Freshly baked bread. Newly cut grass. A salty sea breeze. Most people have a favourite smell that evokes fond memories or feelings of comfort.
This sensory appeal has long been harnessed by businesses to sell scented candles, expensive perfumes, and even homes. Now it is increasingly being used in the travel industry – where airlines, hotels and entertainment venues are deliberately incorporating scents into the “tourism experience”.
These businesses are seeking to benefit from consumer research that has established that there is much more to pleasant scents than smelling nice. Smells have a particular ability to act as a source of information. Because they are intangible – we cannot see or touch them – our brains automatically associate them with experiences.
The travel industry is all about experiences. One of the main reasons people are willing to spend large amounts of money on visiting new places is to stimulate their senses with new sights, sounds, tastes and smells, such as the fragrant lavender of southern France, or eucalyptus on the Italian Amalfi coast.
A simple way to monetise this is for a hotel to sell its own signature shower gels or soaps so that customers can take a little part of their holiday home with them. Ideally, when they are used in your own bathroom, they will be a reminder of a happy, relaxed stay – which you may consider repeating with another booking.
My research suggests that major tourism operators are becoming increasingly ambitious about using different smells as part of the services they provide. Specialist manufacturers now offer thousands of familiar scents for commercial use on an industrial scale.
One popular area of “sensory marketing” is where ambient scents are strategically emitted into the built environment to make it more appealing. Travel companies are already using this tool in everything from aeroplanes (rose, lavender and citrus at Singapore Airlines, for example) to airport lounges (orange peel and figs at United Airlines) and even in customs areas and carparks.
Bathrooms and lobbies are often made to smell of lemon (or citrus in general), which, thanks to its widespread use in cleaning products, is now linked with cleanliness.
There are also scents that are considered “warm” (cinnamon and vanilla, for example) or “cool” (peppermint 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 proximity, making spaces seem busier or more crowded. In the world of travel, these would not be wisely used in lifts or security lines at airports. Instead, a cool scent in these areas will make travellers feel less confined.
Scents and sensibility
Smell can also be used to influence customers’ behaviour. For example, there are studies which show that those same warm scents can reduce people’s calorie consumption. Perhaps surprisingly, it seems the more we are exposed to the aromas of sweet treats like chocolate cookies, the less likely we are to want to eat them. In a hotel or spa, this could potentially be used to nudge tourists towards healthier food choices.
Studies have also shown that the smell of coffee makes people feel more energetic and alert, mimicking the actual effects of consuming caffeine. Hotels and airports could explore using coffee scent in business centres and conference rooms, potentially to improve the cognitive performance of business travellers.
There might also be benefits for airlines dealing with tired passengers. A coffee scent emitted at the end of a long-haul flight might energise passengers, ultimately leading to a better travelling experience and a more positive opinion of the airline.
Those customer opinions matter a great deal for an industry that has been so badly hit by COVID. As tour operators seek to entice travellers back onto planes and into foreign countries, they need to find new ways to stand out.
For many of those customers, the desire to travel will already be strong. In a digital world, our ever-dominant screens have come to prioritise the visual and auditory sense at the expense of touch and smell. The pandemic exacerbated this situation with its limits on movement and social interaction.
Away from those screens, travel retains the potential to deliver valuable and invigorating multi-sensory experiences. Tapping into our sense of smell and recognising its impact on perceptions and behaviour brings huge opportunities for the industry to come up smelling of roses.
Adriana Madzharov does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.