The use of scents to generate a feel-good atmosphere is well established at tourist resorts, hotels and shops (and by cunning house sellers with the infamous baking bread and fresh coffee trick) but research shows the pandemic-hit industry would benefit from exploring a more targeted approach to scents to influence their customers and passengers.

“Scent marketing is a thriving, multibillion-dollar industry and its tools are especially popular in tourism - the positive effects of pleasant scents - are well-known. The question for tourism practitioners is no longer whether to use pleasant scents, but which particular scents to use and when,” said Dr Adriana Madzharov of the University of Bath School of Management.

Madzharov said studies showed travellers often undergo sensory experiences that differ from their everyday life, experiencing new sights, sounds, foods and environments significantly in terms of scents. There was also evidence to show scents were especially important as a memory retrieval sensory cue, and possibly stronger than other sensory cues.

“For this reason, the subtle but powerful influence of scent marketing might be even more pronounced in the context of travelling. And recent advances in scent technologies and more sophisticated scent equipment allow for ambient scents to be emitted unobtrusively and unnoticeably in the service environment,” she said.

“While we know a lot about the effect of the presence versus the absence of scent in tourism contexts, there’s still not a huge amount of research on how different categories of pleasant scent affect tourist behaviour in different ways – we know that scents elicit more complex responses than simply like or dislike,” she said.

Madzharov said her study - Scents research and its applications in tourism - focused on how scents work to influence people, pulling together established findings on the impact of various scents and modelling how these learnings might be used in different tourism contexts to inform businesses about how to better influence consumers.

Madzharov pointed to several categories of scents based on their semantic meaning, which leads to increased mental accessibility of the associated concepts of a scent. For instance, citrus scent evokes the concept of cleanliness as it is often used in cleaning products. Thus, pumping citrus scent into hotel rooms may lead to increased perceptions of cleanliness but also prompt more environmentally conscious behaviour.

A second category is temperature, where some scents are associated with warmth, such as cinnamon or vanilla, or cool, such as peppermint.

“This second category is particularly interesting for the tourism industry as warm and cool ambient scents have been shown to affect perceptions of space – warm scents lead to a perception of a busier, smaller space. It is possible to employ warm and cool scents to alter a tourist’s perception of their surroundings in contexts where these perceptions are important for the overall tourist experience, such as elevators or security lines at airports,” she said.

Business might also benefit from findings that warm scents have also been shown to reduce people’s calorie consumption. And people might benefit themselves from being steered by indulgent scents, known as gourmand scents, into healthier food and drink choices.

“It seems slightly counter-intuitive, but studies show that if people are exposed to indulgent-food scents for some time, such as the smell of chocolate cookies, they are less likely to choose unhealthy food options. So indulgent scents could be used to nudge tourists towards healthier food choices and consumption in situations where tourists might be more susceptible to unhealthy eating, such as airport lounges,” she said.

“Airlines might also investigate whether a warm ambient scent pumped prior to food service on the airplane would encourage the choice of healthier food options and increase non-alcoholic beverage consumption,” she said. Madzharov said there was evidence to suggest hotels and airports should explore using a coffee-like scent in business centres and conference rooms, potentially to improve cognitive performance for business travellers. There might also be benefits for airlines dealing with travel-fatigued passengers.

Studies have shown that in the presence of a coffee-like ambient scent people feel more energetic and alert, mimicking the actual effects of coffee, and as a result perform better on a test. And emitting a coffee-like scent when travelers exit the airplane at the end of an overnight flight might lower perceptions of tiredness,” she said.

She said it would be worthwhile for museums to explore whether a pleasant scent would help tourists better remember and retrieve the information they learned during the visit.

“Ultimately smell is fundamental to human experience. It is unique compared to the other senses as it is not easily turned off as it’s connected to breathing – a marketing and influencing tool that cannot be turned off must be a dream for businesses,” she said.