When it comes to depicting a hotel experience, our lexicon usually inscribes a journey primarily of sights — soothing room ambiance, extravagant lobby décor and so on — with glossy, high-res photographs as worthy complements. Next on the list is typically 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 the palate while bed sheets and marble-tiled bathrooms do wonders to arouse the sense of touch.
What’s often left out of the picture is smell. Our sense of smell can at times be highly underrated for its powerful psychological effect, and 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). Smell is often considered the oldest sense because of its tightly wired associations with primal emotional states in the limbic system.
Start by taking a cross example: home staging. An age-old sales trick prior to an open house is to bake a fresh batch of cookies. Not only does this mask any unpleasant tangs, but it instills a sense of warmth, nostalgia and even hunger, which translate into a better overall opinion of the prospective purchase. It’s positive reinforcement. A welcoming whiff can unconsciously enhance favorable perceptions that are consciously formed from visual and auditory stimuli. In this case, cookies makes a house feel like home.
Contrast this to a house that isn’t staged in this way, perhaps an older abode with a slight moldy odor. Whether you are aware of it or not, certain smells sound the alarm in our minds.
It’s not like I’ve 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 effect. All this is, of course, under the umbrella of “scent as design” or, more broadly, “sensory branding.” The grand objective is for consumers to form a deeper connection with products and 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 currently sit — offers nothing to activate this sense. Scent apathy. 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 or linen thread counts.
On the positive side of things, I’m constantly reminded of a former client, Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, a five-diamond resort 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Every guestroom exudes a trail of lavender and orange, and 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. To this day, I still remember the soft mix of lavender and oranges. It’s but one more memorable cue that enhances my affinity for the property.
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 in Las Vegas pumps coconut spice throughout its lobby, shops and casino floor — a fragrance that is striking yet subtle as well as evocative of the hotel’s tropical theme and proficient in masking the casino’s lingering cigarette pungency. Indeed, many other Las Vegas establishments use similar ambient scenting for these purposes.
Outside of the casino business, look to the Westin Hotels’ white tea perfume or Mandarin Oriental’s conference sprays designed to enhance meeting productivity. Your hotel’s smell is big business, and now is the time for everyone to get involved, whether you’re an international chain or an independent operator.
Start to think of ways to integrate scents for your guestrooms, lobby or spa. Restaurants should already have this one covered in a positive manner; although, if they don’t, that’s cause for a whole other discussion. Spas are likely already performing in this area as well. Ideally, you should strive for a thematic infusion — local fruits, herbs and minerals, or perhaps a product the region already makes to much applause. 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 rose petals. There are plenty of chances to get creative.
The key is to ensure the scent is ambient, pervading the entirety of a space without being noticeably and constantly perceptible. There also are important considerations for allergy, headache and migraine sufferers who have heightened sensitivities to certain smells; too much of a fragrance might backfire with these people.
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.