Strong ROI attached to sensory experiences in hotels

After a long week of travel you finally get home, unzip your luggage and are greeted with the familiar scent of the hotel you stayed at. It’s on your clothes, it’s in your bag and it reminds you of your guestroom, the people you met and maybe the service you received. If this sounds in any way relatable, then the hotel you stayed at successfully provided a sensory experience, and it did it nose-first.

Roger Bensinger, EVP at ambient scenting company Prolitec, said scent is processed by the region of the brain that controls emotions and memory. “Scent is often our first impression of a new space,” he said, “and many hotel brands have mandated scent programs to provide a signature scent to create lasting impressions on guests.”

Conversely, Bensinger said the area of the brain designed to process auditory and visual stimuli is associated with information and intellectual skills, as well as emotions. Keeping both scent and sound in mind when designing a space is the key to creating a multisensory experience, which Bensinger said is a necessary part of the hotel experience today.

“As humans, we use all of our senses at once, so to draw attention to one without the other doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said.

Implementing auditory and olfactory branding can tie guests to your property even after they check out.

Creating a multisensory experience is difficult, however, because what is pleasing to the senses is inherently subjective. Scott Acton, founder and CEO of construction company Forte Specialty Contractors, said many hoteliers come up with grand ideas for what they want when it comes to sensory design but don’t fully think the process through. He suggests developing models and mockups multiple times before committing to something, and make sure hotel operations is involved in the process.

“Coming up with an experience without understanding your demographic is, unfortunately, common,” Acton said. “It’s like a symphony; it all has to be in the right key for it to work.”

Acton, whose company designed the Preston Bailey Floral Display at Wynn Las Vegas, said there is a definite return on investment behind appealing to guest senses, and said ambient noise in particular is critically disregarded in much of hospitality.

“Ambient sound doesn’t have to be music,” Acton said. “Depending on the area you can get creative, such as using ocean sounds near the coast or frogs or crickets in Wyoming. A hotel could even add a loud crackle of wood if there is a fire burning in a public area. There are many ways to hit on certain things that look natural, or bolt on a sound that can enhance the experience.”

The Tillary Hotel in Brooklyn, N.Y., a self-described “sensory hotel,” takes sound to heart by providing curated music playlists and a rotating list of live musicians. The hotel also has its own signature scent, “white suede,” and also magnifies the smell of its lobby café to appeal to guests’ sense of taste. Like many hotel brands with a signature scent, “white suede” is for sale in a variety of forms as a way to monetize the scent and build brand recognition after guests leave the property.

“When developing the scent, we stood in the lobby and talked about the space, what we feel about it and what adjectives we used to describe it,” said Vanessa Vitale, GM of The Tillary Hotel. “White suede has both feminine and masculine attributes, and we worked with a company to evoke those feelings.”

Elevators are one of the many areas in hotels where scents are encouraged.

Olfactory Marketing 

Sensory branding is nothing new for retail or hospitality, and Acton said today’s consumers may be spoiled in a way because of the depth to which businesses have worked to cater to their senses. In a world where developers acknowledge that sensory branding is everywhere, how can hotels begin to stand out?

“At an entry level, it’s important to make an effort to embrace the client experientially,” Acton said. “It varies by property and how many stars are behind your name, but every chef or operator has a personal passion. They have ideas on what things should look, feel or smell like. Have someone like that leading the charge, take that vision and see it all the way through.”

Farah Abassi, founder of scent branding company Aroma360, advises hotels looking to diffuse scents throughout their property to use organic, natural scents with fewer chemicals. Aside from presenting safety concerns, Abassi said synthetic oils used in artificial scents are simply not as pleasing to the nose.

“Cold air diffusion is also the best option for preserving scents,” Abassi said. “Think of it like broccoli: It’s a healthy vegetable, but when boiled it loses its nutritional value. Essential oils are the same.”

"Simple" or "one-note" scents are not advised for hotels as they aren't dynamic enough, which is why scent designers mix and remix scents for use in hospitality. 

Bensinger said simple fragrances such as lemon, apple or chocolate are not ideal for public spaces because they are too easily recognizable. A strong signature scent, Bensinger said, should be pleasing to smell yet difficult to identify.

“Making it difficult to grasp is what creates ambiance,” he said. “Make it a conversation point.”

As for areas where scent design is best used, Bensinger said to start with the lobby and move out from there. Hallways, elevators, the spa and fitness center are also prime locations for scent branding, and if given the chance Bensinger recommends changing scents based on location, such as a peppermint or citrus-based scent in a fitness center.

Bensinger and Abassi both agreed that it is possible to wear out a scent’s welcome, and overdoing it can shift a scent from pleasing to repulsive.

“Adding a slight scent to guestroom towels or other in-room amenities can help strengthen a guest’s attachment to a property,” Abassi said. “Creating touchpoints to expose customers to the scent is important, but keep in mind that some guests may have different reactions to different scents. For one person a rose could be romantic, but for another they could have had a negative experience related to a rose and could be put off by it.”