Miles Hurley investigates the impact of sensory influencers on modern hospitality and how these industries have changed over the years.
Imagine walking into the lobby of a stunning boutique hotel. You’re surrounded by plush, luxurious soft furnishings, all dark, comfortable and welcoming. The staff at the front desk seem friendly, all wearing the various protective gear they can, not to mention their impeccable dress sense. But something seems off. You have a seat and wait while the team works through your check-in. And you realise that you can only hear the tapping of keys as your name and info is put into the computer. Beyond that, silence.
Hospitality is an industry of details, driven as much by feeling as it is by cold statistics. When you want people to stay somewhere, you create a space that people want to stay in. Much of this comes down to visual and tactile design. Hoteliers will pour thousands into ensuring that a bedroom looks unique, but comforting, while ensuring that its sheets are soft, its mattresses supportive and its pillows fluffy and firm. However, the human body experiences five senses at once, two of which many properties use to impact the ways consumers experience them.
The first is sound – which many hospitality operators have been utilising for years. The idea of “lobby music,” a kind of easy listening, smooth fare, has become a quick catchall for uninspired, dull fare. This is the kind of work for which the Muzak Corporation, so ubiquitous its name became a catch-all, became famous. The goal of its music was to create a sense of ease in its areas, to fall into the background, allowing people to feel more comfortable in a space. At the time, it also provided a secondary benefit – demonstrating luxury. That businesses of any variety could spend money on keeping customers comfortable and entertained in unimportant spaces showed their upmarket, high-class status.
While at the time these were assumptions, scientists have since researched and found correlating links between many of these policies. Studies commissioned have demonstrated that music played in a particular space can encourage consumption, improve guest/staff interactions, and reduce wait-induced stress. Beyond this, music has been confirmed as a way to improve brand personality and to enhance the perception of décor, reinforcing the hotel’s pre-existing design. Music here serves as a way to subtly bring the customer into the experience you want them to have – softer, more relaxed, and in a mood to relax.
The second is smell, which can provide many of these similar benefits. Apart from vision, scent is one of the most powerful human senses and can produce some of the most viscerally positive and negative reactions. It is also one of the most essential for creating senses of immersion. The human body processes scent quicker than it processes visual information, allowing for customers to take in whatever the intended feeling of a scent curator may be. For hospitality in particular, these reactions tend to be overwhelmingly positive. According to Premium Scenting, 91 per cent of hotel customers have a positive reaction to the use of strong scents in certain areas. Speaking about his own experience, director of Office Space in Town Giles Fuchs said: “I was staying in a hotel just inside the walls of Marrakech, and I noticed this amazing Amber scent. And I just thought how wonderful it was, so when I came back, I explained to the managers and directors, and said ‘Maybe we should have a scent.’”
The importance of these makes sense viscerally but also scientifically. Music has been used as a tool for fighting depression and other mental health issues due to its ability to shift our mental focus and to impact our mood. Fragrance as well is an essential tool that can improve mood. Research has linked sweeter smelling scents with positive emotional responses and has linked aromatherapy techniques with improved mental health. On the simplest level, music and fragrance have been linked with stronger positive brainwave performance and the reduction of negative ones. More surprising, research has also uncovered that these senses are stronger when used together, with cells behaving differently when exposed to both.
Beyond simple positive reaction though, these have the opportunity to instil clear messaging about a property’s brand. While many businesses will use pre-created scents, others will create their own scent. Following Fuchs’ experience, he worked with perfumier John Paul Welton to create an integrated scent for his own office space properties. But he is not alone in so doing. Jane Nicholson, founder of consultancy service Lime in the Minibar, notes that businesses from hotels to retail and beyond use bespoke scenting to create a clear brand identity. By appealing directly to a quick-acting sense, boutique scents can immediately create a specific memory associated with their business. For hospitality, including branded scents not just in certain rooms, but in amenities which guests can take away, can provide guests with a constant reminder of the experience they had at a property, further pushing it into their minds.
