What’s that smell in my hotel?


The first thing Sheila Haas noticed when she checked into an apartment hotel in Los Angeles recently was the smell: a sweet, metallic fragrance wafting through her room. “It triggered an asthma attack,” she says.

Complaints to the management were met with a shrug. Too bad, a representative told her, “but you didn’t pay for a fragrance-free room.”

“We had to stay elsewhere,” says Haas, who lives in Boynton Beach, Fla.

It’s not your imagination. Something smells at an increasing number of hotels. And while it’s sometimes unbearable for guests with fragrance sensitivities, like me, or asthma, like Haas, the motive behind “scenting” is sweet — or so they say.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.”

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.

Of course, the explanation could be even simpler: The scent might be covering up another smell — one that would drive guests away.

Hotels assure me that’s not the case. At The Renwick and The Gregory, two New York boutique hotels, the introduction of scents by an artisan producer in Brooklyn called Apotheke, was done for the benefit of the guest. “It’s not an effort to cover up existing smells, but rather a way to curate an elevated connection to the property and enhance our one-of-a-kind travel experience,” hotel spokesman David Watsky says. The properties even sell candles with the signature scent, called “woods” and “tobacco.”

But guests are skeptical. “I’m often overwhelmed by the scents that are present in my hotel rooms,” says Sally Dreyer, a retired kindergarten teacher from Indianapolis. “Some smell like floral sprays and in some hotels the scents seem to be in the ventilation system. These give me headaches and congestion. Why do hotels think we want these odors?”

Patricia Abreu, a pianist from Boston who suffers from allergies, says she finds it “odd” that hotels infuse their properties with artificial smells. She wonders if they may be “opening themselves up to potential lawsuits, not just from unsuspecting customers, but especially from employees who will have constant exposure.”

To these guests, the smells are suspicious. It seems as if the hotel is hiding something. But the truth about smells is a little more complicated. Yes, some scents are meant to conceal a less pleasant odor, but they also make you lower your guard and buy more.

And for some guests, that really stinks.

What to do about hotel smells

• Go hypoallergenic. Stay with a hotel that offers hypoallergenic rooms, which are not scented. Most of the major chains, including Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and Fairmont, now offer no-smell quarters.

• If you smell something, say something. Some hotels pump smells into every part of the property. If you’re sensitive to scents, don’t wait until you’re halfway through your visit to complain.

• Fumigate your own room. If all else fails, open a window, or find the source of the smell and stop it. At a vacation rental in Hilton Head, S.C., the culprits were a series of overactive plug-ins, which were easily disabled. Note: You may want to check with the property before tampering with its smells.

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