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Uncommon Scents

Of all the criteria when choosing hotel accommodation, smell is unlikely to rank in your top ten. Most of us don’t consider the eau de lobby at all, save for a few moments when we’re first hit by a cloud of floral infusions or zesty citrus scents upon entering.

But marketing and scientific studies suggest our noses play a bigger role than we think, and it’s our olfactory systems that are being targeted by the latest hospitality trend to develop “signature scents.”

The sense of smell is directly linked to our limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotions. That’s why reactions to smell are rarely neutral, and people either like or dislike a particular smell. Smell is also linked to memory, which we’ve all experienced; a whiff of sunscreen triggering images of childhood summers at the beach for example.

Marketing mavens in the consumer world cottoned on to this fact years ago: The aroma of freshly baked bread is commonly pumped into supermarkets to increase sales; that “new car” smell is deliberately added by car makers; and that freshly laundered smell from washing detergents? Yep, that’s artificial too.

Branding a scent has also been around for over a decade. Retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch announced its presence in your favorite mall in a fragrant plume of ‘Fierce’ back in 2002, beckoning to its fashionable young clientele.

Hijacking your sense of smell is like the golden ticket of marketing. Arguably if a company can positively imprint its brand on your nose, it’s subliminally secured a loyal, repeat customer.

Bespoke Aromas

Scent Linq is a company that specializes in creating bespoke signature scents for a wide range of clients including the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, The Landmark Macau, Raffles Hotel Istanbul and The Royal Garden Hotel Hong Kong.

According to April Ho, chief advisor of aromatherapy for the Hong Kong branch, it’s about time hotels have started to tap into this subconscious pathway. “Having a strong brand is all about making your mark on the minds of your customers. A ‘signature scent’ makes someone identify your brand by their sense of smell, which gives them a great insight into your brand’s personality,” she explains.

“A few decades ago, architects saw lighting as a luxury; now it’s a central aspect of spatial design,” she says, predicting that “scent will increasingly be used to draw out sensual elements of public and private spaces.”

It’s a trend that is catching on quickly, and today it seems everyone has an olfactory logo. Le Meridien conjured the scent of old leather-bound books to welcome guests when LM01 debuted in 2007, while Shangri-La set out to invoke the smell of paradise in 2006 with the Essence of Shangri-La. White Tea by Westin offers notes of geranium and freesia, chosen for their scientifically proven properties of relaxation, while the Sheraton spritzes Open Skies throughout its lobby, infused with notes of water lily, rose, white musk and the ocean.

More recently, Air Aroma – a leading scent marketing specialist – created a bespoke fragrance based around red, green and white tea with notes of rose and citrus for the Taj Hotel Group, which has been circulating through its US flagship property, The Pierre in New York, since late last year. Nuo Hotel Beijing, which opened earlier this year, is scented with Nuo White China – a complex scent with a Chinese citrus essence at the core, combined with cedarwood, cypress, Chinese evodia plus more European fragrances such as bergamot.

Notes of Heritage

Last month, St Regis Hotels & Resorts revealed “Caroline’s Four Hundred,” the brand’s first bespoke scent. Global brand director Daphne Sipos explains the fragrance is inspired by Caroline Astor, the celebrated matriarch of the iconic hotel’s founding family and social doyenne of 19th century New York.

“We wanted something that resonated with the brand and told a story, which is what we try to do with every aspect of the hotel,” says Sipos. “After interviewing quite a few people, we decided to work with Carlos Huber of Arquiste, who has a background in architecture and history, and matched with our philosophy of storytelling. He delved into research and unearthed an old newspaper clipping about one of the famous balls Caroline Astor had hosted attended by 400 people from the highest echelons of society.”

The historic account inspired the hotel’s unique aroma, Sipos says. “There was a description of the contemporary flowers that were present, like roses – which were her favorite flower – green stems, white lilies, quince and cherry blossom. The written description of the blooms that adorned the walls created a recipe for the signature scent.”