However, both of these industries have changed in particular. Scent was similarly limited in scope, with the primary customers up until the 80s being casinos attempting to cover the smell of cigarettes. Ideas of scent marketing and bespoke sensory branding were less prevalent until the 90s. Furthermore, from the 1970s onward, background or so-called “elevator music” became shorthand for low quality, dull fare designed to keep consumers docile. Producers like Brian Eno, outraged at the idea of music demanding one constant emotion from people, pushed the creation of ambient music, designed to facilitate calm and thoughtfulness. Eno said: “Whereas [canned music’s] intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it, ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.” Furthermore, for smaller businesses, many didn’t conceive of complex uses of music at all, instead just letting whichever employee was on duty at the time select.
In response, many companies changed the type of music that they offered, focusing on curation rather than production. Instead of aiming to lull a visitor into a sense of absolute complacency, they instead hope to make their sound part of the complete experience, supplementing branding efforts. This could be as simple as matching genres to a hotel’s theme, or as complex as creating fully curated sounds for a property. In the same way, there are both off-the-shelf fragrance choices as well as designers’ scents, created for properties bespoke needs. Dan Domeniconi, founder of DOME design said: “Not only is it important to get the scent right, it is equally important to consider how and where it should be used in the hotel and how best to diffuse it. I work with interior designers, architects and hoteliers to develop a fragrance experience that truly reflects the brand, as well as recommend a mix of high-tech and decorative systems to diffuse the scent.”
The process of implementing these is as personal as the property they’re influencing. A music curator or scent developer will visit the property to understand the visual identity and cultural identity of the business, as well as speaking with the core stakeholders. Rob Wood, CEO of Music Concierge said: “Having done our consultations, we then curate music concepts for each zone in the property and each time of day.” Following that, entire playlists will be designed. Rob then uploads songs into his own delivery platforms, which can be constantly updated with new music following the branding guide. That can also change depending on what a property wants their customer to do. Some tracks have the ability to make customers move through a room quickly, while others can make them stop, stay and reflect on the space around them.
Modern sensory influencers are also brilliant because of their universal use. Shops, pubs, restaurants and airports have all created a full sensory experience to make their location memorable. Businesses such as office spaces have also used sounds and scents to add extra personification to their areas. Fuchs noted that for businesses such as his, who focus less on holistic branding, something subtle like a scent can create a sense of unity without overwhelming their clients’ brands. This can be particularly valuable for short-term rentals and serviced apartments, where signature scents can be a part of branding in an increasingly diverse market. Even more so than this, an absolute absence of fragrance, including those of cleaning supplies and other household goods, can be a selling point for properties. Certain sites appeal to those who have particular sensitivities to artificial smells and offer a scent-free package for the sake of comfort. Sound as well is not just useful in lobbies. Some businesses have begun using it to highlight other parts of their hotels, and even create certain bespoke experiences for guests in their rooms.
And as all things do, sensory experiences have changed and are going to change as technology does. For scents, the added complexity of modern delivery methods allows them to do a variety of unique tasks. This includes ozone diffusers, which not only can place scents in an area but can also remove unpleasant odour. Sound as well has evolved. Some producers of bespoke playlists have been using algorithmic solutions to help fulfil the needs of their clients. Others have also used technology to create sound installations, serving the purpose of a piece of art as well as sonic mood-setting. Wood added: “We’ve worked on something quite interesting in Taiwan, which is this amazing digital/mechanical sculpture that has thousands of balls moving in unison. We created music to be perfectly in time and sync with that.”
Sensory influencers can be especially useful for businesses recovering from the impacts of Covid-19. Wood said: “Music affects us in a big way, so in this situation where most of us have been affected by a pandemic, especially people travelling, I think hospitality and even places like airports need calming, welcoming environments. Music can be used to make it a more tranquil, comfortable experience.” Hotels in the United States have already done the same with regard to scents. By utilising scents associated with cleanliness, they have been able to improve feelings of security among customers.
Whatever changes may come, the core of these businesses aligns with the core goals of hospitality, making people feel comfortable in a space. And in an industry that is going to be changed, an opportunity to improve the small details of a property will be what separates the wheat from the chaff. Beyond that, it can provide a unique way to think about branding, which can lead into other parts of the property. And all as easy as lighting a candle or setting up a Spotify playlist.