Fresh bread. Freshly cut grass. Salty sea breeze. Most people have a favorite scent that evokes fond memories or feelings of comfort.
Companies have long harnessed this sensual appeal to sell scented candles, expensive perfumes, and even homes. Now it is increasingly being used in the travel industry – airlines, hotels and entertainment venues are deliberately incorporating scents into the “tourism experience”.
These companies seek to benefit from consumer research that has proven that pleasant smells are much more than pleasant smells. Smells have a special ability to act as a source of information. Because they are intangible – we can’t see or touch them – our brains automatically associate them with experiences.
The travel industry is all about experiences. One of the main reasons people want to spend big on visiting new places is to stimulate their senses with new sights, sounds, tastes and smells, like the fragrant lavender in southern France, or eucalyptus on the Italian Amalfi Coast.
A simple way to monetize this is for the hotel to sell its signature shower gel or soap so that customers can take a small portion of their vacation home with them. Ideally, when used in your own bathroom, they’ll serve as a reminder of a pleasant, relaxing stay – which you might consider repeating with another reservation.
My research suggests that major tourism operators are becoming increasingly ambitious about using different scents as part of the services they provide. Professional manufacturers now offer thousands of familiar scents for commercial use on an industrial scale.
One common area of ”sensory marketing” is where ambient scents are strategically emitted into the built environment to make it more inviting. Travel companies already use this tool on everything from planes (roses, lavender and citrus on Singapore Airlines, for example) to airport lounges (orange peel and figs on United Airlines) and even in customs and parking areas.
Bathrooms and lobbies are often made with a lemon (or citrus in general) scent, which is now associated with hygiene thanks to its widespread use in cleaning products.
There are also scents that are considered “warm” (cinnamon and vanilla, for example) or “cool” (mint and eucalyptus). My previous research showed that these scents can have surprising effects on people’s perception of space.
Warm scents lead to a feeling of physical closeness, making spaces appear more crowded or crowded. In the world of travel, they would not be used wisely in elevators or security lines at airports. Instead, the great smell in these areas will make travelers feel less confined.
Odors and Allergies
Smell can also be used to influence customer behavior. For example, there are studies that show that these same warm scents can reduce calorie consumption. Perhaps surprisingly, the more we are exposed to the scent of a delicious dessert like chocolate brownie, the less likely we are to want to eat it. In a hotel or spa, this would likely be used to push tourists toward healthier food options.
Studies have also shown that the aroma of coffee makes people feel more energetic and alert, mimicking the actual effects of caffeine consumption. Hotels and airports could explore the use of coffee aroma in business centers and conference rooms, which could improve the cognitive performance of business travelers.
There may also be benefits for airlines that deal with tired passengers. The smell of coffee at the end of a long flight may energize passengers, ultimately leading to a better travel experience and a more positive opinion of the airline.
These customer opinions matter greatly to an industry hard hit by COVID-19. As tour operators seek to lure travelers back on planes and into foreign countries, they need to find new ways to stand out.
For many of these clients, the desire to travel will already be strong. In the digital world, our dominant screens have always come to prioritize the visual and auditory senses over touch and smell. The pandemic has exacerbated this situation by limiting movement and social interaction.
Beyond those screens, travel retains the potential to deliver valuable, multi-sensory experiences. Taking advantage of our sense of smell and learning about its effect on perceptions and behavior brings huge opportunities for the industry to come out smelling like roses.