How a Hotel Gets Its Signature Scent

Hotel scent branding 101

In 2013, Sylvie Ganter, the founder of Atelier Cologne—a successful perfume brand, faced a challenge: to create a signature scent for a five-star hotel—Majestic, in celebration of its 100-year anniversary. She had rich experience in creating perfect scent for her consumers. But for a hotel? “I had no clue where to even start,” she recalls. “I had never done anything like this.”

After studying the history of the hotel (Hemingway and other legendary figures were, famously, longtime residents), the decor (intricate moldings, bold fixtures, Art Deco accents), and the overall aesthetic (luxurious but not ostentatious, traditional yet timeless), she decided the mood she wanted to evoke—muted, masculine, chic, elegant, timeless, relevant. In order to use elements from the hotel’s surroundings to anchor the fragrance to the region, she landed on Mediterranean-grown clary sage, a form of musk, and fig leaf for a salty seaside note, before loading it up with Atelier Cologne’s signature citruses like lemon and bergamot.

“I designed it like I would have for the skin because that’s what I know,” says Ganter. “And then we adapted it so it could be diffused through air conditioning by making it brighter and less concentrated.” She adds that the concentration of traditional fragrances is 18 percent oil, but for the hotel, it was diluted to less than 10 percent. “You want something that smells good in the space, not overwhelming, like you’re swallowing it when you enter the hotel.”

“You want something that smells good in the space, not overwhelming, like you’re swallowing it when you enter the hotel.”

Musc Imperial launched at the Majestic in 2015, and soon after, guests demanded it in perfume form. And then a candle. The hotel requested that it be made into an amenities line, ending Bulgari’s reign as its sole vendor. In 2019, the scent was awarded Niche Fragrance of the year—the only hotel-inspired fragrance to ever win an award—by the Cosmetic Executive Women, a trade organization for the cosmetics, fragrance, and personal care industry.

But for the most part, Ganter believes the majority of Majestic guests probably don’t even notice the scent. “It’s subliminal,” she says. “Now that there are amenities and a candle in all the rooms, it makes it more official as the scent of the hotel. And if you bring home the shower gel, it transports you back to the place where you had a really good time.”

scent and effect

Scent Decoder

According to Mandarin Oriental’s branding specialists, hotel guests remember what they smell two times longer and more vividly than what they see or hear. Scent branding firm 12.29, founded by sisters Dawn and Samantha Goldworm, likes to quote a similar statistic that after three months, a person can recall a smell with 65 percent accuracy, in contrast to only 50 percent of visuals.

Scent memories are persistent and ingrained. For brands, this is the main reason why they go to such length to create custom fragrances: they provide a powerful tool to build emotional loyalty. 

“You don't viscerally experience a logo the way you experience a scent," said Caroline Fabrigas, chief executive officer of Scent Marketing. She has previously worked for Prada, Chanel and Clarins and has created scents for the new Baccarat and 1 Hotels in New York, along with more than 200 Hyatt hotels. The process is similar: Such firms as New York-based Air Aroma bring together a team of interior designers, marketing experts, psychologists, graphic designers, and perfumers, with research and development fees that run from $5,000 to $30,000 per formulation, depending on scope.

Blowing a traditional perfume into the air would involve alcohol, to which some guests could be allergic. Using only candles makes for uneven scenting. Using heat means you can lose the depth of a fragrance.

Air Aroma, which has scented the Four Seasons Chicago, SLS Hotels, and the Sofitel brand, uses a system known as “cold air diffusion,” by which cool air pushes the scented oil through a nebulizer (similar to what hospitals use to administer medication in the form of a mist), creating a micro-fine vapor that remains suspended in the air. They hook these diffusion machines up to a hotel’s HVAC system. The result? Subtle, even, and continuous scenting.

Other hotels take it a step farther, incorporating the scent into linen sprays in guest rooms, cool towels by the pool, diffusers in the lighting, and even on business cards, postcards, and candles. To spread a scent developed for New York’s Quin Hotel, 12.29 created notecards with invisible capsules that release the signature scent as you write on them.