For early adopter Langham Hotels, distinction and identification were key factors for the delicate Ginger Flower signature scent, which has diffused throughout the lobbies of Langham properties worldwide since 2008.

“Nowadays the whole scent experience is actually quite crucial,” notes Bob van den Oord, managing director and vice president of brands for The Langham Hong Kong. “When you walk into a lobby it’s not just about what you see. It’s about the captivation of the senses and what you experience. We wanted a signature scent because it differentiates us from the other brands out there in the global marketplace. It also allows people to identify the scent with the Langham brand, so whether you stay at the Langham Place in New York, Melbourne or London, you walk in and recognize that Langham scent.”

Take-home Scents

Like many hotels, the Langham has commercialized its scent, with Ginger Flower scented candles, reed diffusers, oils and room sprays all available to purchase in the shop alongside other signature items such as bedding and teas.

“Ginger Flower fragrance items are one of our best sellers,” confirms van den Oord. “The figures show people love the scent, and if people are taking a little bit of the Langham into their households it’s very powerful for us.”

Langham Hotels and Resorts recently debuted a new brand, Cordis, which has also been designated its own signature scent, Sparkling Mint. Designed by well-known nose Christophe Laudamiel, it provides a “refreshing energy based on a citrus medley of sweet orange, grapefruit and lemon.”

“Cordis is more of a well-being brand,” says van den Oord. “It’s about devotion to our guests, and we feel that the refreshing, soothing, relaxing nature of Sparkling Mint suits the brand well.”

It’s not just big-name hospitality brands that are using fragrant smell to subtly lure in customers. Many smaller boutique properties are also seeing scent as an inexpensive, yet effective, way to enhance their brand and add a sense of luxury.

At India’s 92-room Vana Malsi Estate in Dehradun, for example, the team blends a bespoke scent from locally produced essential oils, including rose, jasmine and sandalwood, to help guests unwind. At the Indigo Pearl resort in Phuket, a local flower – white champaca –inspired the signature scent infused into room sprays, refreshing hand towels and spa treatments.

Raising a Stink

Not everyone is a fan of bespoke scents in hotels, however. People react to certain smells differently, and many are simply opposed to the idea in principle. In our Business Traveler forum, signature scents appeared to be a particularly divisive topic. While many waxed lyrical about perfumed public spaces, others were not so complimentary.  “I loathe them,” laments one forum contributor. “They stink, and worse, they can give me asthma. It’s air pollution, just as canned music is aural pollution. I would never think of going back to such a hotel.”

This is why working with an industry nose can prove vital, as they know which scents are almost universally liked – no one gags at freshly brewed coffee in the morning, after all – and can even narrow down preferences to cultural, geographic and socio-demographic factors.

Scent Linq’s Ho shares her wisdom: “Most ladies are looking for a sweet smell, but the feedback from most males is that they don’t like them. On the other hand, floral scents or tea mixed with floral flavors tend to be the most popular. In Hong Kong a lot of our scents are based on tea fragrances, whereas in Turkey [where the company’s headquarters is based] the preference is for strong, spicier local scents like amber.”

Meanwhile, master perfumer Laudamiel notes: “Citrus extracts are probably the best essences to bring people together; they are well accepted and connote positivism and bright energy for all cultures around the world. The exhausted traveler will appreciate the well-being and relaxing feeling of verbena, for example.”

In fact, choosing an unpleasant smell is far less of a problem than getting the quantity and quality right for a desirable fragrance that is enjoyed by many.

“It’s like perfume,” explains Ho. “If you apply a little bit, it’s pleasant and you smell clean and fresh. If you apply too much – whoa! Sometimes our clients contact us after a couple of months and say the fragrance is too faint. But it’s really more a case of the hotel staff becoming immune to the smell, and we recommend they don’t change the levels.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to believe we are being influenced by how a hotel smells. But next time you’re stuck between a choice of properties, perhaps it’s time to follow the old adage, “The nose knows!”  

By Tamsin Cocks