June 16, 2021
By Laura Fredericks

It's a common question often asked by guests: Why do hotels smell so good?

Whether you realize it or not, you have powerful memories and emotions tied to your sense of smell. Because of this, smell plays an important role in your opinions about places, purchases, and experiences. Hotels everywhere, from luxury chains to independent B&Bs, have realized this important lesson.

Brands spend large amounts of money on designing the perfect scent experience to match their product, and hotels are no exception. Specialists help hotels design signature scents evoking feelings like romance, energy, fun, or relaxation. Expensive scent systems pump odors into hotel lobbies, gyms, spas, and meeting rooms, all with the goal of adding to the experience that the hotel wants guests to have.

So, why do hotels smell so good? Here's everything you need to know.

It’s time to uncover the hidden secrets of scent experiences at hotel brands around the world and give you a few ideas to capture that scent for yourself.

Why do hotels focus on smell?

It may seem at first like smells are a strange thing for a brand to focus on. After all, you can’t bring a scent home with you (or can you? more on this later), and the smell of something is impossible to share on Instagram. Guests may not even be fully aware of the smell in a hotel, and often won’t be able to identify the specific scent that they’re smelling.

So why bother creating custom scents and spreading them with expensive machinery?

The answer lies in how smells are processed in human brains. Although scientists now say that humans can detect over 1 trillion odors, we don’t have a trillion words to describe those scents. Instead, according to a Discover Magazine article, “information feeds from the nose to cortical areas to arouse emotions and memories without our awareness. When it comes to smells, people can be influenced and not realize it.”

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That’s why the smell of lilacs can bring you back to your grandmother’s garden in an instant, or why a whiff of coconut might make you feel the immediate relaxation of a beach vacation. Scents are powerfully tied to emotions and long-term memories, and they help to create our experiences as well as helping us to remember them.

So even though you may not be able to put a name to the scent around you, it will likely have a powerful effect on your mood and behavior.

If you’re running a hotel, you have a huge opportunity to stand out using scent. Only 3% of Fortune 1000 companies use scent as part of their brand experience. By moving beyond the visual experience that you’re offering, you create deeper and more lasting connections with your guests.

Hotels everywhere are starting to use scent as part of an overall brand experience. A signature scent can be combined with interior design, lighting, and more to create just the right environment and impress your guests.

Hotels known for their scents

There are some great examples of scent marketing in the hospitality industry. Check out the scents used by famous properties around the world, and consider how you could use scents in your own experience.

  • The Mandarin Oriental Hotel & Spa in Hyde Park, London - The signature scent of the Mandarin’s spa combines warm sandalwood, floral jasmine and frangipani, and musky patchouli. Guests can take home candles with the scent to bring their experience beyond the hotel.
  • W Hotels around the world use a signature spray to create a relaxed vibe in their guest rooms. Guests can buy the spray to take home the scents of lemon blossoms, laurel, and green tea.
  • Rancho La Puerta in Mexico puts aromatherapy at the center of the hotel’s fitness experience. Their signature blend of essential oils is in all of the hotel’s custom beauty and spa products, using the property’s extensive gardens as inspiration for its scents of rosemary, calendula, lavender, and aloe.
  • Westin was one of the first hotel chains to have a signature scent. Theirs blends white tea, vanilla, and wood cedar.
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How hotels decide on a smell

Although all smells will have an effect in one way or another, the magnitude and type of effect are certainly not equal. Certain scents will evoke more powerful emotions than others. Experts carefully mix scents in specific quantities in order to get the scent experience that a brand prefers.

In the case of hotels, decisions are often based on how they want guests to feel about their overall experience. If, for example, the hotel is a spa retreat in the middle of a forest, they may focus on scents that evoke nature, calm, relaxation, open air, and solitude. A bustling city location geared towards business travelers may opt instead for scents that energize their guests, encouraging productivity or rejuvenation after a long day of work.

If you’re designing a scent for your own hotel, your first step is to think deeply about your audience and the types of hotel guests who frequent your property. How do you want them to feel in the space? What words do you hope they’ll use to describe your brand? What memories do you want to linger after their stay?

After you’ve noted these big-picture brand thoughts, it’s time to add some specifics that will help you narrow down your choices. What are some notable points about the hotel’s history? What about the decor or furnishings? What amenities or experiences are you known for? These details help to create an immersive experience that blends the abstract with the more specific, concrete details that you’d like to highlight.

Once you know the mood you’d like to evoke, you can work with a scent expert or olfactory branding specialist to design a layered scent that hits all the right notes.

Common smells in hotels

Although the ideas behind perfumes for the skin and those for a room are similar, it’s important that hotels create a fragrance designed specifically for large buildings. Scents need to be lighter, less diluted, and have nothing artificial about them in order to win over crowds. Room scents should be diffused through the air professionally (either via HVAC or standalone units) so that guests aren’t overwhelmed.

Most brands choose to avoid scents that are overly feminine or masculine, instead finding ingredients that have mass appeal and are less easily defined. Heavy floral scents and sweet fruits like peach, strawberry, and banana are best avoided as well.

Good choices for scents in hotels include sandalwood, vanilla, cedar, lemon blossom, citrus, neroli, leather, and white tea. You can then add in less common scents specific to your hotel experience, such as lemon verbena, jasmine, coconut, patchouli, lavender, and more.

And that crisp smell on hotel sheets? It’s likely just commercial-grade detergent and lots of bleach.

What technology do hotels use to diffuse scents?

Adequately covering lobby, spa, restaurant, gym, and room areas with signature scents requires more than a few candles or an oil diffuser. Most hotels use scent systems designed for large commercial spaces in order to get the effect they’re hoping for. 

These systems can be integrated into the HVAC system or can be standalone units placed in strategic areas. Spas and fitness centers often use smaller diffusers, which are appropriate for the size of small amenity areas. For individual guest rooms, hotels often create room sprays or toiletries with their signature scents so that the scent is renewed every time housekeeping freshens up the room.

Tips for hotels to keep things smelling great

If you run a hotel and aren’t yet ready for olfactory branding consultants, expensive HVAC systems, and signature scents, there’s still a lot that you can do to keep your property smelling great. Here are a few things to try:

  • Keep moisture at bay. Moisture and humidity are the number one cause of bad smells in commercial spaces. You can tackle moisture by making sure linens are fully dry before making beds, opening doors and windows when possible, and using fans to dry carpets and upholstery after steam cleaning.
  • If you suspect mold or mildew, bring in the professionals. Places like elevator shafts, basements, and garbage collection rooms are prone to mold and will need to be cleaned by a professional regularly to keep away smells.
  • Avoid aerosols, which are often overpowering in small spaces and can smell too artificial
  • Use a different scent in the restrooms. The last thing you want is your guests thinking that the whole hotel smells like the restroom.
  • Schedule professional deodorizing of soft furnishings on a regular basis
  • Change air filters regularly and keep your HVAC system clean
  • Don’t overdo it on scents. The goal is for things to smell clean and fresh and blend into the background, not for things to be overpowering.

Now you know why — and how — hotels smell so good!

Thinking of specific scents for certain times of the year? Here are 11 great ideas to market your hotel during the holidays.


Laura Fredericks

Laura brings a decade of insight to improving marketing, as she has worked in technology since 2010. She has experience starting and scaling a business, driving customer marketing, and speaking at live events, including WeDC Fest 2018. She founded Describli and Paradigm Labs, and currently works with companies to improve their customer relationship management and content strategy. LinkedIn | Website
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