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The scent of success

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The way a hotel smells can be as influential as the way it looks – but how do you get it right?

Forget service. Forget décor. Forget pillow menus and ambitiously exotic spa treatments. If you want to create abiding memories for your guests – and generate brand loyalty – your property needs to smell good. That’s the theory behind the hotel scent industry, which takes as its central tenet the fact that our sense of smell is more potent, more durable and more likely to stir emotions than any other.

“Smell is the strongest sense we have,” says Caroline Fabrigas, who has worked previously with Chanel and Clarins and is now CEO of New York-based company Scent Marketing Inc. “Since it evokes memories and hotels are all about creating experiences, hotels need to have some kind of scent by which guests can remember the place.”

Searching for the right scent

Aromas may be invisible, but they’re hugely influential. Black cedar, green tea, geranium, jasmine – these things can shape a hotel stay as much as any massage or meal. There’s good reason why hotel chains like Shangri-La, Westin and Park Hyatt – to name three of many – now sell diffusers and candles for guests who want to recreate a certain scent in their own home. 

Perfume_click_Photo: credit to Jessica Ruscello, Unsplash
Photo: credit to Jessica Ruscello, Unsplash


“Scent is one of several evocative elements we use to engage the emotions of our guests”, says William Mackay, Shangri-La’s Executive Vice President, Europe & The Americas. “While we want each of our Shangri-La hotels to be deeply reflective of its destination, we also want to create some subtle consistent touchpoints across the group of which our Shangri-La scent is one of the most important. Guests may not be able to put their finger on how they know they are in a Shangri-La, but they do, whether they are in London or Mauritius.”

Given the importance of a fitting scent, how should hotels go about getting it right? It needs careful thought, says Fabrigas. “When it’s done well, a scent should act as your logo in the air. It’s a very powerful brand enhancer,” she stresses. “It should be an immersive experience, although ambient scent is not arbitrary. It’s not fragrance for the sake of fragrance. The environment should be breathing with you, not at you.”

The right smell at the right time

She points to the age-old use of incense in churches as one of the first examples of scent marketing – “it created mood and emotion and a sense of place” – but urges caution when it comes to using intense aromas. “The diffuser has to be well placed and well calibrated. It needs to be at the right level for the right situation. Look at Abercrombie & Fitch, a wonderful retailer with a very powerful scent. It fits with their environment – loud music, dark stores – but that strategy wouldn’t work in a hotel lobby.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Liv Gussing Burgess, owner of London-based firm Luxury Hotel Consulting. “You can’t create a scent pretending to be something that you’re not,” she says. “There has to be an authenticity to it – one overall image or message that’s coming across. The smell should reflect the positioning and image of the hotel, without being too overbearing.

“It has to be true to the location,” she continues. “I’m of the view that less is more. Lemongrass is often used in Thailand, for example – that could be in the cold towel you’re handed on arrival or even in the car that picks you up from the airport. Citrus is energising and uplifting, so gets used in parts of the Mediterranean. Then there’s lavender in the South of France, and so on.”

Scent should, more than anything, reflect who you are as a hotel

Depending on the property, it can be tricky not only judging how strong a scent should be, but where it should be noticeable. There’s almost endless opportunity to reinforce a branded scent around a property – scented linens, scented robes, even scented room keys – while Burgess also points out that certain cultures are fonder of certain smells than others. “It’s another reason to stay with that idea that a scent should, more than anything, reflect who you are as a hotel”, she adds.

Get a scent right, meanwhile, and there’s also the possibility of generating an additional revenue stream. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article on the power of scent, co-authored by Fabrigas, pointed out that the lifestyle-oriented 1 Hotels brand had to date shipped 20,000 scented candles for sale.

And the fact that the right scent not only creates an effective connection with guests, but overrides the less welcome aromas a hotel might produce? “Yes, we get quite a bit of callout for what we call malodour remediation,” says Fabrigas, tellingly. “You want to be able to maintain a beautiful environment.”

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Hero image: credit to Bundo Kim, Unsplash

What do you think of this page?

  • Smell evokes memories more powerfully than any other sense
  • The right hotel scent should be well matched to a property’s brand and location
  • Don’t use it to be something you’re not; there’s little point in “fragrance for the sake of fragrance”
  • If successful, a scent can also generate income through the sale of branded candles and sprays