect problems. Just as pleasant aromas can relax and rejuvenate, bad smells can ignite the fear and danger centers in a person’s brain, causing discomfort and chagrin. The culprits for such stinks might be something as cantankerous as dirty carpets or old pipes. Regardless of the replacement costs, if you ever want to deliver true guest satisfaction, you cannot have foul odors pervade your rooms.
Next is neutral. A good smell counts for you, a bad one against, but the middle ground, where most hotels sit, offers nothing to activate this sense. As such, hoteliers are missing a key opportunity to foster an emotional bond with consumers. There’s only so much you can do to outmatch your competitors in terms of opulent décor, the size of the in-room plasma television, linen thread counts or the noiselessness of your temperature modulators. Add an old school weapon to your arsenal; add scent.
On the positive side of things, I’m constantly reminded of a former client, Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a 5-diamond resort 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Every guestroom exudes a trail of lavender and orange, and their bathroom amenities are likewise infused with these two fragrant elements. Plus, both ingredients are exclusive to the Ojai experience; lavender is grown onsite and the surrounding valley teems with orange orchards. Upon arriving, this pleasurable blend instantly relaxes you (lavender is known to help induce sleep) and completes the in-room ambience, albeit subtly when compared to the resort’s other features and endless scenic vistas.
To this day, I still remember the soft mix of lavender and oranges—a slice of sweet nostalgia yearning for me to return. It’s but one more memorable cue that enhances my affinity for the property and no doubt this unique fragrance contributes to customer loyalty.
This is one personal instance, but the hospitality industry is rife with other ambient-scenting success stories, even if those victories aren’t directly quantifiable. Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas pumps coconut spice throughout its lobby, shops and casino floor—a fragrance that is striking yet subtle and evocative of the hotel’s tropical theme while masking some of the casino’s lingering cigarette pungency. Indeed, many other Las Vegas establishments, notably the Bellagio, Harrah’s Las Vegas and MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, all use similar ambient scenting to mask tobacco and for branding.
Outside of the casino business, look to the Westin Hotels & Resorts’ white tea perfume or Mandarin Oriental’s conference sprays designed to enhance meeting productivity. Many other major chains are worth investigating for their scent marketing including Hilton Worldwide, InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott International and Sofitel.
Your hotel’s smell is big business, and now is the time for everyone to get involved, whether you’re a global chain or an independent operator.
Apply scent to your property
Building on these examples, start to think of ways to integrate scents for your guestrooms, lobby or spa. Restaurants already should have this one covered in a positive manner. Although, if they don’t, that’s cause for a whole other discussion.
Ideally, you should strive for a thematic infusion using local fruits, herbs and minerals or perhaps a product lauded in the region already makes. You could even consider a selection of different in-room scents chosen by the guest before or at arrival. Or maybe a holiday spirit. Thanksgiving would be pumpkin spice, Christmas a hint of frankincense and Valentine’s Day is all about rose petals. There are plenty of chances to get creative.
The key is to ensure that the scent is ambient, pervading the entirety of a space without being noticeably and constantly perceptible. And there are options to fit your every need, from devices that attach to your central air conditioning units to local apparatuses like the Lampe Berger for more localized and readily changeable aromas. Motion control systems will waft a bit of fragrance when a consumer approaches. But keep in mind important considerations for allergy, headache and migraine sufferers who have heightened sensitivities to certain smells, meaning too much of a fragrance might backfire.
The bottom line is that you should be doing something in the scent department. This is a friendly wakeup call for you to brainstorm how this underrated sense can be harnessed as a way to further guest satisfaction and develop a loyal consumer base.
Larry Mogelonsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president and founder of LMA Communications Inc. (www.lma.ca), an award-winning, full service communications agency focused on the hospitality industry (est. 1991). Larry is also the developer of Inn at a Glance hospitality software. As a recognized expert in marketing services, his experience encompasses Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and Preferred Hotels & Resorts, as well as numerous independent properties throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Larry is a registered professional engineer, and received his MBA from McMaster University. He’s also an associate of G7 Hospitality and a member of Cayuga Hospitality Advisors. Larry’s latest book entitled “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?” is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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