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Rude Hotels: The Nose Knows

We sometimes underestimate how important aroma is to the shaping of an experience. Because most of us don’t really spend our time in large supermarkets or car showrooms, we are most likely to encounter aroma manipulation when we visit hotels or restaurants. Vir Sanghvi writes.

brunch Updated: Mar 17, 2012 17:22 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

We sometimes underestimate how important aroma is to the shaping of an experience. Are there times when you walk into the lobby of a deluxe hotel, escaping from the sticky heat of a summer afternoon, and as the first blast of cool air hits your sweaty face say to yourself, ‘This is the cool smell of luxury.’? Or, do you ever find yourself distracted when you are in a supermarket and the warm smell of freshly-baked bread wafts past your nose? Doesn’t it make you hungry and send you racing to the bakery counter? Or have you ever stepped into a luxury sedan at a car showroom, smelt the richness of the leather seats and recognised that this is the smell of how the other half lives?

Scent of luxury: A deluxe public space should not just look good, it should also smell good

Well, I’ve got news for you. In every single case, you were being manipulated. The coolly-sophisticated smell that you get in a hotel lobby is not the scent of luxury. It is usually some synthetic molecule that they have pumped through the air-conditioning system. The supermarket does not bake bread on the premises. It merely releases the aroma of baking bread into the store. And leather doesn’t really smell the way we think it does. Car companies fragrance the interiors of expensive cars with bogus leather scents.

Because most of us don’t really spend our time in large supermarkets or car showrooms, we are most likely to encounter aroma manipulation when we visit hotels or restaurants. There was a time when only avant-garde hotels bothered to fragrance the air. These days everybody does it. Some foreign chains even have strict regulations about the fragrances that can be used in their hotels. And specialists in the field will tell you what a Hilton smell is or what a W hotel is expected to smell like.

Many people get agitated about the ambient fragrances used by hotels. My attitude is different. You can view the fragrancing of public spaces in two ways. Either you see it as marketing manipulation (which it clearly is in the case of supermarkets or car interiors) or you see it as a part of design. I incline to the latter view. When a hotel lobby is designed, a lot of attention is paid to the architecture, the furniture, the carpets, the colour of the walls, the temperature to which the air-conditioning is set and even the muzak that is piped into the space.

Why should fragrance be any different? If design is meant to provide a pleasant sensory experience, then why should you ignore smell? A deluxe public space should not just look good, it should also smell good.

At some intuitive level, we recognise this in the way we scent our own homes and offices. Why else would there be such a boom in the sale of aromatic candles? Why else is ambient perfume such a large part of the total fragrance market? We have become more sensitive to smells than we were before and we accept that aromas can subtly set the tone or alter an environment.

My problem is that hotels don’t always recognise the distinction between using fragrance as a design tool and spraying a lobby as a means of mindless marketing manipulation. My colleague Nandini Iyer loves fragrance but is also allergic to strong smells which give her terrible headaches. She says she now thinks twice before entering hotel lobbies and has pin-pointed the ones that cause her the most problems.

For instance, she says, that each time she goes to the Chanel shop at the Imperial hotel to try the fragrances, she has to hold her breath so that she is not felled by the Imperial’s ambient fragrance.

Nandini has a list of such trouble spots, of places she has to avoid because the fragrances are either too strong or too disgusting – or because though they are neither disgusting nor strong, they set off some reaction in her body’s immune system.

Blast from the past: If you smelt real sandalwood you would immediately think of India in all its ancient glory

I asked her to call Delhi hotels and find out what fragrances they were using. She called the Imperial and asked the lobby manager what the fragrance was. They told her that the Imperial used jasmine oil in vaporisers and said that people loved the smell and that there had never been any complaints. Except her, or so it would seem, because she insisted that the smell reminded her of a dangerously-sharp chameli ittar.

Nandini called other hotels and got varying responses. The Hyatt Regency told her that they used no fragrance. The Shangri-la said they used lemon grass agarbattis, Claridges used jasmine and lavender diffuser lamps and the Ashoka sprayed jasmine room freshener out of a can in the public areas.

