Step into the newish Times Square Edition hotel in midtown Manhattan, and its interior - minimalist white lobby, living-plant walls and hipster clientele - looks a world removed from the Godzilla-size billboards, tourist hordes and chintzy souvenir shops outside. The place smells a lot better than 42nd Street, too, because a blend of citrus, black tea and flower perfumes the lobby and sleek guest rooms.
In keeping with a new hotel trend, the Edition has a signature scent (in this case by French perfumer Le Labo), which is piped into both public and private spaces and is infused into the lotions and potions in guest room baths. At the Hotel Havana in San Antonio, earthy Nag Champa sandalwood incense enhances the dark wood paneling and creaky circa-1914 floors. And Lorenzo Dante Ferro of Friuli, Italy, created Amorvero Profumo, a bergamot, lemon and mandarin orange fragrance that wafts through the fit-for-a-principessa lounges and lobby of the plush Hotel Hassler Roma.
Aromatherapy, once contained to the hotel spa, has bloomed into a branding device and sensory amenity for lodgings from motel chains to the Ritz-Carlton. By creating or choosing a distinctive scent to distill throughout their properties, hoteliers are betting you'll fondly recall your stay and book there again. "There are more hotels than ever, and increasing competition from Airbnb," says Samantha Goldworm, co-founder and business and marketing director of 12.29, an "olfactive branding company" that blends fragrances for Viceroy, Thompson, Hilton and other hospitality groups. "All the hotels are trying to one-up each other and make staying there a whole experience. And scent is a big part of that."
"It's about making a hotel seem like more than just a bed to sleep in," says Kathy LaTour, a branding expert and associate professor at the Hotel School at Cornell University. "Adding scent is something that hoteliers can easily and relatively inexpensively do to further that. Scents connect to parts of the brain associated with emotion and memory."
The space-scenting trend originated in beauty and wellness businesses (spas, yoga studios, salons) decades ago. It's now spritzing into hotels, a practice that started in the mid-2000s at high-end properties and is now trickling down to bargain brands. (Both Best Western and Holiday Inn Express are now scented.) And like the "ahhh" you might feel entering a spa, a whiff of the Holiday Inn Express scent - described by its producers as "a fresh citrus and herbal aroma with notes of white tea, citrus, ginger, woods and musk" - could also subtly shift your mood from airplane travel-stressed to on-vacation blissed out. "Walk into a hotel in the Caribbean on your honeymoon and you get that great feeling of 'I'm finally here,' " Goldworm says. "And if the property uses a scent and you smell it anytime again, it'll take you back to that happy time."
"I first discovered that the Westin had a scent when I stayed in one in the D.C. suburbs years ago," says Los Angeles communications pro Jennifer Cabe. "It had this subtle citrusy, floral smell that entranced me. Now I always try to book into Westin when I travel for business, since I have trouble sleeping and feeling safe, and that scent soothes me."
Big-name perfumers produce sniffs for some lodgings: Sweden's Byredo, for example, supplies fragrance for Nobis's design-centric hotels in Scandinavia. But many hotel smells come from scent marketing agencies. Companies such as Aroma360, Air Aroma and 12.29 work with hospitality groups to turn disparate elements - a property's history, its desired clientele, the color of the carpet in the bar - into a signature fragrance. "For example, if the lobby is full of plants, we might suggest lots of green notes, or if the property focuses on sustainability, we'll use only oils from organic farms," says Allison Lobay, global account manager for Air Aroma, which turns out olfactory signatures for clients including the Fairmont Hotel (oud, rose and musk) and the Sofitel (jasmine, citrus, vanilla). "There are many ways we can bring the brand essence into a scent." Regional differences might factor in, too, with lighter, tea-based perfumes for Asia-based brands and richer, darker fragrances, perhaps featuring the expensive ingredient oud, for Middle Eastern outposts.
Still, don't expect to spot those reed-stick scent diffusers on the concierge desk. Most hotels use what's called cold air diffusion, essentially a nebulizer that converts cool air and scented oil into a fine mist. It's attached to the HVAC system or, in older properties, vaporized out of a stand-alone unit. While the olfactory signature might also star in the shampoo in the guest rooms or a linen spray for sheets and towels, the aromas aren't generally present in guest room air; that's considered overkill for clients who might be sensitive or scent-averse.
Concocting a custom fragrance can take a few months of back-and-forth between the scent folks and the hotel, and cost thousands of dollars. Many brands - the Westin, the Edition, the Sofitel - unleash the same potion at all their locations as an olfactory logo, the way a pine tree symbol signifies the Four Seasons or a stylized "M" pegs Marriott. "We use the same scent across Edition properties for a holistic brand experience," says Ben Pundole, vice president of brand experience for the chain. "No matter where you are in the world, it represents Edition."
Some niche or boutique hotel owners want a singular scent for each of their hotels. And a few go rogue, following their own noses and buying a preexisting product to waft through their businesses. Consider Liz Lambert, the chief operating officer for Texas's cool-kid Bunkhouse Group - with properties including Austin's revived 1930s Hotel San Jose and Marfa's El Cosmico, with sleeping quarters in vintage RVs, sleek yurts and safari tents. The hotels are conceived as collages of color, music and smells, all chosen before construction or property rehab even starts.
"We mostly burn incense or candles at our properties," says Lambert. "It's more immersive and organic than relying on a marketing company, and we really tie it to a sense of place." Hence the coconut candles smacking of throwback suntan lotion at the retro Austin Motel, with its kidney-shaped pool, or the Indian sandalwood incense burned amid the dark oak interiors of San Antonio's Havana Hotel.
At many hotels, there's a retail component to this perfumania, with candles, incense cones and other smell-infused products for sale in on-site shops, online or even in the minibar. The Edition website hawks a $185 cartridge and diffuser device on its website. "If you really like how the Mandarin Oriental is scented, you can buy something to remember that sensory experience at home," Cornell's LaTour says.
Some customers turn up their noses at this attempt to manipulate the environment - or are frankly irritated by the scents. "I was staying at a hotel in Salt Lake City a few years ago and the room stank like an Axe body spray," says Jen Beasley Ujifusa, a lobbyist in the District. "It seemed alcoholic and cheap, and gave me such a bad headache I slept with the window open."
And in some natural settings - beachfront villas, national park cabins, a safari lodge - bringing in outside, engineered smells is frowned upon. "We don't use any room scents on our properties because it would detract from the environment," says Jennifer Lalley, director of conservation for the African safari company Natural Selection. "The smells you get on safari - the dewy Okavango wetlands, scent markings from leopards - stay with you forever, so why dampen them?"
Still, with so many bewitching aromas (sage, blooming acacia trees) surrounding Natural Selection's lodges and tent camps in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, Lalley says, "we're exploring how to bottle some of the more pleasant smells for guests to take home. They could evoke that incredible feeling of being in the bush."