You may or may not notice the sweet smell of success the next time you visit a casino or resort, but if you do, it's not by accident. Introducing fragrance into the air is part of a growing hospitality industry trend toward multisensory marketing - eliciting favorable impressions not only by what someone sees or hears but also smells, feels, and remembers - to create an overall positive impression about the resort experience. What started out as an effort to minimize the impact of cigarette smoke in casino air has blossomed into a growing business for companies that develop custom fragrance blends for resorts worldwide. UNLV researchers are examining the trend and finding there is more to study than meets the nose.
The sense of smell is just one way (and a very powerful one) to help guests form positive emotional impressions. Scent affects both mind and body. It can immediately create or connect to a memory as well as have a potent physiological impact. A putrid odor can literally make one sick, and a pleasing smell can improve a mood - just think cookies in the oven. The hotel industry is learning what aromatherapists have long realized: Scents can relax or stimulate the body's responses and perhaps even influence behavior.
For nearly 20 years, resorts and casinos have worked with fragrance formulators such as pioneering firm AromaSys to scent their inside air through existing ventilation systems. Their reasons range from the basic premise that pleasant fragrances can minimize cigarette smell and convey the impression of cleanliness to a more sophisticated notion - that a distinctive scent can create an irresistible appeal and air of luxury. Kathryn LaTour, associate professor of tourism and convention administration, is studying different ways the guest experience can be enhanced through the senses. LaTour notes that there are actually more sensory channels than the five traditional senses. "It's actually closer to 19 different ways a person forms perceptions, some below conscious awareness." Learning more about people's psychological and physiological responses to strong sensory cues like fragrance can have an impact on consumer behavior. "It's a wide-open field," LaTour says. "The industry is eager for more data."
Gael Hancock, program manager for the Master's of Hospitality Administration degree at UNLV, is providing some of that data. As part of her recently completed master's thesis, she conducted one of the few objective studies on the effects of fragrances in a casino setting. Her study is significant because it is not based on focus groups or subjective surveys about whether customers "liked" a fragrance. Instead, it simply measures the "coin-in" rate for reel slot machines at five different casino floor locations when different fragrances were dispersed. Hancock tested both synthetic fragrances and natural fragrances compounded from essential oils. She wanted to know if there would be any difference between the synthetic and natural scents, which are more complex and can be more expensive to use. For the two natural fragrances she tested, she deliberately chose very different scents, one known for its invigorating effects on the body and the other recognized as relaxing.
Her results proved interesting. "Coin-in" rates were positively affected when the air was scented with natural fragrances, either refreshing or soothing. The power of the natural fragrances utilizing essential oils over the weaker synthetics did not surprise Hancock. Her background research and 25 years' experience with aromatherapy had suggested that natural fragrances "have been shown to affect mood, lessen anxiety, and increase alertness," which could keep gamblers staying longer and playing more, she posits. It's possible that natural fragrances may help gamblers "maintain an emotional equilibrium and not experience such highs and lows," says Hancock.
Until more is known about scents and their impact on the guest experience, hotel and casino properties are covering their bets and employing a variety of approaches. Perfuming the air has become big business, with companies trying to sniff out that elusive scent that will give them a competitive edge.
Many Las Vegas hotels and casinos use a "signature" fragrance to convey the personality or brand of their particular property. The same fragrance is used whether it's in the lobby, guest room, casino, or restaurant. Leading properties further capitalize on their scents by selling resort-branded candles, potpourri, and room fresheners in their shops, so customers can evoke the mood of the resort at home. Fragrance formulations are closely guarded trade secrets. Hotels noted for their scent signatures include Bellagio, the Venetian, and the M Resort, to name just a few.
Off the Las Vegas Strip, hotel properties seem to have a different philosophy. They employ fragrances as location enhancers, using one type of scent in the pool area to make it seem more tropical and yet another fragrance for the lobby or spa. Some properties use as many as nine different fragrances in various locales.
The "scent volume" also differs greatly between properties. Some keep their scents at barely noticeable levels, conveying more of an impression of freshness rather than an identifiable smell, while other properties opt for a more "in-your-face" dispersion tactic. Watchdog groups concerned with indoor air quality find this sort of nasal assault troubling, but actual complaints are rare. Surveys indicate many casino managers/owners are already using fragrances to brand their properties, enhance their ambience, heighten the guest experience, and extend that experience after checkout. Hancock's research suggests "the decision to continue to use or begin including ambient fragrances in the servicescape is a good one."
Studies like Hancock's and LaTour's raise more questions: Would video poker or blackjack players, whose games require more concentration, react to scents differently? Does a pleasing scent influence one's perception of time? What role do cultural factors play in formulating a scent? Can the cost of more expensive natural scents be justified? What are the ethical considerations involved in manipulating sensory perceptions to influence consumer memory and behavior?
UNLV would like to take the lead in answering these types of questions. It's working to establish an Experience Management Institute to further study multisensory marketing and its impact on the hospitality industry. Even though the effects of sensory marketing are not yet fully understood or measured, hotel operators sense they're on to something. And the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration smells an opportunity.