Assault on the senses !

Beth Davie discovers what really goes into seducing the hotel guest.

Think back to your last hotel stay. What did the lobby smell like? Do you recall the music being played or was it the tune in the lift that stuck in your mind?

The use of sensory design and marketing to enhance a hotel’s brand and the guest’s experience is becoming an increasingly popular tool among hoteliers, but what is it exactly and how do hotels manage to not only activate our five senses, but use those senses to increase guest loyalty and even get guests to pay extra for the experience?

“Our experiences are formed from our five senses,” says Simon A Faure-Field, CEO of Equal Strategy, a customer experience consultancy with operations in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

“If you manage the elements of your guest experience more effectively, the output is more likely to be consistently on target.”

Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business and chairman of the Sound Agency agrees. “Great hotels – and I’m not just thinking top of the market here – have always intuitively understood that their success is based on consistent and congruent customer experience, which is always multi-sensory. It would seem crazy for such a multi-dimensional brand category to ignore those senses that have deeper emotional connections, such as sound and scent.”

In short, our senses are there to be manipulated, and hotels are the perfect setting for complete immersion.

This move away from the visual to the sensory has led to a string of hotels infusing their lobbies with fragrances and playing customised soundtracks, all in a bid to create a memorable experience that guests can smell, hear and touch.


Starwood’s Westin brand uses a white tea fragrance in all its lobbies worldwide. Omni Hotels infuses its lobbies with a lemongrass and green tea scent and Shangri-La also uses its own exclusive ‘signature’ fragrance. These ‘signature’ fragrances have been developed specially for the brand, are used exclusively by those clients, and will be associated with the hotel brand over the long term. And all of them are designed to evoke specific emotions from their guests.

“The “Essence of Shangri-La” was developed with the aim to express Shangri-La’s brand. The scent adds another sensory layer of welcome to all who enter, conveying a safe and comforting haven as soon as guests walk through our doors,” says Sari Yong, media relations manager, Hong Kong/Southeast Asia, Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts.

“It is said to evoke serenity and calm.” Realising the potential for increasing guest satisfaction and, ergo, loyalty, Omni took its sensory branding initiative beyond the lobby, and added scented stickers to newspapers distributed to guests and outfitting some hotels with in-room “sensation bars”.

Like many hotels, Omni is also paying more attention to the music played in public spaces, developing playlists that are customised for each property, as well as the time of day.

“We realised that when business travellers are getting out the door in the morning, we need to be putting a little bit of beat in their step,” says Caryn Kboudi, a spokesperson for Omni Hotels, explaining that this has led to a move away from classical music or jazz during the morning shift. “At night, then we go into something that’s a little bit softer and slower.”

Allen Klevens, chief executive of Prescriptive Music, a consulting business that helps clients develop these types of soundtracks, said hotels are looking to distinguish themselves by shunning the ubiquitous sound of jazz and even playing tunes guests do not necessarily recognise.

“If you hear music such as Sheryl Crow or Dave Matthews Band, that’s a familiar sound to people,” says Klevens. “But to really create a vibe or that feeling of being different, you’re not going to know that artist, you’re not going to know that sound, but you’re going to say, ‘Wow, where can I get that CD?’ “

One hotel chain offering something else to sniff at is Starwood’s Le Meridian.

As soon as you enter any of their hotels a waft of old books and parchment hits you. The smell isn’t there to take you back to your school days, but instead to get you in the “right frame of mind” and in sync with the hotel chain’s positioning as a destination for “guests who seek out a new perspective and cultural discovery in their travel experience”.

Once through the lobby and check-in, you step into the lift and hear “horses galloping in water”, instead of the usual monotonous sounds of piano keys or something equally forgettable.

Starwood’s approach, both to its music and scent, is very different and certainly distinctive, which makes it all the more memorable.


Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Sense – Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound, claims that 75 percent of our day-to-day emotions are influenced by what we smell and that there’s a 65 percent chance of our moods changing when exposed to a positive sound.

Equal Strategy’s Faure-Field agrees. “Decades of behavioural research confirm that [aligningsensory appeal with the target customer] forges a deep subconscious preference, forming genuine customer loyalty and a lifetime revenue stream.

“The sense of smell is the only sense directly connected to the brain centre for memory and emotions,” he adds.

While Shangri-La’s Yong admits that although the actual physical results are unquantifiable, “our guests have given us positive feedback and sent enquiries on where they can purchase our scent for their home”. Lindstrom also points out the success of Singapore Airlines, which actually began its senses branding as far back as 1973, with the introduction of the Singaporean Girl who, incidentally, became the first brand figure to be displayed at the famous Madame Tussaud’s Museum in London.

Singapore Airlines’ campaign was based exclusively on the emotional experience of air travel. The staff uniforms were made from the finest silk and the fabric design was based on the patterns in the cabin decor. Flight attendants were offered only two choices of colour combination for their makeup based on a specific palette designed to blend in with the airlines’ brand colour scheme. Even the announcements from the captain were carefully scripted by its advertising agency.

At the end of the 1990s, Singapore Airlines had introduced Stefan Floridian Waters fragrance. This aroma was specifically designed for the airline and it formed the scent in the flight attendants’ perfume, was blended into the hot towels served before take off and permeated the entire fleet of its planes. This patented aroma is now a unique and very distinct trademark of the airline.

Lindstrom argues that what hotels can learn from Singapore Airlines is that success lies in mastering “true sensory synergy”. The aroma only takes on an exotic tang when accompanied by the colourful beauty of the Singaporean girl.

So the more senses you appeal to, the stronger the message. Interestingly, Lindstrom also points out that stronger bonding directly translates to higher prices that consumers are prepared to pay.


But with all this emphasis on appealing to guests’ five senses, is there a risk of inducing sensory overload?

“Absolutely,” says Faure-Field. “Most brands are making a lot of sounds but it’s generally incongruent, undesigned and even hostile. There is great value in taking a holistic, multi-sensory approach and it usually results in a reduction of the noise system.”

However, Faure-Field argues that if done right, the results can be extremely satisfying. “It’s moving to see how people respond to your work. For example, I saw people walking past the hotel [Naumi in Singapore] and start to dance to the music from the outdoor speakers. We’ve also spoken to guests who stay there each time they visit Singapore because they like it so much.

“It reinforces our belief that if you get it right, guests will love their stay. And, in hospitality, isn’t that what it’s all about?”