Everyone is scenting. Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental, Shangri-La, Marriott. When it comes to making an impression, a comfortable lobby and high-quality service are essential, of course, but among the more subtle cues, none is getting more attention these days than fragrance. “There is data that shows the power of scent to drive loyalty,” says Ziegler. “It brings people back to a place.” Ross Klein, president of the luxury brands group at Starwood, led the development of scent logos for W and St. Regis. W’s is called Bling. As for the St. Regis, “We like clients to feel they’re arriving at their own home, curated by Mrs. Astor, so the scent has the roses and sweet peas Mrs. Astor loved with a little bit of Mr. Astor’s tobacco.” The air in these hotels—as is often the case—is scented using candles.

  1. The Four Seasons Hotel Chicago’s signature scent blends local violets, water lilies and clean citrus with hints of cedarwood for “an unforgettable finish that greets guests upon arrival,” says Carly Fowler, an account manager at Air Aroma, a company that supplies the trademark fragrances. Each of the brand's hotels chooses signature scents for in-room amenities. Maui's lime-based, tropical-flower, and exotic-wood fragrance comes in bottles inspired by the resort's local art. The Toronto flagship’s ETRO-packaged Vicolo Fiori products come scented with bluebells and mandarin, wild rose, musk, and sandalwood.
  2. At the Hotel Irvine in southern California, “we gently pump a pleasant scent of watery green floral notes of jasmine and lily, mixed with creamy oriental floral nuances and a touch of musk, amber, sheer woods and vanilla into our public spaces,” general manager Jeroen Quint says.
  3. Marriott International, the largest hotel chain in the world, has more than 30 brands in its portfolio and among them, half have a signature or a scent program. With its focus on wellness and health, Westin was the first to roll out its signature White Tea scent (a blend of white tea, wood cedar, and vanilla) and amenities line—done with fragrance manufacturer Mane—more than a decade ago with the goal of energizing its guests.
    • As for W Hotels, the trendy chain that redefined modern luxury, the idea was to match its super-charged energy (and its equally super-charged guests) with a fragrance that could cultivate a “fresh, chic environment.” For 16-plus years, that has been its “Signature Citron No. 5” scent with notes of Italian figs, jasmine, and sandalwood.
    • The Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa infuses its air with fig, bergamot, jasmine and freesia, “to convey a sense of belonging,” says Tina Hingle, the hotel’s marketing manager. The right scent, she adds, “can evoke warm memories, relax the body and calm the brain. Controlled use of scent can create a desirable and inviting atmosphere.”
    • St. Regis: In fall 2015, St. Regis called upon scent designer, architect, and historic preservationist Carlos Huber of Arquiste to create a brand-wide fragrance inspired by 19th century socialite Caroline Astor, whose family founded the chain. In homage to Astor's Gilded Age parties, Arquiste's crisp scent suggests apple blossoms, Champagne, and potted palms, with notes of American Beauty rose, white lilies, and cherry blossoms.
    • Le Meridien Hotels: It parfumier Le Labo created a scent for the New York property inspired by the library of Labo founder Fabrice Penot's grandfather. The result? A woodsy, leathery scent drawing on memories of Penot's favorite childhood book housed there, an early edition of Le Petit Prince.
    • Ritz-Carlton: Hotels can choose from custom scents developed for global geographic regions. In the Middle East, the Ritz-Carlton Doha offers Oud, made with an exotic resin of the same name that is a prestige scent in the region. (The resin can sell for $5,000 a pound.) In East Asia, the Kyoto property combines locally grown matcha with lemon, cardamom, cider wood, and jasmine. Here in the U.S., the Ritz-Carlton Washington celebrates the city’s famous cherry blossoms in its fragrance.

How many hotels are engaged in environmental fragrancing? No one knows for certain. “Numerous hotels, from hotel chains to boutique hotels, are currently scenting,” says Lior Azachi, the head of business development for Bioluxal, a scent provider. For example, all of the Holiday Inns worldwide are using the same scent in their hotel lobbies. In the United States, there are at least 1,000 properties that smell exactly the same.

A more interesting question: Why are hotels pumping smells into common areas, and even rooms? Guests at the Las Vegas Hilton spent 50% more time playing slot machines when the air around them was doused with a floral scent, according to Haha Lung and Christopher Prowant’s book Mental Dominance. A Washington State University study found that exposing shoppers to an orange scent prompted them to spend 20% more than they otherwise would have.