I don’t know how much truth there was in the responses that Nandini elicited from hotel lobby managers. But generally, what happens is this: hotels all over the world buy ambient fragrances from industrial manufacturers and pump them through the air-conditioning. Some take trouble to vary the fragrance that is used depending on time of year or time of day. But most do it mindlessly. Just as no great thought goes into the muzak at most Indian hotels, so the fragrancing is also pretty mindless.

Fragrance experts say that one clear distinction between aroma as a tool of manipulation and a design element is a visible source. I asked Paul Austin, an Australian perfumer who now runs his own consultancy in New York but is also an expert on traditional Indian fragrances, how he would fragrance a hotel if he was given the task.

Austin’s response was that he would always make sure that the source of the aroma was visible. It could be candles, incense sticks or diffusers but guests should always know what they are smelling. There is no secret to design, he said. And fragrance should be out there in the open. It’s when you start wafting it secretly into the room that you wander into the area of manipulation.

Austin says that India has a much longer tradition of ambient perfuming than the West. We were the ones to first use vetiver as an ambient fragrance in room coolers, chatais and window blinds. Agarbattis are an integral part of the Indian tradition. Even today, you will find people putting a garland of flowers over an air-conditioning vent or a fan so that a floral fragrance fills the room. Why then should we treat ambient perfume as something new or even alien to our way of life?

I asked Priya Paul, who runs the Park chain of boutique design hotels and is into fragrance herself, what she did at her hotels. Priya says she uses traditional odours like agarbattis or incense sticks and makes sure that they are easily visible should anybody want to find out where the smell is coming from. It has been suggested to her that her hotels also pump fragrance through the air-conditioning but she has resolutely refused to do so for precisely the sorts of reasons that Austin had given.

All this may seem like a lot of fuss over a small thing. But we sometimes underestimate how important aroma is to the shaping of an experience. For instance, if you smelt lemon grass, something inside your head would whisper ‘Thai restaurant’ at once. If the lemon grass was combined with one or two other aromas (say, bergamot or lavender) you would think ‘spa’. And if you smelt the rich fragrance of real sandalwood you would immediately think of India in all its ancient glory. There are more modern equivalents. Vanilla is the secure smell of childhood innocence because it awakens memories of ice-cream consumed as a child. Coffee is the smell of waking up and moving on. (Hence the cliché, ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’.) Cardamom is the smell of Kerala. And khus triggers memories of cool spring afternoons on the porch of your house.

Trip down south: Cardamom is the smell of Kerala

Mix up the smells and the experience changes. The first time I went to Le Cirque at Delhi’s Leela Palace, it smelt wrong. I worked out what the problem was. They were using a lemon-grassy fragrance more suited to a Thai restaurant or a spa. I don’t know what they’ve done now but the restaurant smells of vanilla, leather and all the other aromas you would associate with a place of that calibre. At the ITC Mughal in Agra, they elevate a simple banal ritual with the addition of fragrance: the hot water in the fingerbowl is scented with warm vanilla. (This comes as a surprise because we always associate fingerbowls with the citrus-clean smell of lemon.)

Alas, other Indian hotels are not so imaginative when it comes to the use of fragrance. I have stayed in hotel rooms where the housekeeping staff has left the room stinking of some disgusting synthetic air freshener that has clung to my luggage for days afterwards. As much as possible, I try and control my fragrance environment by carrying my own candles and using my own fragrances.

Sometimes hotels get the message. Sometimes they don’t. One Bombay hotel that I regularly stay at puts an unfragranced tea-light in my room because somebody has worked out that I light a candle but has not realised that I do it for the fragrance. On the other hand, when I stayed at the Oberoi in Bombay last week, housekeeping saw that I was using a fragranced candle and quickly provided some of their own the very next day.

Fortunately, not all of us are as allergic to fragrances as my colleague Nandini Iyer is. But until hotels get their fragrancing right, it might be a good idea to carry your own fragrance materials and to select your own aromas.

After all, you wouldn’t use the hotel’s aftershave or perfume. You would use your own. So, just as you control how your body smells, you should also decide how you want your immediate environment fragranced.

From HT Brunch, March 18

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First Published: Mar 16, 2012 12:46 IST